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Center for Metropolitan StudiesNegotiating Formalities

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Allotments from above, Berlin


Garden gnome, Berlin

States, Informality and the Politics of Regulation
by Hanna Hilbrandt

Research Objectives and Aims

As welfare reforms have slimmed down benefits and lowered living standards, those who live precarious lives at the periphery of the city have adopted diverse responses to the financial insecurities they are faced with. These include strategies of spatial appropriation, in which people breach regulations and thereby entre in a relation with the state that is commonly considered as informal. ‘Negotiating Formalities’ examines such informal practices and their regulatory responses in the everyday politics of inhabiting, planning, and governing Berlin. More precisely, the project explores a case of land-use negotiation, in which Berliners dwell in allotment gardens despite contradictory regu¬lations. Thereby it seeks to entangle and systematically assess the social organization, administrative ordering, local rationalities and complex histories that shape the ways in which residents and city officials accommodate informal land use. How is formality enforced and contested in the governance of these spaces?

This question reflects two wider concerns about informality and governance: Firstly, by exploring how Berliners inhabit spaces that are deemed inappropriate for permanent residency, it seeks to write the notion of informality – traditionally studied in the so-called global South – into a context of regulatory regimes presumed to rely on strong legal frameworks and functioning bureaucracies. This approach not only aims to contribute to a bourgeoning body of postcolonial scholarship that works to broaden and reverse the geographic reference points of urban studies (which tend to emanate from the ‘West’ whereas the ‘rest’ is merely a point of reflection; Robinson 2002), it also takes on the challenge of the IGK to explore the ‘World in the City’. However other than cases of informality, in which eviction or harassment appear to mark people’s relations to street level bureaucracies (Duneier 1999), allotment dwelling appears as a dynamic process of negotiation, in which residents and city offi¬cials interact in practices of claim making, campaigning, conceal¬ment, or cooperation. Conceptions of informality, I argue, do not attend adequately to the ways in which the structures of governance – including different legal orders, court proceedings or the workings of administrative hierarchies – produce, enable or constrain such negotiations. Moreover, I suggest that it might deepen our understanding of informality to translate the concept into a category that allows us to think more precisely about the ways in which governance is constituted through a range of conflicting orders of legitimacy.

‘Town house’ (Rathaus), alottment garden, Berlin

Consequently this project contributes, secondly, to a literature on the various ways in which states seek to produce ‘formality’ through mundane practices of regulatory enforcement (Mitchell 1999; Ferguson 1994). I probe the notion of negotiated formali¬ties to tie the workings of the state to the everyday contestation and implementation of different mechanisms of ordering. This approach to informality starts from the discrepancies of intersecting layers of formality, which I distinguish into different areas of investigation: formalities that are negotiated in direct encoun¬ters, as well as those negotiated at a distance through plural legal orders or different levels of governmental hierarchies. This distinction allows me to question the coherence of formality and understand its production in everyday governance as an effort that involves enactment or allows for contestation. Rather than taking regulatory enforcement for granted or as a fix mecha¬nism, the notion of negotiated formalities suggests that formality needs to be continuously fabricated and only grants temporary stability. From this perspective, formality becomes the starting point of analysis, the ‘extraordinary’ moment in governance and the object of inquiry, which is never complete and at times difficult to enforce. Informality, in turn, forms the ‘background’ of governance or the condition on which formality is built.

Case and Methodology

‘Negotiating Formalities’ studies the enactment and contesta¬tion of regulatory regimes through a case study that is focused on Berlin’s allotment gardens. These sites go back to the late 19th century, when they were founded to toughen up young city-dwellers through gardening in fresh air. Since then, approxi¬mately 930 colonies have provided half a million members with mini-scale garden plots and mini-scale cottages on 3.030 ha inner-city space. Although individual club-rules and the ‘Bundeskleingartengesetz’ (allotment garden law) legally prohibit permanently inhabiting in these plots, many gardeners take up residence within the colonies, particularly over the summer. My exploration of this case builds on a number of different data sets. It combines semi-structured interviews with allotment holders and city officials with participant observation as well as an anal¬ysis of planning documents and legal texts.



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