Special Issue

“We seek to overcome the undercomplex urban-rural dichotomy”

“We seek to overcome the undercomplex urban-rural dichotomy”

The relationship between urban and rural spaces is changing at a very dynamic pace. studio amore, Berlin-based urban designers, focus on the issue of transformation in rural areas. They have a vision of the countryside that differs from others. It’s the studio’s view that transformation research needs to look at the rural development changes from a different angle because cities and rural areas are mostly looked at, analysed and categorised separately. studio amore’s guiding principle is the system of the transformative cell. We had the opportunity to talk to the urban designers about their vision for the future of rural landscapes. 

Interview: Anja Koller


studio amore, your work focuses on the issue of transformation in rural areas. Describe the path that led you to this field of interest.

Eleonore Harmel: We studied Architecture, Town Planning and Urbanism at university, followed by a joint Masters in Urban Design. Our studies were very thorough, but after graduating we realised that we had looked at cities in all kinds of sizes and scales, but we knew nothing about what’s actually on the outside. No one actually thought about what the rural domain is, about what goes on in villages and about the question of how to influence the way these areas are shaped – despite the rural domain being home to more than half of the world’s population. Rural areas are viewed by urban and regional planners through a very technical lens, and hardly anyone applies the tools that we’re equipped with as urban planners. Thus began a journey that culminated in our book Ländliche Verheißung (Rural Promise), by which time we actually travelled to the countryside to see it for ourselves rather than doing it from the comfort of our desks. We visited Life and Work Projects north of Berlin and helped with the project, and through long discussions we learnt a lot about desires, the realistic potential of projects, social dynamics and above all the people themselves and what motivates them. Then began our work with the Thünen Institute for Regional Development, which caused our view of the countryside to progress and become much more sociologically founded.


What have your findings been so far? What’s your underlying thesis?

Leon Jank: The relationship between urban and rural spaces is changing at a very dynamic pace and is subject to a process of transformation. It’s our view that transformation research needs to look at the issue from a different angle because cities and rural areas are mostly looked at, analysed and categorised separately.

studio amore creates a comprehensive picture of the present situation in East German rural areas, which puts the long dominant image of the left behind province in another perspective. Photo: studio amore

What is it that you do differently? What’s your basic approach? And what exactly is the problem in current transformation research?

Mathias Burke: We participate in the transdisciplinary research project Land*Stadt – Transformation gestalten (Shaping City*Country Transformation). As part of a larger research association we examined urban-rural connections and their role in the process of major societal transformation that is called for by the German federal government’s Scientific Advisory Committee. We think of societal transformation, insofar as it refers to places, as applying either to ‘the city’ or ‘the countryside’ – and you often only hear the question: How will the city of the future look? We believe this divided way of looking at these issues is a hindrance to transformation processes because it allows systemic correlations to go unnoticed. We even believe this paradigm to be the very cause of the problems we have today. We’re developing a new approach for geospatial transformation research that seeks to overcome the undercomplex urban-rural dichotomy. We do this in Living Laboratories in Brandenburg, in the Cologne area, in Switzerland and on a theoretical level, such as with the Wuppertal Institute. Our guiding principle here is the system of the transformative cell.


Transformative cell? What is that exactly?

Hisar Schönfeld: It’s how we systematically record the complex links between rural and urban spaces and transformation-oriented networks of players, with a view to overcoming the city-countryside dualism. In addition to being a guiding principle for rurban transformation research, it is also to become a tool enabling someone like a project maker to analyse, understand and make use of one’s own transformative potential.

In East Germany a new generation is emerging that wants to pick up the pieces of what previously fell apart and put it back together. As far as these people are concerned, this is their space, their home, and they want to shape it. Photo: studio amore

What do you believe to be the reason for people having a misguided idea of the countryside and of country life – the countryside is often somewhat romanticised, but it’s also seen as the back of beyond, as forgotten topos…

Eleonore Harmel: The countryside is very complex, it’s hard to portray it using one image. There isn’t just one countryside or one rural space. Certainly not when you look at Germany as a whole, and not even when you look at just one region. It’s only when you try to describe the countryside surrounding us here in Berlin that you see how diverse it is. Every single village is different and is its own mix of people doing things, people who’ve remained there, those who’ve returned, city people bringing along ideas and wanting to discover the countryside as a new home base. It’s much easier to transport the media’s over-simplified images than to face this diversity head-on. I believe it’s important to keep this in mind.


The cultural geographer Werner Bätzing recently wrote a book about country life, about its history and its future. The IBA in Thuringia studies the relationship between the town and the countryside, even Rem Koolhaas addresses the issue in the exhibition Countryside. Architects discuss building culture in rural areas. Numerous research projects devote an increasing amount of attention to rural, peri-urban and peripheral areas. Does this mark the end of the time when it was possible – or even popular – to ignore the countryside and only see the future in urban spaces?  

Eleonore Harmel: There is definitely an increase in awareness for the countryside. I believe that this is linked to election results; ever since the AfD became a symbol here for societal disgruntlement, the political classes have started asking what people in rural areas care about. There’s a growing attempt to counter the discontent with state aid and new ideas. On the other hand, this new awareness of rural areas is linked to increased pressure caused by urbanisation in the (larger) cities and a loss of opportunities to shape one’s own surroundings. You can even feel this in a city like Berlin; its free and open spaces made it a dream location in the 1990s. I think we human beings have a fundamental need to play a part in shaping our surroundings. The countryside now offers greater scope to satisfy the need to get involved and influence how things are shaped. This is where there’s an opportunity and also an urgent need to change things.

Mathias Burke: Another aspect of this change in perspective is the fact that that society is changing generally. We increasingly ask ourselves how we want to live together. In the city there is a loss of opportunities to shape one’s surroundings. Politics and urban planning are often distant from city dwellers. The countryside offers more opportunities to get involved. The feeling of being needed and of being able to make a difference is more widespread here.

Landinventur – with this Citizen Science project “studio amore” seeks to use a digital platform to compile a comprehensive geological map of villages and learn more about rural life in the 21st century. Photo: studio amore

How do you identify issues that are relevant in the countryside, ones that matter to people?

Eleonore Harmel: We’re in touch with the people there – be it in research projects, the Neulandgewinner Network, an initiative by the Robert Bosch Foundation, or in our podcast Ländliche Verheißung (Rural Promise). We’re currently looking at the context of agriculture, landscape and socio-ecological innovation, and how this complex formation can be modelled. Farmers are the crucial players, entirely practical in how they shape the countryside, taking decisions about how to manage its cultivation, determining what it looks like. At the same time, they’re dependent on EU subsidies, which make up an average of 40% of their income. And the time they actually spend in these places continues to decrease: 68% of the land and 41% of the farms belong to non-local, cross-regional investors. We’re currently discussing this with farmers, politicians, the Farmers’ Association and other active players in our podcast.


One of the podcast episodes is about Regional Design, Global Economy. This had me thinking about the intriguing question of how to design locally in a globalised world.

Leon Jank: There is a prevailing view that rural areas are still distant from global markets, that the world takes place in major cities like Berlin. But a farmer in a village in the north-eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is actually much more integrated in global systems and networks than people think and is dependent on grain prices that are traded on global markets.

Mathias Burke: Aside from these complex economic structures, it’s the involvement of people themselves who play a definitive role in the further development of villages. One research project looked at structures of active civil participation in the countryside; it taught us that classic administrative structures in eastern Germany in particular frequently lack the resources and creativity to initiate sustainable development – particularly in light of structural change and the challenges this part of Germany has been faced with since reunification. This gap has been filled by committed individuals and interest groups – or larger initiatives. And these development trajectories are always very special, and they build on regional resources.


What would you actually call this area of potential that we refer to as the countryside? What are the visions for the future, what are the opportunities? What are the dangers?

Mathias Burke: Look at the Berlin district of Kreuzberg where our office is located; in the 1970s there were free spaces, spaces for personal development and personal design. But also places that you could fashion and change with little money. This phase is still predominant in rural areas – people go there in order to experiment, in order to do their own thing. This opens up space for potential, but it also entails risks. Today’s Kreuzberg is gentrified, and you can’t help wondering whether this is what’s in store for us in the countryside of tomorrow.

Left behind or rather a space full of possibilities: The view that rural areas are still distant from global economic markets, that the world takes place in major cities like Berlin, is an illusion. Photo: studio amore

Let me ask you about the people in the countryside. What’s life like in the countryside? What images do people there have of the place they call home, of the countryside?

Leon Jank: Let’s look at the federal states that constituted the former East Germany, which is where our work takes place: after reunification there was a slump in civil participation. People suddenly had to adjust to a new situation and everyone’s biography divides into before and after reunification. Many social and human ties and networks fell apart as people began to concentrate on other things. Whereas life had previously involved living in a kind of prescribed community, life suddenly became very individual. People focused their attention on what went on their side of the fence. Now it’s the other way around. People’s lives have improved and a new generation is emerging that wants to pick up the pieces of what previously fell apart and put it back together. As far as these people are concerned, this is their space, their home, and they want to shape it. And then there are the driving forces who might come from the city and initiate projects in these rural areas – and who look at the countryside with different eyes, who see its positive sides and the opportunities it offers. If all goes well, if people can communicate beyond their own garden fences, then civil involvement may suddenly lead to innovation.


Mentioning the countryside and innovation in the same sentence is something no one would have dared do a few years ago. Is this how far we’ve come, or are these still dreams of the future? If we look carefully, if we follow political votes, if we listen to the people living in these rural areas, there is still a clear feeling of having been forgotten and abandoned.

Eleonore Harmel: This is clearly a process that has been pushed by the political classes in recent years. Administrative structures and local politics have become increasingly distant. Ever more villages are being swallowed up by towns; very few communes are able to act. Many villages suffer from frozen budgets and their hands are tied. On top of that, these places usually have mayors working in an honorary capacity, having to perform their tasks as mayor alongside their day jobs. These structures don’t really work, and people’s frustration grows as a result. Fortunately, in many places you find people who take things into their own hands, getting involved and getting things done. This is having quite an effect. These are small-scale innovations in areas of everyday life. Consequently, austerity and budget deficits are unable to stop people from keeping their local swimming baths open and running, from managing their village association, creating cultural events or preventing the closure of their local school. Obviously, there are also villages where this doesn’t work and where the people have almost resigned themselves to their fate. This is what makes it so difficult to get an overall idea of rural areas. There isn’t just one. It’s too diverse.

Hisar Schönfeld: We work with transformation, with societal change in favour of socio-ecological sustainability. This term used to entail something entirely different in research domains and the social sciences. It used to refer to political change, changes to the political system, such as the transition from the East German to the West German system, to a reunified Germany. When you talk about transformation in the states of the former East Germany in particular, people are usually referring to the major transformation brought on by reunification. People there frequently have a negative attitude towards change from the offset – because reunification was followed by a time in which people, especially in rural areas, were continually told about all the things that were dysfunctional and about the local lack of future prospects and potential. In our work we notice that people from the villages in particular have internalised this negative view of themselves. This is where achieving another outlook on people’s own potential and on what distinguishes them, experiencing self-efficacy and opportunities to help shape things is central to our work. Many of our projects have a significant local effect because we bring with us a view from outside and can actually inspire awareness of local development and of how they see themselves.


Could we finish by you telling us about a project that you’re deeply involved in right now?

Eleonore Harmel: Our major project, one that is close to our heart, is Landinventur – with this Citizen Science project we seek to use a digital platform to compile a comprehensive geological map of villages and learn more about rural life in the 21st century. At the moment there’s a prototype for the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg that allows anyone to survey and gather data – either individually or in a joint workshop. Sometimes people aren’t actually aware of just what is possible in their village, how much more it has to offer. The fascinating part is when you get down to thinking about it and sharing ideas: “Who actually lives here? When are the people here? Do they commute? What do they plant in their gardens? Who has pets or keeps animals? What local businesses are there? What buildings or public institutions are there? Are there any shopping facilities? Where does the mobile supplies vehicle stop? Who is involved in civil activity? What interest groups are there? – putting all this together, mapping it and gaining a sense of awareness, not just for yourself but for the location – using a fundamental data resource that provides a new view of the rural area. The data that has been acquired is an important addition to the classic statistics that are the basis for many political and planning decisions concerning the development of rural areas. People can use this tool to transport their own image of their village. It can also be used for local planning and participation processes. For us it’s an important device, if only to start thinking about new tools that could better describe rural areas – be it north, south, east or west. Then we can make a better job of answering the question of what a realistic depiction of rural areas looks like, how to portray the current local situation and what concerns people.

studio amore
The team of the urban design office “studio amore” operates at the interface of spatial and social transformation: Mathias Burke, Hişar Schönfeld, Leon Jank, Eleonore Harmel, Steffen Klotz
Photo: studio amore

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