This paper was presented at the 4th International Conference of Critical Geographers, January 2005, México City.

1. Title of paper

Map the Rich! Towards a Critical Geography of Affluence in Berlin

2. Authors

Thomas Bürk-Matsunami (Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany)

Jonas R Bylund (Dept. of Human Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden)

Kim Förster (An Architektur, Berlin, Germany)

Dirk Gebhardt (Dept. of Geography, Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany)

Matthias Naumann (Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning, Erkner, Germany)

3. Abstract

Scenarios of sociospatial polarisation in European cities generally draw a large part of the political, social sciences', and mass media's attention to areas with 'poor people' or so-called disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Beside the various images of social anomie produced and projected on the neighbourhoods identified, the scenario is also deficient as it defines problems as local phenomena and thus tries to solve them locally. On the other side of social polarisation, the existence of rich people and their spatial concentration in neighbourhoods are often not problemized. The absence of classical social problems in affluent neighbourhoods does not mean the spatial concentration of wealth is not a problem. We address this asymmetry in a project-seminar at the Humboldt University by drawing attention to the social phenomena of affluence in the Berlin context and to explore it with participating students from a social geographical point of view.

Berlin, like many other European urban areas in the last decades, experienced increasing sociospatial polarisation. Nevertheless, the city is not a typical capital: Despite the take-over of national governmental functions in the 1990s the city does not belong to the economically dynamic German cities. Berlin’s urban politics may be described as an effort to normalise the city by attracting new capital and new publics, and to revive its pre-war bourgeois and mundane past.

Our paper presents a working definition on what it means to be rich in relation to being poor. The possession of money and material goods is a necessary part of this definition, but we also investigate the particular sociabilities and the spatialities related to affluence. Another part of the working definition is grounded on the capacity to control the image production about oneself or a particular social group and its spatial articulation. On this basis we investigate the common sense images produced in the scenario of urban social polarisation. We analyse their functioning and apply them quite simply on 'rich' neighbourhoods in order to see what happens with our understanding of them.

But in focussing on methodological problems when investigating affluence we problemize the way urban neighbourhoods in general are conceived as well. By confronting the mediated view (e.g. by urbanists and mass media) of affluence we examine the production of geographical tropes in which areas are conceived as clearly delimited and contained. The undertaking thus intends to break out of the contained area to discuss affluence and riches through more than one spatial dimension.

Our project aims to broaden the perspective on urban sociospatial polarisation by integrating the spatialities of urban affluence. We want to redevelop methodological tools of investigation in order to deal with the complex phenomenon of affluence and to give it due attention in urban research.