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University of Basel

A critical take on sedentarism.

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

The expectation that “migrants” should become actively involved in the local community of the urban district in which they live is often at odds with their mobility patterns and motivations.

It was certainly a forward-looking idea: The plan was to create a smartphone app to help reach out to all neighborhood residents, including newcomers and people with limited German skills, to integrate them into neighborhood life. The app was intended to combine information on small local businesses and sales promotions with news content provided, for instance, by local district offices. However, after a series of planning meetings and the development of a prototype, the idea was shelved for the time being because the app did not do justice to the complexity of the local social setup.

False premises

University of Basel cultural anthropologist Ina Dietzsch has analyzed the problems plaguing the development of the neighborhood life app: “Language issues, users’ technical skills, reaching poor people without reliable Internet access – these are all challenges that can be overcome,” she says, before adding, “The main problem was false premises.”

According to Ina Dietzsch, the difficulties encountered in creating the app are symptomatic of the problems facing projects aimed at fostering interaction under the conditions of what anthropologists and social scientists call “super-diversity”. In the course of her field research in Basel’s Matthäus district, as well as in talks with urban planners and neighborhood coordinators of participation processes, she often found the implicit expectation that everyone living in the neighborhood should be involved in shaping it. 

Dietzsch puts this down to a “normative concept of sedentarism,” a positive notion of rootedness combined with small-scale units such as districts or neighborhoods viewed as valuable and associated with a sense of belonging, well-maintained relationships, and a willingness to contribute to the shape of a shared living environment. She says that mobility driven lives in Basel are often treated as a problem that needs to be solved: “Both the city council and neighborhood associations strive to promote a lasting sense of belonging to the local area. But people with transnational experience who lead mobile lives aren’t necessarily keen to commit to this kind of neighborhood life.”

Weddings in the border triangle

By way of example, Dietzsch cites the Kurdish diaspora, which she knows well. This diaspora is particularly prominent in the Matthäus district. She talked to male and female Kurds from different generations, attended weddings, and accompanied families on trips to southeastern Turkey to learn more about their mobility patterns as well as the ways in which they use media to create social networks and communities. 

“Basel’s Kurdish community has very strong trinational links,” says Dietzsch. “For many, it’s not so much the district they live in, but rather family networks and weddings especially in the tri-border area where significant sociality occurs.” As an additional factor, she mentions Kurds’ different understanding of politics, explaining that, as a result of the decades-long political struggle for their rights, many Kurds’ notion of politics is related more to a European rather than an urban neighborhood scale.

So what should urban planners and neighborhood associations do? Should they abandon their efforts to involve as many diverse inhabitants as possible in decision-making processes? “No, they shouldn’t,” she says emphatically. “However, we should take seriously the fact that the same physical environment means different things to different people. And we should think of public participation as dependent on individual or even situational motivation rather than as a function either of the current place of residence or origin.”

As Ina Dietzsch explains, for people who currently live in the Matthäus district but do not know how long they will stay or who know that they will not stay, it may not make sense to go through a time-consuming participation process in order to have their say in urban planning matters, whose realization may lie far in the future. On the other hand, she adds, non-residents or even passers-by may be the ones to contribute ideas. “The growing cultural diversity in cities must lead to the insight for all those who want to engage city users that any form of attribution and expectation based on totalizing generalization and categorization is doomed to fail.”

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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