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University of Basel

City districts: shifting spaces.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Cities are structured into different districts. A human geographer has been exploring the characteristics of Basel’s neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods can be large or small. Some are arranged around a center, while others are not. They have different histories, and together they form the blend that makes up a city.

Who lives in which districts? How do people perceive these neighborhoods, in all their diversity? What image do residents have of the area on their doorstep? And how best can cities improve the visibility of their districts as social spaces with their own identities? The geographer Esther Schlumpf has been asking these kinds of questions, with particular reference to the city of Basel.

Schlumpf, who is originally from the canton of Aargau, lived first in Grossbasel and then in Kleinbasel while she was at university. The city was an unfamiliar research location for her at first, as she did not know much about its 19 districts beforehand. For her dissertation, she surveyed more than 2,000 residents from seven selected districts, using questionnaires.

“The first thing that struck me was that the population have very different perceptions of the various suburbs. They see some as quiet and well-to-do, others as dirty, creative and vibrant,” Schlumpf says. She also spoke to and interviewed numerous professionals drawn from politics, government, town planning and architecture.

Even the names attached to districts are significant. Schlumpf discovered, for example, that suburbs abolished decades ago, such as the Hegenheim district, which is nowadays officially part of the Iselin district, are still known to their residents by their old names. Conversely, there are names around today, such as “Am Ring” in Grossbasel, whose use is confined to government or statistics; no one living in the area would call it that.

City districts are living spaces. Many change every few years, while others retain their character over a long period. One of the study’s conclusions is that, on the whole, how people see a district – its “image” – is closely linked to the average social status of those living there. “It turned out that these ideas were extremely persistent and, to some extent, simplistic,” Schlumpf says, noting that the sociospatial reality is often different from what exists in people’s consciousness.

She is amazed that Basel, with its particular geography, is still capable of creating new districts: in the harbor area, Klybeck and the Erlenmatt development. Here a real “district within a district”, with residents from different backgrounds, has sprung up in Rosental. To some extent, public participation is also built into the planning process, which Schlumpf sees as helping to foster a sense of identity and belonging. “There is evidence that people who move around a lot within a particular space and exchange ideas there have a more realistic image of that space and are more actively committed to it,” she says.

What recommendations does Schlumpf have for politicians? In her view, everything possible should be done to support efforts to strengthen a district’s character, residents’ identification with it, and their sense of belonging to it. This involves not just creating public spaces where people can meet, for example, but also measures that actually encourage people to go to these places. This could range from community centers and neighborhood initiatives through to street festivals, and composting groups.

“More could be done to publicize the different characteristics of the city’s districts, in all their diversity, to the outside world,” Schlumpf adds, raising the issue of location marketing. She, therefore, sees new initiatives such as the Saturday market in the Matthäus district, which started up a few years ago, as positive developments. Here, people can shop for fruit and vegetables right in the heart of the city. Schlumpf came to appreciate the hustle and bustle of this urban market while working on her dissertation, as she lived very close by.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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