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University of Basel

Neighborhoods 2.0

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

Are neighborhoods becoming less important in an individualized and increasingly mobile society? Not according to cultural anthropologist Christina Besmer, who claims that they are simply changing form as diversity grows and society is digitalized.

Pumpipumpe.ch, a global neighborhood network founded six years ago by two Swiss graphic designers, promotes a sharing society, rather than a throwaway society. More than 9,000 households now help to shape their neighborhood via the online platform and by placing stickers on their letterboxes. If you don’t want to buy a bicycle pump or drill that will only be used a few times a year, the digital map will show you anyone in your area willing to lend theirs out, allowing you to collect it from their home. Pumpipumpe.ch also sends out stickers for members to place on their letterboxes showing the items available.

Super-diverse district

Pumpipumpe.ch promotes a new way of organizing your neighborhood, packaged in a contemporary design, supported by digital media, and with a deliberate emphasis on fun. For Christina Besmer, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Basel, this project is an example of what she calls “doing neighborhood”: “I see the concept of neighborhood not as something given that cannot be altered, but as a social framework that people are constantly producing and reproducing, its form differing depending on the time and context.”

Besmer has been focusing on the “making” of neighborhoods since 2013. Her research is part of the SNSF “Media Worlds and Everyday Urbanism” project, which examines current social developments in the district of Unteres Kleinbasel. Basel-Matthäus, the neighborhood in which Besmer started her research, is an example of what cultural scientists call “super-diversity”: A population not only of many different nationalities, but also many different lifestyles, religions, mobility patterns, and age groups.

Besmer began her fieldwork by taking perceptual walks and participating in local neighborhood events – and found herself surprised: “Cities are generally seen as places of anonymity, density, movement, and ephemerality. Discourses on globalization, digital networking, and individualization all point to a decline in the importance of local communities and spaces.” However, she perceived the discourse locally to be somewhat different: “Everywhere there were references to ‘neighborhood’, for example in participatory processes, local events, and new apps that aim to help people get to know their neighbors.”

Besmer soon saw how strongly normative the term “neighborhood” can be, particularly during participant observations in urban participatory processes. Since 2005, participatory urban development has been enshrined in the constitution of the canton of Basel-Stadt in the form of participatory processes. These processes aim to guarantee that residents, even those not entitled to vote, are involved in shaping their immediate surroundings.

Besmer says that while participation is voluntary, the process is always based on the notion that the neighborhood is a single entity with shared values on the importance of participation. This groups diverse people at various stages of life, with different social, economic, and cultural capital, with different connections to places, different lifestyles and backgrounds into one homogeneous collective. “Efforts to strengthen interaction and neighborship in the local area therefore always aim to hold something together that diverges in conditions of super-diversity.”

Making complexity tangible

In her research project, Besmer examines the question of how neighborhoods are established in different social contexts. “This helps us to understand how urban communal life and coexistence is organized in cases of super-diversity.” In addition to participant observations during participatory processes and other events, she conducted 20 semi-structured interviews with local residents and people involved in the “making of a neighborhood” in various capacities. One idea recurred throughout the interviews: “The concept of neighborhood helps to make tangible the complexity of a modern, globalized society by breaking it down into local spaces.”

Besmer provides a specific example: In August 2013, she took part in an anti-littering campaign called a “trashmob”, that had been initiated following a discussion evening organized by the Kleinbasel local district office. On a Saturday afternoon, around 60 volunteers picked up trash in the neighborhood: “The global refuse problem is far from solved, but participants were able to do something practical to help on a manageable scale.” Interestingly, this was inspired by a similar campaign in India that a group member had found online. The trashmob is also an example of the increasing links between local and global developments.

New concepts through new media

Besmer’s research also showed that different groups assign different meanings to the concept of neighborhood. For the canton, neighborhoods primarily offer a potential for official urban development. For autonomous groups, they are the basis for resisting this development. Start-ups, meanwhile, see neighborhoods as opportunities to develop apps to earn money.

Besmer explains that, over the last few years, digitalization and new media have brought another new dynamic to the “doing neighborhood”. “Previously, neighborhoods had clear spatial definitions based on your place of residence and were inescapable. Today, they are often temporary and chosen by the people themselves.” The Pumpipumpe.ch portal is an expression not only of a new desire to share but also of increasingly flexible social relationships.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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