It might be rather unusual to get to know the city you are visiting through the stories behind sewage systems than through stories about majestic cathedrals or castles. Although, Tim Moss and Pauline Münch say that Berlin’s infrastructure is interesting and insightful and it can tell a lot about the city’s past, present and future. It can also reflect changing political climates and economic circumstances of the city.
A historian and social scientist Tim Moss is a Senior Researcher at an interdisciplinary institute based at the Humboldt University in Berlin, called IRI THESys, which specializes in human-environment relations. Pauline works together with Tim at IRI THESys in the science communication field developing creative forms and formats to open discussions and different knowledge exchanges.
They both combined their knowledge and passion for urban infrastructure to create a self-guided audio tour in Berlin visiting exciting examples of infrastructure which shaped the unification of Greater Berlin 100 years ago.
We invite you to travel to Berlin and walk along the streets of the city together with the stories and locals’ insights shared by Tim and Pauline. While preparing for your trip, here is a little get-to-know interview with Tim and Pauline where you can get to know them better and their secret recommendations in Berlin.
In your opinion, what can infrastructure tell us about the city, its character, or its atmosphere?
Pauline: That is a good question… It tells us a lot about the temporality of the city—so the past, present, and future are ingrained within each infrastructural development, which I am sure Tim can say a lot more about…
Tim: I’ll try to restrain myself. Infrastructure has become a choice vantage point for viewing the city in urban studies today. This means you can interpret political agendas in the very design of infrastructure projects. Yet, because infrastructures tend to last for decades, they have to be re-imagined to suit changing political leadership and societal desires. If you look across Berlin’s history, you can see that technology - such as a sewage treatment plant - may remain physically similar to its predecessors but it gets enrolled in very diverse projects: whether to improve public hygiene, secure national autarky, recycle waste products or protect water resources. That’s what I mean about infrastructure being a lens on the urban condition at any one time.
How would you describe Berlin as the city to someone who has never visited it?
Pauline: Berlin is a city with something for everyone… A bit cheesy but true - you can see there’s food, entertainment, parks, cultural highlights, and of course some pretty rockin’ urban infrastructure…
Tim: Yes, I agree, it’s the tolerance of the place that makes it so livable. It’s also a relaxed city in many ways, with lots of places to unwind. But the transformations since 1990 have been immense, and that leaves its mark on people living here, with a growing gap between winners and losers.
What would you say is special about your audio tour, what sides of Berlin does it show, or what unexpected things the travellers can get to know about Berlin while listening to this specific tour?
Pauline: Firstly, it starts in the neighborhood of Moabit, which is an absolutely overlooked gem of a Kiez. But more importantly, it brings travelers to key points of infrastructure which may not be as grand as the Brandenburger Gate, but are just as important for the formation of present-day Berlin. I’d say, most Berliners pass these seemingly mundane locations every day without knowing how significant and impactful they are. This was one of the really surprising things I learned from Tim. For instance, I’ve overlooked the Wastewater Pump System on Gotzkowskystr. dozens of times, thinking it was just another somewhat decrepit building. But it turns out that this building is not only a relic of the past but signals and reflects this extremely complex and super interesting history of Berlin.
Tim: Brian Ladd begins his great book “Ghosts of Berlin” along the lines of: You wander around Berlin looking for signs of the future, but the past keeps staring back at you. That is so true of this place. And it’s what I find fascinating about infrastructure sites you encounter. Many have really intriguing and political pasts. But I wanted to give this narrative a twist by saying: these pasts are not only interesting in themselves, but also for the surprising significance they have for the futures we are debating: around urban energy transitions, water recycling, and the relationship between humans, nature, and technology.
How do you think those stories about Berlin’s infrastructure can be inspiring or insightful for contemporary urban transitions?
Pauline: Definitely, listening to Tim’s audio stories allows us to re-examine and re-imagine how Berlin’s infrastructure can help align our urban transition to a more sustainable future.
Take again this Wastewater Pump System—it used to blast out Berliner’s waste to outlying fields in Brandenburg. And here we are, over 100 years later and these areas in Brandenburg are now used for their ecosystem services. So the Hobrechts or Karolinrieselfelder for instance are these amazing spaces for new plants to flourish, for animals to live and graze, and for humans to walk or bike on. Additionally, it’s still dodgy to grow food on these fields, so there’s been initiatives to grow crops for biofuels—something Tim was also involved with and mentions in his stories…
Working within the potentials of these (sometimes) archaic systems is so important for further urban transformations. Consider the Highline in New York or the Promenade Plantée in Paris, these are two well-known examples of re-examining and re-imagining urban infrastructure.
Tim: Following on from Pauline’s great reflections and insights, I’d say these stories are telling us that sustainable urban futures are not about dismissing the old and craving the new. When I listen to opinion-makers talking about desirable futures and how we might get there, placing their trust in innovation, I’m worried about how they are framing the past as something to discard or be ashamed of. This overlooks the way pasts - infrastructure pasts, too - can remind, provoke and inspire us. The infrastructures in the tour are chosen to do just that: make us reflect critically and constructively about the value of the past as an experiential resource for thinking liveable futures.
What are your favorite “must-visits” in Berlin that you recommend for your guests while they are visiting the city?
Pauline: As a Moabiter, I can recommend the Buchkantine- a bookstore with a bistro alongside the Spree River where you can get coffees & croissants, as well as cocktails with local distilleries close to the start at Otto Park. Also, the Arminius Martkhalle with foods and drinks from all over, located in the old market hall is also close to the start and also great.
Tim: If you are doing the tour, then stop for a tasty meal at La Vucciria on Mierendorffplatz or a beer (in summer) at the beer garden at CapRivi, where coal used to be stored for the Charlottenburg power station. Further afield - and dangerously close to where I live - is a heavenly place where they have made their own marzipan for generations: Wald in Pestalozzistrasse. I always take visitors on a trip to see underground Berlin, hosted by Berliner Unterwelten. History to touch and smell!
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