Interview with Nina Gribat
November 15, 2016
What was the turning point in your life that directed your interest in the field you work in?
I studied architecture and worked for different offices mainly doing detailed design drawings for construction but also some competitions. At some point, I thought I am going slightly nuts because the tasks were getting a bit repetitive. I went to Bauhaus in Dessau and did Bauhauskolleg an international post-graduate course that was dealing with artistic urban research on the Trans-European Corridor from Berlin to Moscow. This got me more into urban research first doing a Masters in Planning Research and Theory and then a PhD.
Apart from your studies, what made you think more about urban issues?
I always loved cities. Since I was very young I always dreamt of living in a big city. I was born in the city, but then I grew up in the countryside. I was massively fascinated with the buzz of unforeseeable encounters and with different lifestyles in bigger cities. I think this pull towards the city and urban life has existed in my whole life. The curiosity has persisted about getting to know more and different cities, different social and cultural forms of urbanity, different people, ways of living together, and dreams about life and the future more generally.
What have been your biggest challenges?
I have been researching on urban shrinkage now for quite a while. It is a massively complicated process in which you basically don’t really find any easy solutions – sometimes it is not even clear what the main problem is. Economic, demographic and political factors are often so heavily entwined. For some cities, urban shrinkage almost appears like a slow death, and whatever is done in these cities to prevent this slow death—and there’s a lot done in many cases—doesn’t work. For other cities, urban shrinkage is just a temporary process of crisis or structural adaptation. These differences just keep on puzzling me. I am very intrigued by the interplay between local forms of intervening and sometimes experimenting, policy programs and the conflicts that occur between different groups who are convinced that their approach is the best for dealing with the city’s problems.
What have been your research projects focused on and where are they located?
My research and practice projects have been mainly looking into urban shrinkage. Right now, I am involved in a project that examines processes of governing urban shrinkage in France, in the US, and in Germany in a comparative manner. In addition, I’m evaluating and consulting a program called Actors of Urban Change by the Foundations Robert Bosch and MitOst, which focuses on instigating sustainable urban change through cultural project in selected European cities. Then, I am also currently finalizing a book about the 1968 movements in German architecture schools. And I’ve been massively busy in the last years when I was still at Stuttgart with setting up a bicultural master programme similar to Mundus Urbano.
What are the outcomes or lessons of your recent work?
My outputs are mainly academic. In practice, I work mainly in consultancy. One of my important outputs is to set up a new German language journal on critical urban studies, it’s called sub\urban and it’s really exciting. We’re a small collective of people that founded this journal, which is currently receiving funding from DFG. As mentioned above, I’m also excited about finishing a book on the 1968 movement in architecture and a research report on governing urban shrinkage.
Have you found any positive aspects about shrinkage?
Well I guess what urban shrinkage does in many cases is to really open up possibilities for people to get involved, shaping parts of their city, setting up a new social or cultural project. This is because rents are often getting cheaper and there might be a climate in which new ideas and experiments are welcome since the old ways of doing things no longer work. Removing economic pressure sometimes opens up possibilities—whether the possibilities are taken or not really depends on the kind of city you’re in and the people who live there or who become active there. In the cities I’ve focused on there have been really different experiences with that. There have also been shrinking cities where people are not getting involved, where nobody takes up the possibilities.
You mentioned the transdisciplinarity of the master program you worked with—what about your work in urbanism as transdisciplinary?
I want to distinguish between interdisciplinary—different disciplines working together—and transdisciplinary—really getting tasks for research from practice. I think both are extremely relevant in our field because by working in urban planning, architecture and development planning, most of the issues that we are dealing with are somehow related to very concrete practices. The questions often come from practice, and the answers also need to inform practice in one way or another. That doesn’t mean that our work is theoretically and conceptually irrelevant. It just goes hand-in-hand a bit more.
Could you share with us some lessons from shrinking cities?
I think what’s really interesting with both extreme growth and shrinkage is that both processes show us how quickly planning—as it is usually thought about, as a very controlled or controlling and formalized practice— basically gets to its limits. Both processes challenge mainstream planning approaches. Such modes of exception – which may no longer be as exceptional as they seem – or modes of where you don’t any longer know what to do, can really inform each other. So for me there is a potential link between these diverse urban processes that has not been explored much. I’d like to focus more on this because of the challenges it brings to a lot of the paradigms that we are usually working with in the context of planning. I think that there are some interesting dialogues to be had from these different contexts. At the same time, you need to acknowledge that there are of course vast differences in terms of urban governance contexts and many other issues. I don’t want to say: “Oh yeah, it’s an easy transfer” or anything like this, but I think this link poses some exciting questions.
Any concluding remarks?
I think study programs such as Mundus Urbano or similar programs really have amazing potential just by bringing together so many brilliant people. Based on the experiences that I’ve had with similar set-ups, I think this kind of space that is created by the course and the possibilities for encounter that happen in the course can be amazingly enriching. This is why I’m also really happy to be involved in Mundus Urbano. It’s a context that you can also get a lot out as a lecturer on the program. You may be required to give a lot, but you also get a lot back because of the vastly different and rich experiences that participants bring to the program and into the classroom.