Neighbouring, practices of belonging and the rescaling of citizenship. Examples from Berlin and Athens*

Phokionos Negri Street in Kypseli, Athens

Paper presentation by Ares Kalandides and Dina Vaiou**


A. Concentrations of migrants in certain urban neighbourhoods in European cities have been a constant issue in political and academic debates about ethnic/racial difference with a recurrence of questions such as segregation, conflicts, racism, xenophobia or exclusion.

B. While we do not deny any of the above issues, we believe that there is both a political and a scholarly need to show that this picture is highly differentiated and that exclusion/inclusion is not an either/or question.  The women and men who live in the city have, or may claim, a right to the city which includes on the one hand the right to appropriate urban space and on the other the right to participate in its production, in decisions about it, but also in (re)defining patterns of living it. We want to show how migrants reconfigure the meanings of belonging against dominant spatialisations through their everyday practices.

C. More or less institutionalized forms of political participation create new spatial levels of citizenship not limited to the scale of the nation state. Interactions among migrants and locals continuously re-define the ‘subject of rights’ as they activate processes of access, participation and inclusion/exclusion in/from the urban public sphere.

Our paper discusses the above processes and terms, drawing on examples from Berlin and Athens. We focus in particular on neighbouring as the space and resource of belonging and on how this is related to participation and urban citizenship. The two cities offer different contexts where institutional policies, informal practices and claims for participation at neighbourhood level define, in different ways, citizenship as a spatial strategy and help qualify the content of the “right to the city”. We draw from a number of research projects in which we have been involved since 2005 in Berlin and Athens where different “mixes” of formal and informal appropriation and participation processes can be identified.

1. Neighbourhoods in Berlin and Athens

Richardplatz Süd in Berlin is a neighbourhood of about 12,000 inhabitants in the densely populated district of Neukölln. 38% of these inhabitants are immigrants and it is estimated that more than half have an immigrant background (i.e. have German citizenship but have grown up in an migrant culture).

Kypseli, with about 50.000 inhabitants and 25% migrant population, is a central neighbourhood in the municipality of Athens. Co-existence in the neighbourhood and even in the same buildings is an important feature of neighbourhood life, underlined in most interviews with migrants as well as locals. This is not to underplay, however, the “invisible walls” which separate basements from top floors and front-facades from backyards.

in Berlin

Neighbourhoods in Germany have gained institutional visibility in the context of the national programme “Socially Integrative City”, which was agreed in 1999 between the German Federal State and the Länder (States).

One of the key instruments of the programme is the so-called neighbourhood management: a particular structure of urban governance that fosters networked cooperation among local actors and existing administrative.

Yet, one of the most interesting instruments of citizen participation is the neighbourhood fund, a budget allocated by the state government to neighbourhoods. The idea is not only to facilitate the realization of small projects, but in particular to leave decision-making in the hands of the local communities.

Decisions about how to use money from a neighbourhood fund are taken by a neighbourhood council (sometimes called committee or jury), an elected body of local representatives who can be residents, businesses or institutions (schools, associations, culture centres, sometimes even the police etc.). Local residents should always represent at least 50% of the total council.

The word residents (rather than citizens) is crucial at this point: Even non-German citizens, residing in the neighbourhood, can participate in these councils, a measure that gives migrants an opportunity to participate in public decisions.

In the case of Richardplatz Süd the neighbourhood council is made up of 21 members, 11 of which are residents and 10 representatives of local businesses, associations or social institutions; 6 out of the 11 residents have a migrant background.

in Athens

Neighbourhoods in Athens, as in other Greek cities, are recognisable by naming and less so by exact administrative boundaries and have developed over time through particular patterns of urbanisation. In many neighbourhoods, associations provided services which the state or the municipality failed to provide (food programmes, support for the elderly, cultural activities, children programmes). This “culture of participation” is still present in old neighbourhoods and can be traced in the formation of municipal committees dealing with a range of areas of local policy.

A reform of the Greek law in 2006 provided for citizen participation on the basis of geographical areas with a specific jurisdiction and statute. Cities with more than 100.000 inhabitants are divided in municipal districts whose number and boundaries are to be defined by presidential decrees. The municipal council then cedes to the districts competences to do with small-scale public works, organisation of cultural and athletic events, social assistance to residents (nomos)

In this context, the municipality of Athens is divided into seven such districts or “communities”, according to the recent legislative reform, and each of them comprises a number of neighbourhoods which remain urban planning units with no administrative functions or budget to manage. In the context of the current crisis, they take on an additional significance as a dynamic site to attempt new forms of solidarity and mutual assistance, involving both locals and migrants.

2. Political rights and neighbouring practices

in Berlin

The distinction between immigrants and residents with immigration background is vital in relation to political rights: whereas residents with immigrant background have exactly the same political rights as all Germans, non-EU immigrants (i.e. non-German and non-EU citizens) are excluded from municipal, state or national elections. It is less vital when it comes to neighbouring practices, as research in the district of Neukölln (which includes Richardplatz Süd) has shown.

Most of our interviewees emphasize the role of social networks and also the gender divisions of those networks:

“We are here [in the sewing course] because we are among friends. We have even found people who keep our children while we sit here together sewing. This is where I learn everything that happens in the neighbourhood. Otherwise I would never get the chance. There is so much to be done at home that you never finish. Our husbands spend their afternoons in the café, but where else can we meet?” (Cana 42)

As the above quotes show, people develop relationships and networks, based on their practical and emotional needs. Whether it is mutual support, exchange of services or the security of familiarity among neighbourhood residents, everyday lives are marked by these relations. Though many of them extend beyond the neighbourhood, and often all the way to the country of origin, the mundane and repetitive everyday exchanges, e.g. the fact that the same women meet again and again for a sewing course or the fitting of a dress in exchange for some gardening help seem to link these practices with the particular place and forge neighbouring relations.

in Athens

Since the early 1990s consistent demands for formal rights for migrants have been voiced and fought for both by migrants’ associations and by local or mixed support groups and organisations in Athens and other major cities in Greece. The reaction of successive governments has been a series of “legalisation processes”, through which a significant number of migrants gained access to legal residence and employment permits, albeit with constant need of renewals. Limited social rights have thus been accorded to migrants, based on employment contract and payment of social security contributions – which makes the legal status of most migrants quite precarious, especially when they become unemployed for long periods of time.

The importance of legal papers is evident in migrants’ narratives; they are a crucial step to ease everyday life and secure protection against aggression and abuse.

A different prospect opened earlier this year, when a law went through the Greek Parliament regulating migrants’ conditions of access to citizenship/naturalisation and set the terms of ceding citizenship and voting rights to children of legal resident parents, born in Greece.

Our migrant interviewees underline the ways in which they have come to relate with local women, their neighbours, how they have been assisted by them (to find a job or a flat to rent), how they reciprocate by caring for them in many informal but critical ways.

 “My sister in law had come two years before us. She knew a lot of people and a neighbour of hers, a Greek lady, rented the house to us and then she helped me – she found jobs for me… Then she gave this house to be redeveloped and when it was finished she says: do you want to come?[…] Now we go out, her window is across from here. She may call even at night, she may need something […] When I cook something good, I bring some to her… When she buys from a take away that my daughter likes,…she will buy for my children as well…”  (Eleni, live-out carer from Albania)

As part of their everyday routines our migrant interviewees make their presence seen and felt in the neighbourhood. Here gender differences come out prominently: women do the shopping in local shops and super markets, stop at the bakery, the pharmacy or the local kiosk, they escort the elderly person they may be looking after to their daily outings, they take their own and other children to school, to the day care, to the doctor, to the playground, they visit and share time with neighbours. Such relations are highly valued in that they help them navigate through the difficulties of adaptation in the unknown place, provide ‘tips’ about how to cope, they are a potential source of emotional and often practical support.

3. Belonging and rights to the city

Understanding the neighbourhood in administrative terms is a rather straightforward business, in spite of possible disputes about the exact drawing of its boundaries. It is much more elusive if neighbourhood is conceptualized as a particular form of a non-bounded spatial scale constituted by far-stretching relations or trajectories, but in particular by everyday practices. Seen this way, the neighbourhood is much more than a container; it is also a privileged place of the everyday and an arena for claims to the city – a set of resources through which people lead their lives.

These resources can be material, institutional, relational or imaginary. This is far from using neighbourhood as another word for community. People follow daily routines, deviate from them or break them, creating continuity, but also leaving space for change. Such routines, drawing on the abovementioned resources, lead to familiarisation and a relative sense of security – a sense of belonging to a place.

Our material from Athens and Berlin shows both differences and similarities regarding the ways in which individuals and groups develop practices of belonging and claim rights to the city. In both cities such practices include institutionalised legal frameworks of political participation as well as the constitution of everyday routines of living in the city and working – among which neighbouring stands out prominently.

In our paper we have used the terms neighbourhood and neighbouring, to make reference to interrelated, but somewhat different processes to do with material space and relations among neighbours. Our empirical work has shown that migrants, irrespective of their formal status, attribute high value to such processes and relations as these open for them possibilities for participation and mobilise processes of (local) belonging.

As we have already underlined, Richardplatz and Kypseli, (the neighbourhoods of our study) are rather mixed areas where people of different ethnic origins coexist and develop everyday routines. Such routines may be enacted locally but they are also linked to supra-local, often global, processes, which come out vividly in migrants’ narratives as well as in local activities, shops and products, smells and sounds, uses of space. Even though coexistence does not necessarily lead to inter-group social mixing, neighbourly relations do develop, albeit in different ways, in the process of neighbourhood management in Richardplatz and in the less regulated everydayness of Kypseli. These relations range from nodding acquaintance to mutual assistance, from solidarity networks to formal participation – and acquire a renewed importance at times of crisis, when even minimal acts of reciprocity and mutual support may be crucial for survival and may mobilise processes of inclusion.

All this goes beyond identifying the German case with “formal” and the Greek with “informal” processes. Rather, in out two cases we see a mix of both, which helps put into context the importance of formal citizenship and rights, as well as the significance of informal practices, both of which are closely linked – and mobilise mechanisms of inclusion and feelings of belonging. Both our examples show that inclusion does not depend on a single one of these elements, but is a complex process involving all of them.

Yet, this does not mean that the neighbourhood is the only relevant spatial scale. Rather the neighbourhood is one scale which may privilege neighbouring, belonging and the practices of the everyday, whereas different spatialities (the city, the nation-state, the routes of migration) prioritize others.

Conceptualizing citizenship as a process and the neighbourhood as a resource, allows us to identify continuities and ruptures in different places and at different scales. The word process should not mislead us to think of citizenship as a linear progress with a predetermined outcome. Space allows for the simultaneity or coexistence of different concepts of how the right to the city is played out and claimed, as well as contested.

Finally, the intense presence of migrants in the neighbourhoods of our study and their complex practices and strategies to settle, raise important questions regarding rights, inclusion and belonging. Their quite varied legal statuses and possibilities for participation, lead us to rethink ideas of citizenship as “differentiated” or “multi-layered” (and not exclusively “national”) or to citizenship as a “strategy”, rather than a static set of rules, a process which involves deeply gendered interactions and negotiations and delineates boundaries of belonging and exclusion.***


* Excerpt from the paper presented at the Annual RC21 Conference 2011, “The struggle to belong. Dealing with diversity in 21st century urban settings” in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), July 7-9 2011. A version of this paper will be published in the EURS special issue “Diversity, inequality and urban change“.

**Ares Kalandides (Georg Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin). Dina Vaiou (National Technical University of Athens).

*** The powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.

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