Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

November 7, 2022

Studying Abroad in Berlin with CEGU’s Dr. Evan Carver

by Adam Light

Last June, fourteen students from the University of Washington and the University of Chicago met in Berlin for a month-long study abroad program led by University of Chicago Assistant Instructional Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies Evan Carver. The program uses Berlin’s history and present as a lens for analyzing urban change and the way decisions are made in cities. Students simultaneously become familiar with the geography and history of the city, exploring significant sites from several eras in organized tours and on their own. The program challenges students to engage with complex topics in urban development and gain skills in analyzing urban environments.

The program is based around two interrelated classes, entitled “Urbanization and the Politics of Space in Berlin” and “Reclaiming the Narrative: Filmic Intervention in the Urban Realm.” The first class is based around site tours and discussions, with students exploring sites as varied as the Nazi-built Olympic Stadium, the Modernist Gropiusstadt, and Tempelhofer Feld, a former airport that is now Berlin’s largest inner-city park. There are also opportunities to meet with several experts, including graffiti historian Caro Eichhof, who leads a tour of Kreuzberg’s world-renowned street art scene, and social ecologist Michael Lafond, who gives a firsthand account of the experience of forming and living in a housing cooperative. Discussions often revolve around themes of progress vs. displacement, change vs. memorialization, and the increasing trends of neoliberalism in the historically countercultural Berlin.

The second class involved screenings of several films, from early attempts to capture bustling 1920s Berlin to dramas about the divided period such as The Lives of Others. In addition to discussing these films and the different techniques they use to represent certain aspects of the urban form, students produced weekly short film projects in small groups. These projects focused on specific locations and were intended to build up students’ filmmaking skills in advance of the final project, which was a 5-minute individual film on a certain aspect of the Berlin experience. Students focused on topics as varied as the concept of liminality and the role of trash in the urban environment. All final projects were presented at the conclusion of the program at the fsk Kino movie theater in Kreuzberg. 

The program also included a weekend trip to the northern German cities of Hamburg and Lübeck. In Lübeck, students explored a Medieval center of trade, while in Hamburg, the group went to the peripheral neighborhood of Wilhelmsburg to meet with Johannes Robert, an urban designer and longtime resident who explained the area’s history in the development of social housing and the gentrification that threatens it.

Outside of scheduled class time, students had plenty of time to explore Berlin and engage with its culture. Students stayed in the trendy Student Hotel, centrally located near multiple major transit lines. Germany’s monthly transit pass made traveling easy, and students took advantage of this to engage with Berlin’s museums, nightlife, cuisine, and parks. When time opened up in the schedule, Professor Carver often offered recommendations on locations and events to check out. This program allowed students to gain fluency with concepts of urbanism in a vibrant, historic urban environment, studying Berlin as a city by living in it.