The Psychology of Urbanity in Berlin: Urban Fieldwork and Photographic Essay

10 Feb
Top view of Berlin from Postdamer Platz Kollhoff-Tower

Picture 1. Top view of Berlin from Postdamer Platz Kollhoff-Tower


One way to comprehend a city like Berlin is to look at it “from afar and above” as I did from the Panoramapunkt at Postdamer Platz Kollhoff-Tower (Hubbard, 2006, p. 97). From the Kollhoff-Tower Berlin looked like an ideally planned and rational metropolis because buildings and roads evoked a sense of a geometric perfection (see Picture 1). From this altitude I transferred into a voyeur who might be merely aware of the physical mechanisms of the city. To conceive Berlin as thoroughly as possible without a pretense of total generalization, I spend four days promenading the city. From below I engaged with city cultures, confronted issues of inclusion and exclusion, and perceived the psychology of the city. How does urbanity – both city life and (development of) urban areas – influence and is influenced by the dwellers in Berlin – one’s identity, attitudes, cognition, behavior, relationships, and imagination? What are the mechanism of inclusion and exclusion of people? How are some cultures (re)presented in the city landscape? I attempt to answer the above questions by means of photographs and interviews that documented some sides of urbanity in Berlin.

Urban Psychology

Wittenbergplatz train station

Picture 2. Wittenbergplatz train station in West Berlin

Georg Simmel (1948), a native Berliner, discussed the psychological conditions, which the metropolis creates, in The Metropolis and Mental Life. He spoke about the “intensification of nervous stimulation” that resulted from the rapid change of outer and inner sensual stimuli (p. 48). At the Wittenbergplatz train station in the West of Berlin, people were in a hurry to get to their next destination (see Picture 2). Signs and maps helped them comprehend the city and how to make their way through it (in 2015 people can even use smartphone applications). It was difficult, however, to stop a passer-by to ask for directions. It took me about several minutes before I succeeded to ask a woman which way I should take in order to get to the Zoologische Garten. According to the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1970), cognitive overload which city dwellers experience daily, was perhaps one of the reasons why majority of passers-by kept to themselves and did not stop to help me.

Individuality Struggle

Urban Outfiters

Picture 3: Urban Outfiters in gentrified Prenzlauer Berg

The metropolis provides area for a struggle of individuality. The blasé attitude, rationality and reservations, which Simmel spoke about, are methods of the individual to preserve the  “autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of technique of life” (p. 47).  However, the struggle for individuality may lead to the trap of simulacra – one’s identity may be “at once real and imagined”, a mere copy of something which does not exist if only identity is performed through consumption (Hubbard, 2006, p. 85). The logic of simulacra is the logic of replication, replication of copies. Considering Baudrillard’s work, such identify can be described as hyper-real because of the way it simulates authenticity (Shields, 1996). The places of consumption, which were dispersed in Berlin, succeeded at offering a new look. For example, Urban Outfitters (see Picture 3) promoted the “new” urban looks. Many other international brands and retailers (i.e. Starbucks, McDonalds’, H&M, Dunkin’ Donuts) were also ubiquitous all over Berlin to promote the global metropolitanism (Knox, 2002).

Shop of imaginations


Picture 4. KaDeWe

The most exciting place of consumption, however, I considered KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens; EN: The Shopping House of the West) (see Picture 4). Not only because it was unique for Berlin, but also because it represented a special place for consumption, images, inclusion and exclusion. KaDeWe was a place of anxiety. On the one hand status anxiety (De Botton, 2004), which was exercised via conspicuous consumption of luxury commodities (i.e. Hugo Boss, Gucci, Paule Ka, Michael Kors etc.)  (Veblen,1899). On the other hand my anxiety when I entered the shop and realized that I did not belong there. KaDeWe was visited by people with high disposable income despite the claim of Mrs. J. S. (aged around 30s), the receptionist at the information desk, that KaDeWe was built for everybody. As seen in Picture 4, some passers-by only fuss in front of the windows reluctant to come in. On the question whether everyone can shop, Mrs. J.S. looked at me with a derisory smile. KaDeWe was, therefore, a privileged space for those who can buy. It was a sight for shopping rituals where the consumer culture can thrive.

Picture 6

Picture 5

Consumers were bombarded with Christmas fantasies and iconographies borrowed from other epochs. The big poster handing above the entrance depicted a white, happy, Western family. The text read “the biggest present”. It encouraged one to buy a present for one’s family members. The images successfully sold the happy family life. However, the happiness in family was only a deception.  Nonetheless, the poster was also a symbol of inclusion of a specific target group – the one depicted in it. Additionally, behind the windows, manikins displayed the revived image of the prosperous woman and men.

As seen in Picture 5 and Picture 6, the male suits and female dresses resembled the dress code of the twenties, or just a fantasy of what the dress code was. The images were psychological primes that might promote favorable attitude formation, new desires and impression management – mere exposure effect (Janiszewski, 1993). Consequently, the fantasies of modernity become the new practice – commodity fetishism.

Picture 5

Picture 5

Inclusion and Exclusion

Modernity made the “visibility of commodity and the invisibility of the common people” (Vázquez, 2010). “The money economy dominates the metropolis; it has displaced the last survivals of domestic production and the direct barter of goods; it minimizes, from day to day, the amount of work ordered by customers” (Simmel, 1948, p. 49). Using Zukin’s (1995) discussion about symbolic economy of the city, it may be argued that building a city does not only depend on “how people combine the traditional economic factors of land, labor, and capital [but also] on how they manipulate symbolic language of exclusion and entitlement. The look and feel of cities reflect decisions about – what – and who – should be visible and what should not, on concepts of order and disorder, and on use of aesthetic power” (p. 133).

Collective initiatives

Picture 7

Picture 7. The restaurant in Rosa Rose

Away from the aesthetization of city centers though design and shopping centers, I discovered a curious urban transformation – the community garden Rosa Rose at Kinzigstraße, Friedrichshain. There I met Pierre (38) who was very kind to tell me more about himself and the garden. Pierre came from France and he was the chef in the restaurant which was situated in the garden (see Picture 7).The garden itself existed since 2010, but the project had started in 2004. The land, 2000 m2, was rented from the local municipality. The project was a cooperative initiative of city dwellers who wanted to make use of the open space and make contacts with other people without having to pay any money for that privilege. Considering that public space near residential areas in Berlin was increasingly commercialized, many deprived individuals, such as unemployed, elderly or people with low income, could then enjoy social activities in Rosa Rose. Pierre added that everybody who was enthusiast was welcomed. He pointed out that Nazis were not welcomed there. Pierre told us that there were different workshops, for example bike workshop where one can create or repair their own bike.

Picture . Christmas Market preparation

Picture 8. Christmas Market preparation

Picture . Compost

Picture 9. Compost

On the day of my visit, people were busy constructing a winter market (see Picture 8). Furthermore, people gathered in Rosa Rose for gardening, planning, parties, eating together, exchange of skills etc. Thanks to collected donations, the community was able to produce the soil beds and the vegetation (see Picture 9).

Picture 10. The Tree House

Picture 10. The Tree House

Similar projects were also dispersed in Berlin. A house, work of another collective initiative, claimed one of the open spaces in Kreuzberg (see Picture 10). Situated between gentrified buildings, I perceived it, metaphorically speaking, as a rare jewelry. Turkish and German flags hung above the gate. They represented sense of belonging to two nations. Inhabitants perhaps embraced a pluralistic identity, border identity (Lugones, 2003). Unfortunately, there was no one to talk to. The house, as the sign read, was called the Tree House. It had its own vegetable garden.

The two examples represented a different kind of urban transformation lead not by city designers or planners but by grassroots initiatives. It could be argued that the open edible landscapes represented a community that was driven by production and not merely by consumption visible in the shopping streets. Additionally, these initiatives promoted place attachment, general well-being, love of nature, and performance of citizenship. Moreover, this urban transformation did not necessarily assist in selling the city, but it may address an alternative agenda – building a collective identity, mutual trust, solidarity, participation and resilience. Like streetscaping and place making, the community projects, Jane Jacobs would argue, may also facilitate political formation among marginalized groups (Amin & Thrift, 2002). This is a way of claiming back the city – or to put it in Lefebvre’s term, the right to the city (Harvey, 2008). Consequently, the community was able to speak out its voice.

Behavioral manifesto

The city itself can also be a medium “shouting its stories directly” (Amin & Thrift, 2002, p. 24). Buildings and walls were appropriated as a canvas where attitudes and ideologies were explicitly expressed. In Berlin graffiti and tags marked certain sentiments:

A zone of tension appeared, which is located exactly by the evidence

of the walls …Diagnostic indicators of an invisible environment

attitudes and social processes … far more that fears, threats

and prejudices, they are the prelude and a directive to open


The walls are more than an attitudinal tabloid; they are a

behavioural manifesto…

(Smith, 2000 as cited by Amin & Thrift, 2002, p. 25)

Picture . Wall of money graffiti

Picture 11. Wall of money graffiti

Picture 11 represents the fall of the Berlin wall. This was the turning point in the history of the city and marked the onset of democracy. However, as it can also be seen, a new symbolic wall was being erected and it got ticker. The desired democracy was apparently not what was expected. The neoliberal democracy created new borders – borders of economic relations. A psychological distress can be triggered by such segregation. However, the most dangerous border, that can exist, was in one’s mind.

Picture 12

Picture 12

Picture 12 depicted a slogan which read “borders do not run between up and down without between me and you.” Differences were a state of mind and social construction.


In my field work I tried to approach issues of psychology of urbanity, inclusion and exclusion, both consumer and non-commercial cultures. Unfortunately, I cannot present one single theory – and this was not my purpose – which can encompass our total understanding of Berlin. However, I presented some notes about Berlin from a specific vantage point. By waking in the city, being a flâneur, I experienced to some extent the effect of the intensification of nervous stimulation and cognitive overload. Berlin was a site for identity struggle and one may fall in the trap of constant simulation when individuality is practiced through consumption. The symbolic economy and money economy played around with psychological primes to which the observer was exposed. Modernity played its show of visibility and invisibility. However, the invisible communities could still claim back the city through collective initiatives. In Rosa Rose I observed a micro-level urban transformation based on contact networks. By creating edible landscapes, Berliners operationalized a culture of non-commercial geography where one can see a symbolic center for collective identity. Alongside the ability of communities to speak out their voice via collective projects, the city itself also became a medium for sentiments via urban graffiti and text tags. All in all, Berlin revealed its plurality. The city was a state of mind, organized attitudes, and expressed sentiment spilling from it.


Amin, A. & Thrift, N. (2002). The Legibility of Everyday City. In: Amin, A. & Thrift, N. Cities: Reimaging the Urban. Polity, Cambridge. pp.7-30.

De Botton, A. (2004). Status Anxiety. UK: Hamish Hamilton.

Harvey, D. (2008). The Right to the City. New Left Review (53), 23-40.

Hubbard, Ph. (2006). City. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 8 December 2012, from

Janiszewski, C. (1993). Preattentive mere exposure effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(3), 376-392. doi: 10.1086/209356

Knox, P. (2002).  World Cities and the Organization of Global Space.  In R. Johnston, P. Taylor and M. Watts (eds.) Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Lugones, M. (2003). Pilgrimages/ peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition against Multiple oppressions. Rowman and Littlefield.

Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science 167, 1461-1468.

Simmel, G. (1948). Extracts from The Metropolis and Mental Life. In Social Sciences III, Selection and selected readings. Vol. 2, Chicago University Press, Chicago.

Shields, R. (1996) A Guide to Urban Representation and What to Do About It: Alternative Traditions of Urban Theory. In: King, A.D. Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the Twenty-First Century Metropolis. New York University Press, New York. pp. 227-252.

Vázquez, R. (2010). Modernity, the Greatest Show on Earth, Thoughts on Visibility. Borderlands, 9(2).

Veblen, Th. (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Macmillan. Retrieved 15 December 2012, from

Zukin, S. (1995). Whose Culture? Whose City? In: The Cultures of Cities. Blackwell, Oxford. pp. 1-48.

Note. This essay was part of my course work in Urban and Cultural Geography at Radboud University in 2013. 


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