Shifting Priorities, Finding Places

How Media Lab and HafenCity University researchers are tackling the refugee crisis in Hamburg, using algorithms and LEGO bricks.

In late 2015, in collaboration with HafenCity University (HCU), we launched a project to help Hamburg transform its proposed 2024 Olympic Village and the adjacent Rothenburgsort neighborhood into an “innovation district.” At a meeting with Mayor Olaf Scholz, we presented ideas to build a large CityScope platform of the area using our optically tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and augmented reality to model urban interventions for more livable, entrepreneurial communities.

Placing LEGO objects on the table representing housing units, with related data presented on a large screen. Photo credit: Walter Schiesswohl


Towards the end of the session, I asked the mayor, “What is your greatest challenge in Hamburg? What keeps you up at night?” He said that, by far, his most pressing concern was to accommodate the accelerating influx of refugees escaping conflict in the Middle East. Then, he jokingly suggested: “Perhaps we could do this with your magic LEGO,” and everyone laughed. I responded by saying, “Seriously, we could.”

Two weeks later, the mayor narrowly lost a referendum on the city’s Olympics bid, largely due to the emotional, politically charged climate stemming from an anticipated 80,000 refugees who would need urgent assistance in Hamburg. He soon asked our team of researchers from HCU and the MIT Media Lab to redirect the initial project in order to help residents across the city to identify housing sites for the refugees and asylum seekers.

Only nine months after the failed referendum, our Finding Places project (a play on our research group name, Changing Places) has helped to identify locations for accommodating thousands of refugees in Germany’s second-largest city; construction is already underway at several of these sites. Finding Places is being cited as a creative, positive model for dealing with a “grave humanitarian crisis” and what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called a “near existential threat” caused by the recent mass influx of refugees from the horrors of war.

Emergency mode

Emergency measures: Warehouse in Hamburg which was retrofitted for temporary refugee shelter. Photo credit: Kent Larson


About 400 refugees from the Middle East arrived in Hamburg daily last year. When we visited the city last year, we had a first-hand opportunity to see temporary tent-cities and camps set up in and around the city. Our guide, Anselm Sprandel, the head of the Central Refugees Coordination Staff of Hamburg (ZFK), showed us the reality of the refugees’ living conditions. In a converted warehouse, crammed together, were hundreds of tiny living spaces divided by thin partitions; inside were multiple bunk beds, a small table, and hanging sheets that provided minimal privacy. Near the city’s central railway station, volunteers and longtime refugees were helping newcomers find food and shelter. It was incredibly moving and upsetting to witness this scene in a vibrant, world-class city. That the situation continued to increase in magnitude contributed to our resolve to assist in creating solutions.

Just a few months earlier and in a very different atmosphere, the MIT Media Lab had signed an agreement with the City of Hamburg to establish a long-term research collaboration. HafenCity University (HCU) and the Changing Places group were chosen to lead this effort, and together we established the CityScienceLab (CSL) at HCU, an international center for advanced urban research and design. In keeping with the Media Lab’s focus on deployment, CSL is a living lab that extends Changing Places group research, using it for real-life scenarios in Andorra, Boston, Taipei, and other locations around the world.

But by the summer of 2015, Hamburg and our newly established CityScienceLab priorities had shifted, as the number of refugees and asylum seekers increased. “First-World issues” such as the 2024 Olympics bid or the design of new “innovation districts” were put on hold while city officials struggled to adjust to the new and pressing priorities. Other cities in Germany, already hosting thousands of refugees, were gradually reaching their maximum capacity. For most of these immigrants, Hamburg was not just another transit point; rather, it was the end of a long journey to find new homes.

Bringing everybody together

Over the next several months, city leaders enacted a series of emergency measures to handle this influx: they repurposed underused properties and offered temporary tent cities and army barracks to the newcomers. But these solutions were temporary at best — the lack of proper infrastructure, the deteriorating conditions in the temporary camps, and the approaching German winter required new thinking and long-term solutions.

Then, in February this year, Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz paid a surprise visit to our newly established CityScienceLab at HCU. He challenged us to develop a “tool to be used by the leaders of Hamburg’s seven districts, which would help avoiding the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality.” The mayor emphasized that conventional tools, such as regular maps or GIS (geographic information systems) that were successfully used by the city for decades, could not be effective for this mission. The Mayor stated three criteria for our revised project: all seven districts in Hamburg should share an equal burden of accommodating refugees; we should avoid consolidation of refugees into concentrated areas; and we must construct this process to be bottom-up, so that all decisions would be community driven. Scholz gave our team two months to complete the task.

Groups of 30 district leaders and residents meet to explore possible sites for refugee communities. Photo credit: Walter Schiesswohl


In this amended reality, government officials had to adopt new strategies and techniques beyond conventional top-down planning — they needed planning tools that would also be capable of “listening” to public opinion. In the contentious debate surrounding the refugee crisis and the waves of immigration, imposing decisions from above could result in strong opposition or even violence. Hamburg’s administration realized that only through delicate measures and innovative processes could they win public support.

Balancing the tensions between public needs and the domain of city authorities has been a focus in recent years for Changing Places researchers. We are building tools and platforms to ease these tensions, and we’ve constructed custom community-engagement processes. Our goal is to bring everybody together: the authorities, professional planners and architects, and the general public. We incorporate features that let everyone make conscious decisions — without complex prerequisites or years of experience. In that sense, the challenge from Hamburg’s mayor was a unique opportunity for field-testing our work.

How did we find places?

Evaluating possible sites in specific districts using maps color-coded according to zoning, ownership, and environmental conditions. Photo credit: Walter Schiesswohl


At the core of the Finding Places process were dozens of community engagement meetings. Leaders and community members from Hamburg’s seven districts were invited to discuss their neighborhoods’ capabilities for accommodating refugees. First, the Finding Places team had to locate and map hundreds of sites across the city, and to categorize them into one of three groups: areas already designated for the use of refugees; vacant sites with housing potential; and vacant sites that could not be repurposed. Surprisingly, the city had never completed such a fine-grained overview of its stock of vacant land, making this initial mapping effort even more valuable.

Finding Places community meetings took place at the HCU campus in the Hamburg-Mitte district. Groups of around 20 community leaders and members congregated around two large tables, a discussion area, and several information displays. Using an array of projectors and custom software, these tables were augmented with information that updated in real time through user interaction. The first table showed an overview of the entire city of Hamburg and its seven districts; the second table depicted a zoomed-in view of the districts up to the neighborhood scale. Multiple monitors provided information about specific land parcels with their zoning and development potential, as well as their housing capacity statistics.

Participants identify their neighborhoods by placing a square “zoom window” over the area of interest. Photo credit: Walter Schiesswohl


Community members used the first table both to find out about current refugee accommodations across Hamburg and to choose a district or neighborhood for discussion. The second table had a large array of gridded LEGO bricks which allowed interaction and direct manipulation of a selected site. The meeting participants could physically position LEGO studs all around the table and thus control the locations and attributes of potential refugee accommodations. The Finding Places networked platform also allowed commenting and logging of the event, thus producing more detailed results, well beyond simple ‘yes/no’ reactions.

The concept of using simple LEGO bricks as the main medium for tangible interaction in complex urban planning scenarios was born a few years ago in the Changing Places group. As practicing architects and planners, we’ve realized the limitations of existing mediums; we were searching for better ways to allow active involvement, discussion, and decision-making around one unified interface.

Our years of collaborations with governments, cities, and industry have taught us the importance of using clear, tangible, and interactable interfaces. In the case of Finding Places, our tools served the purpose of equalizing the discussion and providing common ground for all stakeholders to voice their opinions. This is important in any public discussion, but amid the heated debate surrounding the refugee crisis, our tools and processes have helped Hamburg to set ground rules for discussion and to “gamify” complex issues.

Yes in my backyard

The interactive table at the end of a workshop with suggested sites identified. Photo credit: Ariel Noyman


When we launched Finding Places in May, our goal was to identify accommodation sites with appropriate infrastructures for nearly 20,000 refugees, a quarter of the number of newcomers anticipated in Hamburg. The project’s closing event is on September 15, but even prior to obtaining the final report, the outcomes are impressive: through dozens of community meetings, more than 150 sites were selected to be repurposed for refugee housing; out of these, Hamburg officials have already started on an expedited reviewing process for 40 locations; in nine sites, estimated to accommodate almost 1,500 migrants, construction has already started. Our goal is that over the next few months, more sites will be approved at a similar pace.

In July, government and public representatives signed an agreement that maintains Hamburg’s authority to handle the refugee crisis with support from all sides. The agreement also mentions the Finding Places project as an effective alternative for collaboration and community engagement. This accord overrode an attempt by the local opposition to impose a referendum which sought to impeach the local government. In that sense, Finding Places was helpful, not only in dealing with the refugee housing crisis but also in ensuring the stability of the city’s political system.

Another significant outcome of the Finding Places process has been its focus on desegregating migrants in the city. As the history of urban planning for immigration has shown, short-term thinking and ad hoc solutions for large immigration waves tend to fail over time. Consolidating newcomers’ communities into homogenous neighborhoods, without proper integration, employment, or amenities hinders them from assimilating, even decades after their arrival. A major goal of Finding Places was not only to repurpose vacant land for rapid housing developments, but also to plant the seeds for newcomers’ long-term integration into Hamburg’s existing communities.

From Finding Places to Changing Places

Participants meet to discuss the results and to observe the overall impact of other sessions. Photo credit: Walter Schiesswohl


Although Finding Places officially closes this week, our work in Hamburg is far from complete. As with any new community, we have to understand the special requirements and improve quality-of-life in the places we’ve helped to find. We must also extend our public discussion to the new community members themselves: How would they structure their new neighborhoods? Would they opt to preserve their cultural heritage or fully assimilate into local communities? How will their decisions shape and form their urban surroundings? Along with the first steps of development and construction of new housing solutions for refugees, we need to help plan for the upcoming challenges facing the city.

As we continue our collaboration with HCU, our main purpose is to understand how these changes will reshape Hamburg — how questions related to transportation, health, energy, and employment will be answered over the coming decades. Beyond the urgency of finding shelters and meeting basic needs for refugees, we perceive Finding Places as an initial step in the creation of new, highly entrepreneurial, creative communities in Hamburg, establishing it as a model for other cities.

Text by Kent Larson and Ariel Noyman, Changing Places group
Originally published on Medium


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