On the Transformation of the Urban In Times of Austerity

Low Budget Urbanity is an interdisciplinary research initiative located at the HafenCity University Hamburg, the University of the Built Environment and Metropolitan Culture (HCU) in Germany. The focus of interest lies in the question how city life changes under the premise of austerity. Urban dwellers are increasingly required to find new and creative ways to cope with the withdrawal of communal authorities from welfare provisions, the demise of public infrastructure and expensive or low-quality centralised services in European and Northern American cities. This has lead to the emergence of new urban practices and alternative forms of urban infrastructure often organised under the principle of sharing and saving. The perspective of ‘low-budget urbanity’ aims for a critical understanding of the qualities and characteristics of cities in situations of a financial and economic crisis and explores how current or historical everyday practices are transformed – and how they change or realize urbanity.

The interdisciplinary research network brings together post docs and senior researchers from the disciplines architecture, engineering, planning, geography, history and cultural anthropology at the HafenCity University Hamburg, the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg and the Hamburg Museum.

The research group receives funding from the Hamburg Research and Science Foundation for the period from April 2012 to October 2014.

Short documentary of the Early Career Researchers Lab, March 2013.


In times of financial and economic crises, cities have become sites of permanent fiscal restraint, declining tax revenues, service cuts, bankruptcies and a new set of austerity politics. Today, ‘economisation’ and the imperative of cost reduction affects urban every-day life at all levels. In the context of Europe and North America, urban life today requires ever more entrepreneurial practices and creative ways of living to cope with the de-regulation and withdrawal of welfare provisions from communal authorities, the demise of public infrastructure and expensive or low-quality centralised services (cf. Peck, Theodore, Brenner, 2009; Plöger/Kohlhaas-Webter 2012). Although we share these observations of “urbanism after crisis” and austerity becoming the political economy zeitgeist of our time legitimizing urban reform through the constant need “to cut back and save” and to “work the way out of debt” (Peck, 2012), the perspective of ‘Low-Budget Urbanity’ contributes to these debates by looking at the phenomenon of saving in every day life. In so doing, we put forward the complex and assembled character of the urban and propose to analyse contemporary formations of urbanity through the lens of everyday saving practices.

Such practices are characterised, on the one hand, by a de-stigmatising of low price consumption within the mass production sector, aiming at a broad range of consumers (e.g. from international companies like H&M to regional companies like Aldi etc); on the other hand, this reassessment is articulated in a general critique of the capitalist economy’s growth ideology. Here, a huge variety of practices of sharing and exchange have emerged that range from self-imposed frugality for aesthetic or ecological reasons (e.g. Botsman/Rogers 2010) to survival strategies determined by processes of urban restructuring (Oswalt 2005, Bude/Medicus/Willisch 2011).

These include collectively organized strategies such as car sharing (as opposed to car ownership), traveling using online hospitality networks (e.g. CouchSurfing) instead of hotel accommodation, second-hand shopping, clothes swapping, ‘dumpster diving’ versus mass consumption and throwaway culture, and  DIY-building rather than ready-made. Other examples include urban farming and cooperative gardening, local currency systems, transport ticket sharing, house squatting, up-cycling of sewage and trash, and other forms of re-using and re-valuing urban resources.

The perspective of ‘Low Budget Urbanity’ explores such urban practices, materialities, subject constructions, motivations, i.e. ‘lifestyles’, which, through their common orientation on the cost saving imperative, are interwoven. The research group’s central hypothesis states that the economising imperative is so compelling that it creates its own form of urbanity that we explore and discuss under the following assumptions:

a. A new dimension of frugality (e.g. saving without consumption potential);

b. New logics and contexts of individual decision making and practices (e.g. sustainability as the temporal dimension of individual and collective budgets

c. New social relationships (e.g. the virtuality and presence of hybrid networks and virtual communities

d. New cultural techniques, forms of knowledge and subject constructions (e.g. market transparency through price comparison platforms on the Internet).

Of fundamental importance for this approach is an understanding of urbanity anchored in practices and the complexity stemming from their interrelating human and non-human actors, dealing with the possibility of interruption and unpredicted associations as suggested by actor network theory and its reflections of the urban (Latour/Hermant 1998, Law/Hassard 1999, McFarlane 2011, Bender/Farias 2009). In this sense, low-budget urbanity is understood as a specific assemblage of socio-material networks that emerges under the premises of economising practices articulating and producing the city with respect to places of dwelling, places of work, of consumption, the city as a destination of mobility, and as an intersection of infrastructures.