The Urban Sensoriums and Subjective Mappings of Bahnstadt, Heidelberg

Corinna Mascherin and Immanuel Ziegler

    • 26 ene 2022
    • 5 Min. de lectura

The Urban Sensoriums and Subjective Mappings of Bahnstadt, Heidelberg

Actualizado: 13 abr 2022

Through the act of walking new connections are made and re-made, physically and conceptually over time and through space. Public concerns and private fantasies, past events and future imaginings, are brought into the here and now, into a relationship that is both sequential and simultaneous. Walking is a way of at once discovering and transforming the city  — Jane Rendell

Since the late 2000s, the city of Heidelberg has heralded the reconstruction of the district of Bahnstadt as “one of the biggest – and most ambitious – urban development projects in Germany” (, n.d.). Priding itself on high susteinability standards, Bahnstadt is a meticolously designed residential, research and business area, with sleek architecture and perfectly groomed open spaces. The first residents of Bahnstadt were lured to the district by the description of a futuristic living environment, advertised by urban planning renderings which show wide, bright spaces that maximize both functionality and leisure. 

From the official broschure published by the City of Heidelberg (3rd Edition, September 2019).

Ever since moving to Heidelberg for our studies, the both of us have been quite baffled by this area of the city which looks and feels so different from its more traditional surroundings. We have often strolled down its long promenade or chatted with friends on its inviting wooden benches; however, the sight of those whitewashed, modular buildings, forming a dull concrete wall all along the park, somehow felt uncanny. Our engagement with urban studies and urban ethnography through our Master’s programmes sparked our attraction towards this enigmatic distric even more. Bahnstadt’s minimalist aesthetic and high functionality, as well as the spacial distribution of vast open spaces and the dense geometric patterns of the built environment, challenge us to confront some of the most relevant questions which have been raised by scholars and urban planners: What is it that makes a ‘good’ city (Jacobs 1961)? Which is the proper balance between top-down planning and spontaneous, bottom-up development? How do the tense dynamics between institutional control and oppression on the one side, and public freedom and agency on the other play out in public spaces (Lefebvre 1991 [1974])?


P’s illustration of the residential area’s geometrical plan. It portrays how Bahnstadt’s space has been carefully designed and compartmentalized.

With such questions at the back of our minds, we decided to physically engage Bahnstadt by walking through its streets and letting its built and social environment communicate with us. In our practice, we referred to recent ethnographic approaches to urban field research focused on the sensorial perception of space, as well as on the experiential and subjective relation that people have to it (Kusenbach 2003; Zardini 2005; Pink 2008). Methods such as the walk-along (Kusenbach 2003) or discursive walking (Wunderlich 2008), participatory photography (Frediani and Hirst 2016) and sensorial map-making (O’Rourke 2013) inspired us to engage with the district by walking collectively, while practicing the “arts of noticing” (Tsing 2015, 37). Our group of six “urban ethnographers” met in Bahnstadt on a sunny Sunday afternoon. After briefing our fellows on the dynamics and objectives of our exercise, we formed two smaller groups. Our role as project initiators was to promote the exchange of pertinent observations among ourselves, while leaving our groups free to move spontaneously. Eventually, we reunited to draw the sensorial experiences and thoughts that arose during our walk in the form of subjective maps, and used these visualizations as a starting point for joint discussion.

The map-making activity has proved to be extremely fruitful for comparing and discussing our personal perceptions of space in Bahnstadt. As can be seen below, the maps we produced are very different from one another (highlighting each participant’s particular approach to space and personal relevance [Kusenbach 2003]), and yet they report many similar remarks. We shared a feeling of uneasiness due to the anonymous, monolithic architecture, and to the vast open spaces constantly exposed to the eyes of those living around them. Control and overplanning, which often prescribe human activities in Bahnstadt’s space, were also issues that emerged from our perception that “everything is just too perfect”. Finally, even though recognizing that the district’s park, with its long promenade and the view on the open fields, offers a comfortable environment to relax, play and socialize, a spontaneous conversation with a fellow flâneur brought to our attention the loss of biodiversity of a “natural” environment which is a product of human design.

With the following interactive images, we will show how such themes and other sensorial perceptions have been portrayed in some of our maps. 

A’s Map – Focus on (over)visibility and a feeling of the uncanny 

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B’s Map – Bodily experience of Bahnstadt’s natural and artificial environment

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At the end of our exercise of sensorial urban ethnography, we could appreciate how discursive walking and experiential mapping can be useful practices to evaluate people’s perception and appreciation of urban space, and to create a dialogue which could potentially initiate creative space-making projects. Through our maps, the tensions between institutional control and personal freedom or agency within the urban infrastructure came to the fore, highlighting them as one of the most relevant issues that begs to be confronted in Bahnstadt. 

On the other hand, we were also left pondering about some more questions: How could walking as a practice of everyday life become a subversive technique (de Certeau 1984) for place-making in such a regulated space as Bahnstadt? Do its residents feel the same sense of over-exposure and spacial constriction as we do – in other words, is our view as “outsiders” necessarily different? Does Bahnstadt just need to be given more time (an “evolutionary urban time, the slow time needed for an urban culture to take root” [Sennett 2017, 45]), for such forms of creative/subversive use of space to appear? 

With such questions in mind, we are looking with anticipation at how Bahnstadt will evolve: Is its fate that of becoming a Brittle City (Sennett 2017, 41), or will its inhabitants’ claims to public space and public imagination (Adajania 2008) be able to bring creative regeneration?


“The lawn is still in the process of growing. We kindly ask you not to step on it for the moment depending on the atmospheric conditions”. Could this message actually be extended to the whole of Bahnstadt?


Adajania, Nancy. 2008.“Public Art?”. RSA Arts & Ecology 13. 

Brosius, Christiane. 2015. “Emplacing and Excavating the City: Art, Ecology, and Public Space in New Delhi”. In The Journal of Transcultural Studies 6, no. 1: 75–125. DOI: 10.11588/ts.2015.1.16507.  

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. “Walking in the City”. In The practice of everyday life, 91–110. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Frediani, Alexandre Apsan, and Laura Hirst. 2016. “Critical Urban Learning Through Participatory Photography” In Engaging Urbanism, edited by Ben Campkin and Ger Duijzings, 131–38. London: I.B. Tauris. 2020. “Welcome to Bahnstadt, Heidelberg’s newest district! ‒ Portrait”. Accessed on April 11, 2022. 

Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage books.

Kusenbach, Margarethe. 2003. “Street Phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool.” Ethnography 4, no. 3 (September 1): 455–485.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

O’Rourke, Karen. 2013. “When walking becomes mapping”. In Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers, 101–122. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pink, Sarah. 2008. “An Urban Tour: The Sensory Sociality of Ethnographic Place-Making“. Ethnography 9, no. 2: 175–96.

Rendell, Jane. 2006. Art and architecture: A Place Between. London: I. B. Tauris.

Sennett, Richard. 2017. “The Open City”. In Does Permanence Matter? Ephemeral Urbanism, 40–51. München: Architekturmuseum München.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Wunderlich, Filipa Matos. 2008. “Walking and Rhythmicity: Sensing Urban Space”. Journal of Urban Design 13, no.1: 125-139. DOI: 10.1080/13574800701803472.

Zardini, Mirko. 2005. “Toward a Sensorial Urbanism”. In Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism, edited by Mirko Zardini, 17-27. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Lars Müller Publishers. 

Participants Bio

Corinna Mascherin

Corinna Mascherin is a graduate student of the M.A. Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University. During her undergraduate education in Japanese studies at Ca’ Foscari University she lived in Venice, where she appreciated a lively multicultural environment, and experienced the benefits of a human-sized urban landscape which promotes a life in harmony with nature. In Heidelberg, numerous seminars coordinated by the Chair of Visual and Media Anthropology have nurtured her academic interest in how we can live together in cities in more sustainable, community-oriented, and engaged ways. She is currently researching on intentional communities, ecovillages and bottom-up counter-hegemonic modes of living.

Immanuel Ziegler

Immanuel Ziegler is a master’s student in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Heidelberg. In his research he focuses on the North-East Indian indigenous community of the Nagas and how they communicate difference from a position of marginality expressed in contemporary Naga fashion. Further he is interested in Visual Anthropology and Urban Anthropology. Aside these theoretical foci he is a photographer and practiced anthropological filmmaking in South Asia.


Participants Bio