Ruth Coman

Improvisation, Urban Design and Migration


Transnational labor migration has a complex impact on urban areas, both in arrival and departure cities. The most obvious and visible traces are, on the one hand, banks, money exchange facilities, recruitment agencies, or the migrant houses. On the other hand, there are the Turkish bakeries, Romanian restaurants or African grocery stores. 

Transnational migration creates connections between different places and leads to a mutual dependency, not only in people’s lives but also in urban landscapes. These connections are visible in the improvised urban activities, which are increasingly playing a role in urban design. The improvisation of space as understood by architecture and design theorist Christopher Dell refers to a context-related model of action in deciphering contingent urban situations. It implies a socio-material urban resource, however, it does not refer to the aspect of informality. Improvisation is about how the spatial behavior of migrants works as a decisive process in the design of urban spaces. Yet, there is a gap in critical research concerning improvisation of space in several connected places. 

This leads to the main questions of this research: how does improvisation happen in several places at the same time and how can the socio-material resources of migratory activities be made available for urban design? Furthermore, the research takes into account the question about the enabler and inhibitors of improvisation. 

By exploring the connection between improvisation, urban design and migration, the main aim is to give a voice to the simultaneity of everyday practices in several places. For this, the city Offenbach am Main serves as a starting point for investigating places of migration in Romania. 

Offenbach am Main is the first municipality in Germany where Germans of origin form the minority, a parade example of an “arrival city”1. After Turkey and Greece, Romanian migrants rank third place with 9.7%2 among the non-German population in Offenback am Main. Therefore, the epistemological interest lies in the exploration of spatial settings and constellations that become visible in these different places. This points to the central goal of design, namely to enable the disassembly and reassembly of urban situations3. ​

The expanded theoretical involvement together with the found patterns and orders translated into visual representations and diagrams stand in a complementary relationship and offer a different way of thinking about design. Consequently, this work contributes to the theoretical expansion of design theory and advances research about urban development and migration. 

1 Vöckler, K. (2017). Offenbach ist anders. Über die kleine globale Stadt, das Fremdsein und die Kunst. Berlin: Vice Versa Verlag. 

2 Statistisches Jahrbuch 2016/2017, Offenbach am Main. Arbeitsförderung, Statistik und Integration. 

3 Dell, C. (2019). The Improvisation of Space. Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmbH. 

Prof. Dr. Kai Vöckler 

Prof. Heiner Blum