Greening the bunkers

Implementing future visions in places from the past: A sociology of space perspective on two bunker conversion projects in Hamburg

This research focuses on the transformation processes of two high-rise bunkers in Hamburg into green spaces. Bunkers are places where the past and the materiality of cities become particularly clear, as well as heavy historical legacies. A future orientation also becomes evident in that the greening projects are intended to contribute to climate change mitigation goals as well as to provide everyday sustainability and cultural experiences for the neighbourhood. Examining the tensions between past and future, between grey and green, and between historical concrete and flowering raised beds promises deeper insights into understanding the dynamics of meanings of the built environment.

  • bunkers
  • urban green spaces
  • future visions
  • heritage
  • historical built environment
  • materialities
  • temporalities
  • civil society
  • transformation practices


The dissertation builds upon recent social science research on the so-called do-it-yourself movement and the concept of do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism.1 However, this research does not focus on the practices of do-it-yourself per se but will instead draw from the conceptual sensibility of the notions of do-it-yourself urbanism and prefigurative movements2 to investigate a specific empirical phenomenon: the transformation of former war bunkers in Hamburg into urban green spaces. Specifically, the emphasis of the study will be on civil society agencies participating in these transformative processes. Indeed, the two cases chosen for the present project both involve civil society initiatives contributing in different ways to the transformation process.


In the context of the particular situation of greening former war bunkers and the role of civil society within this situation, the research will specifically investigate the articulation of material and temporal tensions unfolding throughout the transformation processes. On the one hand, there is the tension between a symbolic materiality inherited from the past and future-oriented conversions. On the other hand, the civil society initiatives that settled in the bunkers appear to engage with DIY, material, and spatial practices but in fairly divergent strategies. Hence, we could ask how civil society initiatives can contribute to a conversion that requires specific sets of expertise to be transformed. Or to put it more directly: How far can do-it-yourself be used to transform the bunkers?

When implementing sustainability-oriented spaces (rooftop gardens, educational raised beds, cultural and neighbourhood activities, etc.), the greening projects juggle with several layers of meaning in these bunkers inherited from the past. Embedded in the concrete of the bunker, heavy historical stories mingle with the lightness, spontaneity, malleability, and instability of the vegetal elements, the participants, the do-it-yourself practices, etc. Exploring these combinations is expected to reveal insights and pathways for the maintenance of historical urban areas while addressing sustainability issues of cities in the 21st-century. Thus, one main research question leads the project: How do greening projects in former war bunkers handle the coexistence of historical legacies and future visions?

Research design

Situated at the intersection of the fields of sustainability research and sociology of space, the research adopts a relational perspective considering space as a socio-physical research object.3 In order to investigate the transformation of the bunkers, a qualitative, explorative approach has been chosen to describe how actors from the chosen cases deal with the materiality and the temporality of the bunker. The analysis will concentrate on the perspectives of civil society actors and their relations to the bunkers as well as to other involved actors. A hybrid data corpus constituted of go-along interviews, focused ethnography, discourse material, and visual data is to deliver insights about the moment of transformation. The analysis of these data types is expected to deliver elements for understanding how the investigated initiatives handle the historicity of the bunker while seeking to open up ‘spaces for future’. Situational analysis will be used for analysing the data4: This analytic approach allows, through successive mappings of a situation of inquiry, a comprehensive overview of the multiple agencies and elements involved, as well as their interrelations. Therefore, the complexity of processes such as the transformation of historical sites can be accounted for, while at the same time, a specific search for the role played by civil society actors within that situation is enabled.


Building view, colorful painted facade
Figure 1. Bunker in Schomburgstraße, Hamburg. Image © Clara Da Ros.
Building view, colorful painted facade
Figure 1. Bunker in Schomburgstraße, Hamburg. Image © Clara Da Ros.


  1. Jonas, M., Hassemer, S., and Segert, A. (2022) Schauplätze des Reparierens und Selbermachens: über neue urbane Infrastrukturen der Sorge und der Suffizienz in Wien. Urban Studies series, Transcript, Bielefeld.
  2. Monticelli, L. (2018) Embodying alternatives to capitalism in the 21st century. TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 16.2, 501–17. DOI 10.31269/triplec.v16i2.1032; for a diverging proposition of refigurative movements, see also: Deflorian, M. (2021) Refigurative politics: Understanding the volatile participation of critical creatives in community gardens, repair cafés and clothing swaps. Social Movement Studies 20.3, 346–63. DOI 10.1080/14742837.2020.1773250.
  3. Levin-Keitel, M., Mölders, T., Othengrafen, F., and Ibendorf, J. (2018) Sustainability transitions and the spatial interface: Developing conceptual perspectives. Sustainability 10.6, 1880. DOI 10.3390/su10061880.
  4. Clarke, A.E., Friese, C., and Washburn, W. (2018) Situational analysis: Grounded theory after the interpretive turn. Second edition, Sage, Los Angeles.