Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Anouchka Strunden

16.02.2021, Maria Prosviryakova

Anouchka Strunden graduated in International Business and Cultural Studies at Passau University, Germany, where she discovered an interest in mobility planning. Drawn to living in an international capital, she moved to Brussels for her Master’s in Urban Studies. After gaining experience at Copenhagenize and GIZ, Anouchka is currently about to start a position as Sustainable Mobility Junior Consultant. # GROWING UP MULTILINGUAL Exploring languages and cultural contexts has always been part of my identity. Growing up in Germany with a French grandmother, I went to a French-German school that offered many opportunities to go on exchange programmes abroad. This way, I had the chance to spend time in various countries such as France, Argentina and England at a young age. After finishing school, my passion for dancing led me to live in Brazil for three months. With the [International Business and Cultural Studies]( programme at the University of Passau, I had found a Bachelor’s that was as interdisciplinary as my interests. Within this program, I could learn yet another language and deepen my knowledge in its cultural context. I chose Slavic Culture Studies because the Russian language, its literature and the country’s history had fascinated me for many years already. # FROM LITERATURE TO MOSCOW’S MOBILITY PROJECTS The moment that sparked my interest in learning more about urbanism happened during my Bachelor’s, in a seminar about Russian literature on cities. In this class, we compared narratives on Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Odessa, and the relationship of story and space in the city – a type of literary topography. Every city produced a different narrative: in Saint Petersburg, the literature was dark and the protagonists felt oppressed and patronised by the historic architecture; in Moscow we found playfulness and surrealism; and Odessa, the harbour city, was dazzling, vibrant and packed with different cultures. There was so much to discover about Soviet cities in literature on the avant-gardist time and after World War I. So for my Bachelor’s thesis, I decided to research what all of this has become today. I was fascinated by the metro of Moscow, which was constructed in the scope of a massive political project in the 1930s. During a language-school trip to Ivanovo in 2018, I finally got to experience it. Eventually, in a discussion with my professor on the transformation of the Russian capital, I came to the topic of bicycle infrastructure and culture in Moscow. Once I started looking into it I was hooked: sociology, history, urbanism and politics started to melt into each other and I knew I had found the right topic to research. {{Pic1: Brussels 2019. Photo by Beatrice Bellavilla}} # FINDING A MASTER’S IN BRUSSELS By the end of my Bachelor’s, I started thinking of studying a Master’s in Urban Studies and considered leaving Germany to go to Moscow. However, I was conscious that my language skills and knowledge of the local context were very limited, and that this might have hindered my professional progress. Indeed, while working at an [intercultural consultation and strategy office]( in parallel with my studies, I had learnt that your impact as a professional is as big as your knowledge of the context, the culture and the people you are working with. Then I came across the 4CITIES Master’s programme in Urban Studies, a programme which you undertake, as the name indicates, in four different cities. But I had travelled a lot before and instead decided to apply for the [Master’s in Urban Studies]( at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. This highly interdisciplinary joint program was created by the same institutions that conceived the 4CITIES Master’s, and had similar courses but based in one city: Brussels. Brussels can feel like several different cities mixed into one. It is among the world’s most cosmopolitan urban spaces, yet its centre is still not altered by gentrification compared to other European capitals. The country’s colonial past and Europe-centric present combined with its multilingual set-up make it a highly political city and you may overlook many of these sides unless you have lived there. {{Pic2: Brussels under construction. Photo by Andrei Toader via Unsplash}} # WORKING AT THE FRENCH BRANCH OF COPENHAGENIZE During the first year of my Master’s, I joined the team of [Copenhagenize]( in Brussels for an [internship]( during which I worked with Clotilde Imbert, the director of the French-speaking branch of the company. My responsibilities included supporting the development of a new cycling network in the Belgian city Bruges, researching for the [Index of bicycle-friendly cities](, writing articles on bicycle initiatives in Brussels, and preparing the Copenhagenize Master Class. At the time of my internship, Copenhagenize still had a company branch in Brussels, but many projects were located in French cities. Being fluent in the language qualified me for the position, as I was able to support Copenhagenize in connecting with citizens in Brussels to advocate bicycle urbanism. Nevertheless, it was still challenging to be fully immersed in French on a professional level. This made me realize that being fluent in the company’s local language is a necessary qualification to be able to contribute and learn, even as an intern. {{Pic3: Bicycles in Molenbeek. Photo by Anouchka Strunden}} # FROM MOSCOW TO MEXICO For my Master’s thesis, I chose urban mobility as a topic – similarly to my Bachelor’s thesis. My research’s focus was on how Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico, could put urban planning advice into practice for its new sustainable mobility strategy. For my thesis I collaborated with [Rupprecht Consult](, a research and consultancy company in my hometown Cologne, Germany, which works on sustainability in the fields of urban and transportation development. While I contacted the office about internships opportunities, they offered that I write my thesis in collaboration with them, which suited me perfectly. So I got hired as an intern and had to manage my time between thesis and project work independently. Working at the office helped me understand the complex constellation of stakeholders in international cooperation. It also made it easier for me to reach out to interview partners for my thesis research, since I was helping to design technical training courses for urban planners in Latin America. Speaking to professors, urban planners and consultants from the city of Guadalajara itself was the best part of the thesis research. # EXTERNAL CONSULTATION VS. LOCAL OWNERSHIP While working on international projects, I am always concerned about legitimization: what enables one to advise cities that have a completely different cultural, social and economic context than one’s own? So far, I believe that the contribution one can make as an external consultant is in being a moderator, supporting and adding to the exchange of knowledge and experiences between cities. However, the solutions to the problems should mostly come from local planners and residents: in order for the solutions to be accepted and used, the cities themselves should be the ones to design, construct or rehabilitate infrastructure. {{Pic4: The most sustainable way of urban transport. Photo by Roman Lopez via Unsplash}} # FINDING A POST-GRADUATE POSITION While working at Rupprecht Consult, we were collaborating with [GIZ, the German Society for International Collaboration]( I kept checking their internship opportunities and eventually found an open position in the [MobiliseYourCity]( project. Since I was looking for a good transition into the working world and the internship was well paid, I applied and got accepted. MobiliseYourCity is a partnership across continents to transform urban transport infrastructure. The global secretariat at Brussels provides communication, outreach and advocacy work for the 74 member cities and countries. During my internship, we developed training formats and workshops and prepared tools, presentations and other support material for the members to succeed in their planning process. # WORKING IN URBANISM AT DIFFERENT LEVELS As an urbanist, I am still uncertain about the scale I want to work at - whether local, municipal, or regional. You can advocate for good urbanism on the highest level, but in that case you might not really end up speaking to cyclists or citizens, like I did when I worked at Copenhagenize. At MobiliseYourCity, we operate from a macro scale where it is difficult to see the direct impact of our work. At Rupprecht Consult, where I will return as Junior Consultant starting March 2021, it is perhaps mostly a meso approach (in between the micro and macro). So for now, this means to me that I found the golden middle.