1.8 Million Potential Binational Urbanists

On the Road to Paradise
By Bernd Upmeyer

Just as bigamists tend to enter into a second marriage before the existing marriage is dissolved, binational urbanists, at some point in time, begin to live in a second city, in a second nation-state, without saying goodbye to their first city. Binational urbanism is thus a special form of transnationalism, a sociological phenomenon, and results from social interactions across the boundaries of nation-states, and a special case of multinational urbanism in which people identify themselves with more than two cities in more than two nations and trigger social interaction between them.

Thus, binational urbanism is to be understood here as an urban way of life in which a person maintains relationships to two different cities in two different nation-states at the same time. This type of person comes from all strata of society, including the working class, and the highly educated and cosmopolitan “creative class”. (1) Ideally, a binational urbanist continuously moves back and forth between two cities and lives in constant transit between two homes. Through their continuous change of location binational urbanists seem to be living in a certain utopian state, characterized by a constant longing, or a constant homesickness, for the other city. “Home becomes a non-place and at the same time utopia. It is experienced most intensely when one is away and misses it; the actual ‘home feeling’ is homesickness.“(2) Binational urbanists are basically extreme commuters. The most famous extreme commuters are probably those travelling for work reasons, people that continuously move between their home and their workplace. For example, in Germany live approximately thirty million (3) commuters, meaning that almost every second German leads a life between two locations. But binational urbanism also, or primarily, emerges as a global phenomenon. Never before was the mobility of individuals higher than it is today. Today, people move between continents as they did thirty years ago between cities. Binational urbanism has the potential to become one of the most interesting forms of life of the twenty-first century.

In recent years, the literature on migration and mobility has experienced enormous growth. In the 1990s especially there was an abundance of work that dealt with various aspects of transnational “spaces of flows”. (4, 5) Many of these works were motivated by the desire to understand the causes and the consequences of increased global labour migration and the economic impact of remittances on the development of the home countries. (6, 7) On the other hand, numerous cultural researchers tended to explore the multiple identities and cultural forms that characterize diaspora experiences. (8) Many of these works either directly or indirectly reference ideas, already formulated by Festinger in the 1950s, about identity and identity contradictions. (9) Festinger’s ideas could provide a particularly interesting possibility to investigate the seemingly irreconcilable and incompatible contradictions of city residents who live between, or in, two cities in two countries. Festinger argued, for example, that every decision leads inevitably to a cognitive dissonance. When we have to decide, for example, between two positive alternatives such as “to go to the theatre” or “to go out for dinner”, one compares the two alternatives and finds for both options cognitive elements that are convincing. (10) In social psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to an emotional state that is experienced as unpleasant, caused by the fact that a person has multiple cognitions – perceptions, thoughts, opinions, attitudes, desires, or intentions – which are incompatible with each other. (11) The initial condition for cognitive dissonance is the relevance of two elements to each other. (12) Irrelevance is present when two elements in the consciousness of the recipient have nothing to do with each other: „one cognitive element implies nothing at all concerning some other element”. (13) Festinger contrasts cognitive dissonance with cognitive consonance, which is the much less problematic and more desirable state of the two. It comes into play when the two elements are consistent with each other: “if you only look at one pair of elements, and when actually each of these elements results from the other, then the relationship between them is consonant.” (14)

To this extent, the analytical framework and the theoretical basis for this study can be found especially in the field of urban and political sociology, anthropology, social theory, and social psychology. Thus, it relates more broadly to theories of nationalism, such as the theory of Benedict Anderson, who became known for “the nation as an “imagined community””, a concept coined by him. (15) According to Anderson, a communal consciousness could arise abstractly and without the need for physical or territorial contact. Later, Anderson also spoke – in relation to diaspora and exile groups – of so-called “long-distance nationalism”. (16) Once the ethno-national feeling, because of the possibility of a “long-distance nationalism” in the sense of Anderson, had been decoupled from territorial requirements, other theorists too began conceptualizing the relationship between globalization and mobility. For many, the revised understanding of identity and community in the wake of globalization meant a call to re-theorize the established understanding of social connections and solidarities. The anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, for example, drew attention to transnational “forms of life”. Already in the 1960s, Hannerz had transferred the concept of creolization to his subject, to describe culture in the age of globalization as a dynamic, flowing, creative, and mutual transformation process. “Meanings and meaningful forms can only persist if they remain continuously in motion and reinvent themselves perpetually. […] In order to maintain culture, people as actors and networks of actors need to re-invent culture perpetually and reflect and experiment with it.” (17) In his book “Cultural Complexity – Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning” Hannerz argues that the anthropological concept of culture, as it had been developed around the turn of the 20th century in relation to small-scale and relatively isolated societies outside Europe, is no longer sufficient in the context of cultural complexity as it exists in today’s cities, increasingly worldwide, due to the intense global circulation of cultural products. (18) Accordingly, Hannerz points out that to capture “culture”, field research must be not only “multi-local”, but “trans-local”. (19) The units to be investigated should be no longer the nodes, but the network between these nodes. It is about “ethnography between these sites“. (20) This research attitude corresponds with his concept of “cultural flows”: it places the “in-between” in the center. (21) In that respect, the sociologist Manuel Castells emphasized the role of the new transnational networks in creating and sustaining social relationships across large spatial distances. (22) Castells argues that due to the technological progress the age of the network society dawns, in which the conventional “space of places” would be replaced by a “space of flows”: societal structuring processes such as production, consumption or power might become less and less identified with concrete locations, but become embedded in the communication flows within the growing information networks. In the “space of flows” a form of socio-spatial organization, detached from locations, would be created. (23, 24) Thus, networks are understood as spaces of flows, in which social actors, either present or absent, communicate and interact.

The verification, combination, and development of the abovementioned ideas and theories should be carried out on a concrete phenomenon and example. The connection – via European roads – between Turkey and Germany and the urban ways of life they produce is the kind of phenomenon that would serve perfectly as an example. Every year, thousands of Turks, or Turkish-born people, commute between Germany and Turkey via these European roads. At first sight, Turkish immigrants seem to be firmly situated in their host country Germany, but they are actually very mobile, enjoy the best of both cultures, and have been living for years as binational urbanists.

To provide a specific example of such a connection via European roads between Turkey and Germany, the route between the German city of Duisburg and the Turkish city of Istanbul could be regarded as a representation and symbol of all other connections between German and Turkish cities. It represents also, for example, the connections between the German cities of Siegen, Kassel, Mönchengladbach, Castrop-Rauxel, and Cologne, and the Turkish cities of Izmir, Manisa, Ankara, Trabzon, Giresun, Kayseri, Edirne, Eskisehir, Nevsehir, Kars, Adapazari, and Eregli. Because the people interviewed for this study commuted between all these different cities. Similarly, the car is meant to represent all other possible methods of transport such as the plane, the train, the bus, or the ferry. The German city of Duisburg is especially interesting, because no other city in Germany has a larger Turkish population in percentage terms. Around fourty thousand people of Turkish origin live in Duisburg, which corresponds to around eight per cent of the total population of the city. (25) On average, the percentage in the major German cities is around four percent. Duisburg is generally an immigrant stronghold with a proportion of migrants well above the national average. The city is located in one of the most populous and economically powerful German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in which more than a quarter of all immigrants in Germany live. One-third of the approximately 1.8 million Turks living in Germany is thus based in North Rhine-Westphalia. (26) This means that there are around 1.8 million potential extreme commuters living in Germany. According to data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) only 6.5% of Turks living in Germany did not travel to Turkey in 2002, which means that 93.5% did travel at least once, which is a figure equivalent to around 1.7 million. (27) This number is comparable to the population of the German city of Hamburg (population 2006: 1,754,317). (28) Hamburg is, behind Berlin, the second largest city in Germany and the seventh largest city in the European Union, which is not the capital of a member state. One can therefore say that every year a population mass of the city of Hamburg moves from Germany to Turkey and back. If one also takes the number of Turks who live in Germany and already have German citizenship into account, one may assume around 2.6 million potential commuters. (29) Germany, in terms of her share of Turks, occupies an exceptional position in Europe in general, because she is home to about seventy-five percent of all Turks living in Europe. Across Europe, there are a total of only about 2.7 million Turks.

The term “E80” is used as a representation of the connection of all European roads that connect Duisburg with Istanbul. The E80 route should be understood as a symbol and discernible sign representing the phenomenon of binational urbanism. The actual route from Duisburg to Istanbul, however, has eight different sections of eight different European roads: E35, E41, E45, E56, E57, E70, E75, and E80. Following these roads is the fastest way to go by car from Duisburg to Istanbul. This route is approximately 2400km long and can be traveled in twenty-four hours. (30) A full day is needed when one drives without a break and at a speed of 100km/h from one city to the other. Only the last part of the route consists of the real E80 and leads from the Serbian city of Nis to Istanbul. But since the E80 section of the route is, with 732km, the longest stretch, it was chosen as the representation of the entire route.

The E80 thus becomes a metaphor of the home of the binational urban lifestyle and a projection of any desires, hopes, and dreams of the binational urban way of life. The E80 becomes utopia and paradise at the same time.

On the Road to Paradise
If one drives by car from Duisburg towards Istanbul, the real E80 constitutes the last part of the entire journey and begins in the Serbian border town of Nis, right at the Bulgarian border, and ends in Istanbul. However, the real E80 does not end in Istanbul, but around 1.500km further east in the region around the Turkish city of Doğubeyazıt, which is some 35km from the Iranian border. Doğubeyazıt is a small town of around 36.000 inhabitants in the outmost eastern part of Turkey and an important transit town for travellers from and into Iran. Even further east and directly at the border with Iran, but still in Turkey, another even smaller town named Gürbulak with approximately 6.700 inhabitants marks the exact eastern endpoint of the real E80. Thus, the real E80 ends and flows directly into an area overloaded with religious myths.
Probably the most interesting religious myth of this area is that according to the first book of Moses – Genesis – the so-called Garden of Eden, and/or paradise, can be found there. (31) And both Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, have their roots in the Hebrew Bible, which contains the first book Moses. Christianity and Islam, base their respective interpretations on the Hebrew Bible and both in Christianity and in Islam, there exists an earthly paradise, as described in Genesis, the Garden of Eden. (32)

This area of earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden, would be arrived at by the binational urbanists if they followed the E80 to its end and beyond. Thus, the Garden of Eden becomes, just like the E80, the unmistakable metaphor for the binary way of life of the binational urbanist, in which all contradictions and contrasts in his life, and between his two hometowns, belong to the past and the two cities are equals. Simultaneously, the E80 even becomes a metaphor for the feedback of humans as quasi-nomads into the Garden of Eden, from where they were, as climatologists state (33), not driven out, but forced out by immense changes in the climate. They were forced to give up their lives as nomads and were obliged to turn themselves to the hard and settled life of farmers, which is based on stockpiling.

This article includes parts of a book by Bernd Upmeyer entitled “Binational Urbanism – On the Road to Paradise” that is published by the Amsterdam-based publisher trancityxvaliz. The book creates a theory of binational urbanism that is developed from the lifestyle of the people of Turkish origin living in Germany, who regularly commute between cities in Germany and cities in Turkey.

The book can be ordered at here.


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30. Departure: Duisburg, Destination: Istanbul, Vehicle type: Automobile, Route type: quickest, Time: 23h21 including 18h33 on motorways, Distance: 2407km including 2084km on motorways. www.viamichelin.com.
31. 1. Book of Moses, Genesis – Bereishit, the first Parashat of the first book of the Torah.
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33. Alessandro Scafi, Mapping Paradise, A history of Heaven on earth (London, British Library 2006).

Image Credits:

All graphics contained in this article were created by Bernd Upmeyer with the support of his Rotterdam-based architecture office BOARD. ©BOARD

Title: On the Road to Paradise
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: April 2015
Type: Commissioned article
Status: Published
Publication: MONU #22, P. 57-63
Location: Rotterdam, The Netherlands