Auckland architect and urban designer Natasha Markham takes a tour of Berlin and finds a family friendly suburb that shows the value of planning.
My first impression of Berlin is green. From my aeroplane portal, the city’s avenues appear to have been scribbled over with foliage, while vegetation seems to have eroded the cores of the neighbourhood blocks, leaving them framed by buildings on the perimeters. The whole effect is of an intricate fabric embroidered in shades of emerald, red and grey and I’m excited at meeting this city.
Our taxi ride in from Tegal reveals a different perspective. Present-day Berlin is a relatively new construction by European standards, with much of the city developed from the 19th century on. Regular buildings of uniform height define broad avenues, which are softened by Linden and London Planes trees and cleverly articulated with central median parks so cars and people can move freely.
Inside the taxi, our driver deftly negotiates numerous roadworks and detours while interrogating us, University Challenge-style, on all manner of trivia about our country: “How many square kilometres is New Zealand? And what is the distance from the southernmost point to Antarctica? And in New Zealand, can you see ice mountains floating in the water from Antarctica?”
We ask him, “Do you mean icebergs?” “You call them bergs? This is a German word, you know!”
Exactly 40 minutes later, we pull up in Prenzlauer Berg, former East Berlin. We’re staying in this neighbourhood because our friends live here, but it turns out to be an excellent base: close to Alexanderplatz, cafes and restaurants in abundance, public transport options aplenty, and apparently it’s the hippest hood in Berlin.
Prenzlauer Berg was originally set out as a working-class neighbourhood under city planner James Hobrecht’s 19th-century plan for the expansion of Berlin. The mietskasernen (or tenement housing) from this era are predominately five- to sevenstorey buildings that enclose relatively large blocks. The leftover spaces form common back gardens, now lush with mature trees, that afford residents both privacy and outlook, qualities that are particularly significant given the density of the area.
After the Berlin Wall came down, Prenzlauer Berg was one of the first areas to be colonised by West Germans. The vanguard of artists, students and intellectuals was soon followed by canny developers, who picked up buildings for nichts and revamped them using subsidies from the city. After years of Soviet austerity, decorous Wilhelminian and art nouveau facades are now restored and the district bustles with prosperity.
But the most conspicuous feature of Prenzlauer Berg is the children. According to our friend, it has the highest birth rate in Europe. In fact, demographers have based studies on the phenomenon, which runs counter to the national population trend of exponential negative growth over the past few decades. Supporting evidence is easy to find—designer prams line the pavements outside cafes, retail spaces are occupied by kindergartens and every other corner has a playground or one in the making.
I can’t help but compare it with home, where there is a sense that children and urban environments are mutually exclusive entities. Rural and suburban locations are considered more appropriate locations to raise children. But Prenzlauer Berg is testament to the fact that children will thrive in all sorts of environments.
Of course, some cities are more hospitable than others. Berlin is easy to move around, an attribute we particularly appreciated while travelling with our own toddler. Public transport is accessible, convenient and timely, and the system is easy to decipher. Above all, space has been designed with a generous hand—everything, from the breadth of the pavements to the width of stairways to the size of apartments, feels comfortably proportioned and negotiable.
It follows that cities that are easy for families are likely to be user-friendly for a wide range of people: the disabled, the newly immigrated, the aged, or even tourists like us. And a city that attracts diversity is likely to be the richer for it.
Reunification has been a catalyst for development in Berlin, and the city’s infrastructure, cultural centres and building stock benefited from massive investment. This international attention also makes the city popular for both tourists and immigrants. But it’s the underlying built form of the city that is generous and flexible enough to accommodate change, providing an enduring framework where people of all sorts can fashion a way of life.
Perhaps it’s all the children, but this place feels receptive and alive with possibility and one imagines that it’s a great place to live, even if just for a few days.
Originally published inIdealog magazine #31, page 114