Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Dying in dignity - Berlin and the American City

The whole class went on a study trip to Berlin last week. The city is mesmerizing in the way it clings to life despite having been the site of tragedy after tragedy in the past century. This made the appearance of renowned American urban history professor Kenneth T. Jackson at the technical university somewhat ridiculous, as he chose to begin his talk by speaking of Detroit.

Jackson, the author of Crabgrass Frontier, is a specialist on the suburbanization of the United States in the post-war era, and he pit the blame for the collapse (there is no other way to describe it) of Detroit on Federal housing policies, racism, and cheap wood-frame home construction. Between pictures of abandoned skyscrapers and mansions, and riot neighborhoods turned to meadows, Jackson built a diagnostic of suburbanization that is entirely political. At no point did he ask himself if Detroit was a good place to live in. From what we know of it, it wasn't that great of a city. In comparison to the glory that was Berlin, it was a horror. If politics was the explanation for suburbanization, then the suburbs would not be so qualitatively different from the cities. But Jackson never mentioned that. Of everything I've read from Americans complaining about suburban sprawl, not once does anyone ask if American cities were good places to live. They weren't. A few days in Berlin was all it took to understand that.

Unlike Paris, which was a medieval city that was intensively renovated in the 19th century, Berlin was a small burg of 150,000 at the beginning of it, about one seventh the size of London. Berlin's growth took off in the mid-19th century at a pace and a time similar to New York City, both cities hitting about 2 million in time for the fin de siècle. Berlin is therefore a modern, industrial city of the same class as all the Great American Cities praised by Jane Jacobs. That is why, every time I turned a corner in one of its broad streets and avenues, I couldn't help but feel "this is what an American city would have been if Americans had known how to make cities."

American cities have been a mess for so long that American urbanists have been fighting what is essentially a hopeless struggle to save what has never been worth saving. New York City, with its grid plan repeated endlessly, somewhat accidentally became a great city and was retroactively manifestoed by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. The rest of the country was not so lucky. Of the Great American Cities, only three more survived: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. It wasn't just de-industrialization and racism that did it. Chaos is synonymous with urbanity in America. The New Urbanists, who promote a more refined form of urbanism, have been labeled as "too suburban" by some of their critics. What they propose is functionally identical to Berlin.

What really happened to the Great American Cities? They annoyed their citizens to such an extent with awful living conditions, high costs and endless political conflicts that the suburbs, with a promise of peace and quiet, easily outcompeted them. The exodus of the middle class then fed the chaos even more. What if Detroit collapsed because the people who ran Detroit were objectively corrupt and incompetent at producing cities?

In Berlin we have a modern city that has faced a hundred years of chaos, and a hundred years of industrial growth beforehand, and come out of it gracefully. The city is economically in no better shape than Detroit. It lived for almost 50 years in a completely artificial state, serving as a demonstration of wealth for both the East and the West. With the wall down, the subsidies were taken away. The population fell lightly over the next decade, and the economic promise didn't materialize. Today unemployment is around 14% and kids are migrating south where there is better hope for work. There are empty office buildings all over. The city government is broke. Suburban sprawl is expanding. Despite that, Berlin is full of construction cranes. Walking around the lovely Prenzlauer Berg, its buildings restored fresh after years of neglect under the Socialist Republic and now invaded by young families, Berlin does not give the impression of a city struggling. It is what Detroit never was and certainly isn't today: a place that feels good. This is why people are willing to stay here. This is why private money is funding the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace on the wreckage of Palast der Republik, just behind the bigger than life statue of Marx and Engels. There are enough people out there who love Berlin and will sacrifice for it. Berlin will remain a relevant city even as it stagnates or shrinks. It will have everything a state-of-the-art city is expected to have. Whatever needs to be invested will be invested. New train stations will be built and they will work better than any train station you've ever seen. (The new Hauptbahnof is a sight for sore eyes.) Some derelict neighborhoods will have to be abandoned, much like some Detroit neighborhoods have turned into meadows. I'm sure the Berliners will find something useful to do with them, perhaps barbecues with curried sausage and sauerkraut. Complexity science tells us you can never stop growing a city, even if it is shrinking in size. The urban fabric has to be recycled. When it stops, as is the case with Detroit, the city is dead.

One thing that is scarcely mentioned about Berlin urbanism today is politics. Berlin is tired of politics. "No more experiments!" was the proclamation of city planners when postmodern architects came swarming in favor of new plans after the reunification. However boring the vision for Berlin may be, it is graceful, dignified, and has gathered popular support. Americans, I'm afraid, are unable to conceive of cities as anything other than political objects to fight over. Everything must be fought over, even the most redundant parking space in Brooklyn. That is why I don't expect anything other than more chaos to come out of America in the short-term.

Prenzlauer Berg Prenzlauer Berg


Interesting commentary, Mathieu. I largely agree with your analysis, although, I have to confess, I am yet to travel to Berlin to see it with my own eyes.

What's your take on the two almost-Great cities north of the border, namely Montreal and Toronto? Even though Jacobs lived in Toronto for almost 40 years (and she, presumably, knew how to choose a good city or at least a neighborhood to live in), I can't shake off the feeling that it's a "me, too!" city just that tries to copy what others have done (Yes, we have a Libeskind building, too!)

Montreal, on the other hand, feels curiously alive and unique, even if not exactly booming. Do you see parallels between Berlin and Montreal? (Other than former/current divisions between east and west).

When I was in Berlin the U-Bahn and trams went on strike for a day and it was still fairly straightforward to get around using the S-Bahn. Compare that with Montreal where yesterday the city was crippled by a snow storm. After two centuries the city has yet to figure out a solution to snow.

Montreal suffers from the same problems as other American cities in the sense that it is not considered to be a serious business. Despite that people have stayed for the lifestyle, even if they have to cope with the collapsing overpasses and bursting water pipes. There's nowhere else to go. If Berlin faced these problems the entire population would have evacuated to other German cities.

Toronto appears to be in a better shape functionally, but its main problem, as you point out, is that it is generic. When you think Toronto no specific image comes to mind other than the CN tower. That's not such a bad place to start with, however.

I realize I am getting off subject here (and slipping into the old Montreal vs Toronto rant), but I just wanted to comment on what you said...

Functionally, yes, Toronto is more "together". However, its generic nature is not its only problem. My feeling is that its main problem is the lack of density in the downtown area.

Outside the Financial District and a few pockets of high-rises, Toronto is not only low-rise (that wouldn't necessarily be so bad), it largely consists of detached or semi-detached houses! Sure, there are exceptions, but it's shockingly easy to walk into a "neighbourhood" that's 90% detached homes in just minutes from all the skyscrapers!

The result is a city where commerce can exist only on main streets, where distances (almost) preclude walking and where most residents returning home late will not see ANYBODY on their block.

In Montreal, Le Plateau is still too sparse for my liking, but it probably beats most Toronto neighbourhoods 2:1 or 3:1 as far as densities are concerned. Little surprise then, that Le Plateau has a lively restaurant and shopping scene.

That's just one example and there are many other neighbourhoods that are either lively now or can at least POTENTIALLY be turned into lively areas.

With much of Toronto, I am not even sure it's possible...

Thank you for your outstanding post.

I am a PhD candidate of urbanism at Technical University of Berlin which we call Berlin University of Technology (TU-Berlin) in there, under the supervision of a number of master of critics and urban planners/designers of the school, and currently living in the US. My research aims to study the common sense(s)/features and factors in recent urban theories, but, my supervisors who has a long experience of teaching out of Germany including within the States in their resume, always address the problems of current American cities to the economical and epistemological approaches of planners in here, and ask me; why you are working on this subject! Obviously, to the persons and professionals living and working in and on Berlin is a pre-answered question that the solution could have come out of the American planners’ attitude rooted in capital.
Nevertheless, in a very first glance out of sight point about Berlin planning and may be for overall German cities and planning system is they are trying to avoid any chaotic behavior of cities prior to development process of cities through controlling one of the three well-known features addressed in Chaos Theory. They have been learnt through their experience since 19C; when French was involved in politics instead of policy-making for urban fabrics (Baron Haussmann’s planning for Paris) or Utopian thinkers (like Saint Simon or the others) and while British thinkers following American ideas for planning (Howard’s notions of Looking Backward from Edward Bellamy) or hierarchal battles between honored families of traditional Britain, that they should have strong philosophical attitude/background for their works for the future (20C) which will be involved in Technology and Modernism to face the new out coming problems of those. Therefore, it is explicable having a city like Berlin based on extended literature of philosophy rather than a grid shaped city and full of chaotic phenomena which are now utterly out of control, would be a desirable ultimate form of American city.

All I can say about your well-written essay about Berlin and your comparative case Detroit is that would be my pleasure if we can have a chat about planning theories or even a joint paper to publish which I have ever dreamed to work on chaotic approaches in contemporary planning of cities.

Thanks again and good luck

Reza P Far (Eric)

I was in fact a guest at the TU in Berlin, which is how I was able to sit on the Kenneth Jackson conference. It's on Ernst Reuter Platz isn't it?

I have to confess that I am not much for the philosophical approach to urbanism. I am an extreme rationalist and materialist, (can't help myself on that point) and that's why I am trying to "materialize" all the research on complexity.

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