Berlin is a city of nooks and cannies, in which people have made small reclamations of public space. Image: Jon Mountjoy
Berlin is a city of nooks and cannies, in which people have made small reclamations of public space. Image: Jon Mountjoy

Squats, squares and city plans: Berlin by accident and design

Berlin is a city built on careful 19th-century planning, the destruction of World War II and a burgeoning post-unification cultural scene. Today it is a city where residents claim its parks and garden spaces as their own. This approach, argues Mitra Anderson-Oliver, has much to teach Australia.

This piece is republished with permission from Griffith Review 69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica and published in partnership with the Australian National University.

Walking along Berlin’s River Spree one hot summer’s day in 2019, I happened upon a little garden. It was fenced, but a welcome sign sat at the open gate, along with an A4 flier advertising an upcoming workshop on Thymian & Fenchel – Eintritt frei. A large sculpture against the fence piqued my curiosity and I ventured in. The work was impressive: two large, semi-translucent curved walls cupping into each other, surrounded by a (murky) pool. More exciting was what lay beyond: overflowing banks of sunflowers and tomato plants, table tennis, sunchairs, a sandpit, a little wooden caravan, painted bench seats and even an ecotoiletten. I approached a young man busy at the potting shed and asked for the story. This land, he told me, was owned by Berlin’s major power provider, Vattenfall. The company’s central heating plant was just beyond the fence, and an incarnation of one of Berlin’s more famous nightclubs, Kraftwerk, occupied Vattenfall’s redundant 1960s power station just next door.

Dan Graham
Dan Graham, ‘Elliptical Pavilion’, 1995/1999, Vattenfall. Image – the author

Vattenfall had commissioned the public art installation – by New York artist Dan Graham – but the enclosing walls of the pavilion invited junkies to linger, and was repeatedly damaged by vandalism. For a while Vattenfall contemplated employing a security guard, but after taking some soundings from local residents, decided to give over the entire space to a community garden. Instead of paying the annual salary of a security guard, Vattenfall would pay for a garden manager – and a modest maintenance budget – to create the little 1,500-square-metre oasis I had stumbled upon. Materials and tools were provided free of charge. The garden is called the ‘Garten Heizkraftwerk Mitte’, or Mitte Power Station Garden, and its website proudly declares: ‘We want to create opportunities for Berliners to actively and collectively design urban green spaces. Everyone can garden wherever it is needed and come as often as they want.’ It is true that Vattenfall has gone above and beyond in providing not just a garden, but an inclusive, fully funded community planting and harvesting experience for the wider community. However, it is the underlying planning restrictions on this land that were the first mover: Vattenfall is required to keep this corner of land as public open space, so for the foreseeable future it will continue to flourish as a little haven of delight in an otherwise fairly barren section of Friedrichshain.

Cities happen as much by accident or misadventure as by design

Berliners don’t always need permission from large corporates to occupy neglected urban space and turn it into something useful and full of wonder. Before discovering Garten Heizkraftwerk Mitte I’d been lunching at the nearby Holzmarkt (‘Wood market’). Holzmarkt started life as one illegally parked Volkswagen Kombi van and a few shacks in the mid-2000s.

It has now matured into a highly organised co-operative that manages an urban village spread out along the river, home to more than twenty independent projects, including the nightclub KaterHolzig, a café, a swish riverside restaurant, a sourdough bakery, a kindergarten, co-working spaces, a yoga studio, cultural facilities, two stages for theatre and events, several bars and a wine shop. Despite all this (and its financial backing by Swiss pension fund Abendrot) it remains rambling and wild, with improvised wooden bench seating, fire pits and a firm commitment to the public management of, and access to, the riverside areas. It’s emblematic of the evolution in Berlin from opportunistic squats to organised co-operatives, at least for those who were savvy enough to secure land rights along the way.

Cities happen as much by accident or misadventure as by design. Berlin represents – more than most – this ongoing tension between the beauty of resolved plans and the creative potential of neglected and unregulated spaces. Despite the horrors that it has endured there is something very special and optimistic about this city – how unfinished it is, how it feels like it’s being created all around you, in real time. The wild spaces enable trial and error. They provide the opportunity for everyone to be intimately, actively and viscerally involved in the process of city building and place making. In shaping and reshaping the world around us, we become part of it. For us Australians living in relatively young cities, unmarked by wars (with the notable exception of Darwin), or the brutal division of a dividing wall, and straining under prolonged rapid growth, it can be hard to know what lessons to draw from this. Much of Berlin’s innovative and human-focused urban interventions are inextricable from the city’s intense and often devastating history.

Berliners don’t always need permission from large corporates to occupy neglected urban space and turn it into something useful and full of wonder

Urban planners like me can’t help but look to maps and plans to give us a sense of why. Even when all the pieces of a city are smashed and thrown into the air, as they literally were in Berlin, they somehow land in a recognisable pattern. We look for what designer and urbanist Dan Hill calls the ‘dark matter’ of cities: the decisions and regulations and political actors that together determine what can be built and where, and that give rise to the city we see all around us.

Digging around in its foundations – underneath all the shifting sands of occupation, co-creation and experimentation – we find the firm, street-and-square structure of its urban plan. While there have been several iterations of Berlin’s land-use plans and countless contributors to it – including Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s gardener, Peter Joseph Lenné – the most famous of these is

Prussian urbanist James Hobrecht. His 1862 Bebauungsplan der Umgebungen Berlins (The Development Plan for Berlin and its Surrounds) is said to represent the founding moment of urban planning in Germany.

Hobrechet’s plan was, in the main, a ‘negative’ plan: it determined where buildings were not allowed to be built through the creation of a functional network of main and side streets arranged around an ideal block size. It was not met with universal acclaim. In 1870, architect Ernst Bruch criticised it for its ‘monotony, uniformity and boredom’, as well as for intervening too much on private property rights, forcing subdivision sizes and stealing land for parks and roads. Forty years on from Bruch’s criticisms, others, such as economist Rudolf Eberstadt, blamed Hobrecht for the intense land speculation occurring in the booming city, and for having created Europe’s largest tenement city, beset by overcrowding and squalor. Incredibly, the plan has stood the test of time. That is not to say that every city block is identical to that which is laid out in Hobrecht’s plan – this would be asking too much of a city that was so resolutely divided and then sticky-taped back together. Yet its aim of being an ‘extendable framework for growth’ has been largely achieved and, critically, its delicate balance of public versus private space maintained – and, if anything, strengthened.

James Hobrecht’s 1862 Bebauungsplan der Umgebungen Berlins (The Development Plan for Berlin and its Surrounds).

[Urban Planners] look for what designer and urbanist Dan Hill calls the ‘dark matter’ of cities: the decisions and regulations and political actors that together determine what can be built and where

Public squares and gardens were a key organising element of the plan, with planners required to carve these out in a regular pattern across the expansion area, distributed 350 to 600 metres apart, ensuring that shared public space was accessible on foot, by anyone, from anywhere in the city. Added to these are the vacant blocks of land across the city, scars from the war, that have been opportunistically retrofitted or acquired by the city for public open space. These spaces have been reinforced over the past century and a half by successive plans, legislation and activism, locking in the right of Berliners to their parks and playgrounds – and the occasional referendum, such as one in 2014 that ensured Tempelhofer Feld, a former airfield threatened by development, will never be built upon. Today the city maintains a target of six square metres of green space per inhabitant, and over 220 hectares of ‘usable playground space’ is reserved for the parents and children of Berlin in accordance with the 1979 Children’s Playground Law (Kinderspielplatzgesetz). To meet this target as the population of the city rapidly increases, new developments are required to include private and public open space on site.

Tempelhofer Feld. Image: Piotr Majchrzyk

This level of detailed planning and control over existing – as well as expansion – areas of the city sits in stark contrast to how Australian cities have been planned and developed over time. In Melbourne, for example, while you can see the beginnings of a formal city plan in the straight lines, generous surrounding parks and evenly spaced city blocks of the central business district’s ‘Hoddle Grid’, this soon gives way to the chaotic suburban sprawl for which Australian cities are famous. When cities expand in Australia they typically do so at the whim of developers, not under the guidance of a formal expansion plan. State and local governments seek to put some boundaries around this through zoning controls or guidelines around master planning, but rules are generally discretionary, and each subdivision is allowed its own bespoke layout of streets, open spaces and lot size. Over time these rules have become more prescriptive, as councils across the nation advocate for stronger environmentally sustainable design principles to be incorporated into the planning rules, and state governments have taken on a stronger role in guiding the Precinct Development Plans for new outer suburban estates.

Another critical difference is the Australian cultural fixation on single-level dwellings with private backyards, in contrast to European cities like Berlin, where medium-sized apartment buildings of five to seven levels dominate.

My favourite parks in Berlin have two seemingly contrary characteristics: they are responsive to human needs, but are encouraged to be wild spaces

Most Australian cities do not lack open space – per capita, we far exceed Berlin’s target. Inner Melbourne has 61.1 square metres per person, slightly higher than the city average of 57.7 square metres. In theory each new subdivision (from a humble dual occupancy through to larger greenfields developments) must include a percentage of public open space on site. General practice however is to pay the local council an equivalent cash contribution, which goes into a central fund to pay for the acquisition and development of new parks and gardens. There is little to no oversight over this and no prescriptive requirements for when or where these new parks should be delivered. While local councils will often prescribe planting and design guidelines for parks, and developers of new estates put considerable investment into their public spaces as selling points, all too often these spaces are over-designed and homogenous. It is not so much the quantity but the quality of Berlin’s open spaces that sets them apart. My favourite parks in Berlin have two seemingly contrary characteristics: they are responsive to human needs, but are encouraged to be wild spaces. Dense wooded areas open onto grassy fields; dangerous-looking playgrounds throng with children. Most have a basic café or Biergarten offering affordable refreshments, but you don’t have to buy anything to be welcome in these parks. The culture of the city supports locals to take ownership of these spaces, advocate for their upgrade or simply to muck in and do it themselves. These parks allow people to use the city as their lounge room.

Which brings us back to the little Garten Heizkraftwerk Mitte. What appears at first glance to be a wildish, community-run space, spontaneous and opportunistic, is in fact a nineteenth-century relic of the Hobrecht plan, a living expression of an intention laid down in 1862 and reinforced in successive plans to leave space for light, air and greenery in a booming industrial city. This corner of land has been reserved by the government, at some point in its history, as public open space. It can never be built upon, and must remain accessible to the public. It could have been left as a bare patch of grass, but has been transformed into something special and inviting. The city has risen and fallen around this little square of green on a map, but still it remains, only now with the open invitation to all to ‘garden wherever it is needed and come as often as they want’.

The opportunity to mess with your city is fundamental to human happiness. Celebrated urbanists, such as Jan Gehl from Denmark, stage interventions in urban space by the simple act of replacing fixed park benches with moveable street furniture. Instead of being told where to sit, no matter the time of day and position of the sun and shade, you get to choose. Sun on the back, sun on the face, side by side, or arranged in a convivial circle. Gehl has championed successful trials of moveable chairs and tables in cities all over the world, from Broadway in Manhattan to Melbourne’s City Square. His observational studies find that the chair is moved ever so slightly, multiple times, by each sitter. They also find that public spaces with moveable furniture are very popular. Arranging and rearranging our environments makes them more comfortable, more ours, legitimising our presence as we reshape the space to suit our needs.

Gehl’s work on public spaces drew on a long-running discourse on the need and value of putting people at the centre of urban planning, with prominent champions including the US’s Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte. Several Australian cities have benefited from this idea that our inner cities could be more than just a necessary evil for the conduct of efficient business affairs. Instead, they could be ‘an invitation’ to spend time, a welcoming and sustaining place. In an interview I held with Gehl a few years ago he said: ‘A good city is like a good party. You know it’s working when people stay for much longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.’

Berlin demonstrates this principle in a radical and comprehensive way. Squatting culture was born in Berlin, rising up just before the Wall fell, and promptly moving to occupy the East and its acres of empty apartments. Berlin’s 1990 ‘summer of squatting’ is written about by urbanist and theatre critic Jana Perkovic in a terrific essay on the history of the Berlin club scene for the Sydney Theatre Company Magazine. She describes a city where ‘self-governed occupation was the only civilisational model going’, quoting veteran squatter and ‘chronicler of Berlin’s techno culture’ Tobias Rapp:

Between the East Germans fleeing to the West, former capitalists returning, overseas descendants of exterminated Jewish families, property law harmonisation and the drawing up of new urban plans, it took the better part of the decade to sort out real estate ownership and start building. The city lay fallow, and in its nooks and crannies, clubbing as we know it was born.

Community-led temporary uses continue to spring up all around the city, born out of this culture and bred on the ongoing creative melting pot that is Berlin. Some are brief flashes of brilliance, others dig in, literally, and establish themselves as a permanent part of the city fabric.

The city [Berlin] lay fallow, and in its nooks and crannies, clubbing as we know it was born – Tobias Rapp

Let’s be clear: gentrification has well and truly arrived in Berlin. The socks are being pulled up, the streets neatened and re-café’d, and once-vacant land filled with new apartment blocks. We have seen a similar trend in inner cities across Australia, with suburbs such as Fitzroy, Newtown, Fortitude Valley and North Hobart renovating (or knocking over) their dilapidated terrace houses and workers’ cottages, trading grunge for organic grocers, cosy wine bars and curated street art. In Berlin this shift occurred later, only really gathering pace in the years following the global financial crisis due to the compounding impacts of war, division of the city and economic stasis. Not since the boom times of the 1920s has Berlin’s population, and property prices, been so high: between 2010 and 2020 land prices more than doubled. With increased population comes pressure for more housing, and with more housing closing in on previously unregulated or empty inner-city land comes pressure for greater controls on activity. Just last year the Holzmarkt co-op called on their community to rally in the streets for ‘a public Spree bank! For a lively, colourful and tolerant alternative to Mediaspree! Against the new provincialism and regulatory frenzy in this city, which threatens with curfews at 9 pm, prohibits karaoke and has street parades monitored!’ Some say that Berlin’s days as the rave capital of Europe are numbered. If you want a true underground techno party, you need to head east to Warsaw, Kiev or Belgrade.

But still the grass in public gardens is allowed to grow long in summer, to sway gentle and golden in the long twilights. Still there are makeshift benches around street trees, protecting guerrilla gardens of daffodils, cornflowers and daisies, and giving the passer-by a place to stop a while and sip on a two-euro corner-shop beer, before or after a long night out. Still community groups organise themselves to upgrade playgrounds and plant public areas. Still now, and perhaps forevermore, there are priceless pockets of open space spread out across the city like a patchwork blanket, offering up opportunities for citizen involvement or just a casual rest, even while the nooks and crannies are slowly filled in.

…gentrification has well and truly arrived in Berlin. The socks are being pulled up, the streets neatened and re-café’d, and once-vacant land filled with new apartment blocks.

Despite the stark differences in history, there are lessons that we can draw from Berlin in our own efforts to enliven our cities. The fierce sense of ownership and engagement the citizens have with their city, and the politics that have risen up in support of this, speak of a population that has taken the future development of the city into their own hands. Underlying all this is a city plan that provides the public space for such rights to be exercised, and a suite of urban legislation mandating everything from open-space ratios through to protecting the social mix in gentrifying areas – called the Milieuschutz or ‘neighbourhood protection’ laws, now covering more than forty zones across the city.

There is no winding back the clock for Australian cities in terms of their underlying structure, but we can certainly learn something from the uncompromising attitude of Berliners when confronting the next sterile park or overdeveloped suburban subdivision. Australians are as free as Berliners to get involved in city politics and make our demands clear at both ends of the process: as new plans are being drawn up, and in protest against the mediocre public spaces and landlord-friendly regulations we’ve been delivered in the past. The city is ours, for the taking and the making.

Mitra Anderson-Oliver is head of Urban Design and Strategy at Impact Investment Group. She is a former senior adviser to the Victorian Minister for Planning, and is on the board of Yarra Pools, a community-led initiative to reintroduce recreation and water play to the lower Yarra. She lived in Berlin in 2011 and again in 2019.