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Berlin Vol 1: The City Block

Perimeter Block

It’s December and I’ve decided to take a trip to Berlin.

 

It’s December and I’ve decided to take a trip to Berlin. I have a friend who moved to Berlin from Toronto a few years ago and I’ve been dying to see her. But visiting the UNESCO City of Design also felt like a necessary pilgrimage that all designers should make. While I’m in this incredible city, I’ll be exploring, enhancing my design education and gathering ideas. And I’ll summarize my findings in a few short blog posts, which I’ll publish over the next couple of weeks.

When I first arrived at my friend’s apartment in Prezlauerberg, I was struck by the cleverness of the urban design. Prezlauerberg is in East Berlin, a section where much of the Wilheminian architecture remains intact, yet worn and rundown. The raw beauty of the buildings mixed with the markers of a difficult past are a compelling combination.

But my favourite urban design element was something quite simple: each city block was made up of buildings that go right to the edge of the sidewalk. Known as perimeter block, this simple choice is considered a best practice in urban design for many reasons. First, it preserves space within the centre of the building for court yards that not only provide green space, but act as gathering places where neighbors can socialize and children can play, fully protected from the noise and activity of the street.

When perimeter blocks are broken and buildings are set back from the street, it creates a sense of disconnection among citizens. There is less surveillance of the public realm because people are further away from the street. If someone needs help, those inside their houses are unlikely to notice.  

Perimeter block also allows for higher density buildings that are no more than 10 stories high. And, eliminating high-rises from residential areas does wonders for civic well-being. In Toronto for example, soaring apartment and condo building create wind tunnels, have limited outdoor space and block the sun from the city streets. And I can only imagine that the cliff dwellers perched on the highest floors feel a sense of isolation from the world below.

Perimeter block is not unique to Berlin – it can be seen across Europe. But this type of building design, which is ideal for both public and private realms, is lacking in Toronto. When it comes to residential architecture, we have two choices: high rises or single-family homes that have been split up into apartments with thin walls, bad ventilation, improper fire exits and limited light. To keep our city strong, we need to invest in better rental options, better public streets and design that improves our quality of life.