Deliberate Urban Planning: A Case Study of Berlin, Germany

By: ZACHARY EVANS, student (HMC-’18)

A person characterizing the layout of Southern California would have to include its haphazard urban sprawl. This rat’s nest of roads resulted from uncoordinated, stop-and-go development from various economic booms. From my experiences in Berlin this summer, Germans would not tolerate the jumbled urban planning here, because a sense of historical and ideological intention shapes their infrastructure. Public transportation nicely subdivides the German capital into circumscribed A, B, and C zones, and for a college student abroad, the dense and reliable public transportation system was invaluable. The punctual train system provided me with a method to commute to work as well as an accessible method of exploring this new city. The Hixon Center provided Kareesa Kron and I the opportunity to work at the Ecologic Institute in Berlin, an international sustainability organization that develops tools and resources for policymakers in Germany and the EU. During this internship, I helped with a project called the Environmental Burden of Disease (EBD), which is designed to monetize the public health costs of pollution. Germany has a law that requires new regulations to be revenue neutral or positive, and putting a cost on pollution would enable the passing of stricter regulations.

For the EBD project, I researched the methods that previous projects used to assess the health impacts of particulate matter as well as the ways these projects monetized their health data. One discovery I made is that particulate matter caused 922,000 Years of Life Lost in 2015, the highest of any environmental factor in Germany. Although that metric is significant, Years of Life Lost is an imperfect metric for evaluating health impact because it disregards morbidity, therefore underestimating the total burden. Most of my summer internship consisted of analyzing the nuances of different health impact assessments and monetization methods. Certain health impact assessments, such as the Value of a Statistical Life, weights acute issues more heavily than others such as the Value of a Life Year indicator, which considers chronic issues more heavily. Methods of calculating morbidity cost may only evaluate healthcare costs, while others label the cost of a person’s time equivalent to the income they could be earning. These costs are also projected into the future through a discount rate designed to account for inflation, but this discount rate may be constant or decrease over time. Depending on these assumptions and others, the estimated cost of pollution often underestimates its true burden. It also fails to address the larger social, emotional and economic burden faced by disadvantaged groups with fewer accessible resources. Through the summer, I pushed the Environmental Burden of Disease project forward by de-convoluting the variables within each health and economic quantity and unraveling the biases inherently present during that process.

I realized this deliberate, systematic evaluation of nuances was an extension of German culture. I could observe facets of this culture reflected in the calculated urbanization of Berlin and intentional incorporation of centuries of history into modern structures. Half a mile south of our apartment sits the Tiergarten, a royal hunting ground from 1527 now transformed into a two square mile park. It is one of many pockets of green space dotting the city, much like old stone buildings complete with statues emerging from banisters framed between modern apartments. While the city of Berlin is more than 500 years older than Los Angeles, suburbs do not spill over the sharp boundary between Berlin and its countryside. Small towns punctuate the landscape around Berlin, but these settlements, containing a few roads off the main railway, fit the image of “town” far better than the “cities” metastasizing from Los Angeles freeways. During our stay, we visited one such town named Beelitz. We participated in a canopy walk of abandoned sanatoriums built in Beelitz in the 1900s to treat tuberculosis patients. I can imagine Californians demolishing these dilapidated buildings for new infrastructure, but Berlin has not expanded enough to warrant this land to be used for other purposes. The trees and bricks are a historical island among fields and forest.

Ideologies shape Berlin’s urban structure, in addition to history. A golden Angel centered in Tiergarten serves as a proud monument of colonial-era victories and stands above the surroundings. Remnants of WWII and the Cold War, such as heavily graffitied American radio spy towers remain perched in the nearby forest, and Holocaust memorials rest untouched by graffiti and litter, a truly impressive feat in a city layered with an atmosphere of street art. The most obvious ideological influences are capitalism and communism, through their clear geographical division by the Berlin Wall. Many of the apartments in East Berlin are ticky-tacky housing, built quickly and cheaply, whereas West Berlin contains more substantial high-rises of steel and glass. East Berlin also has an extensive tram system, designed to favor shared transportation, while Americans encouraged West Berlin to invest in cars as a tool of freedom. These deliberate investments, purposeful restorations, and abandoned parts of history reflect a collective memory of Berlin’s rich history. Although Berlin has been more central to global history than Los Angeles, the latter still possesses history from the local Tongva Native Americans, the first Spanish settlement, and the pre-WWII annexation and boom in industry. I wonder what Los Angeles would look like if it were built deliberately to reflect the history of the area. Looking forward, I await the expansion of our Metro for the 2028 Olympics, and I hope for better integration of green spaces into urban areas in Los Angeles or even America as a whole.