Visualizing Urban Futures: Notebook and portfolio of Sheraz Khan*


I came across this unbelievable building complex recently, which is in the Wilmersdorf neighbourhood of Berlin on Schlangenbader Straße:



Looks kind of normal, right? Well, here is the building in cross-section:


Yes, in fact there is a 6-lane highway running right through this center of this building. The cross section shows that the building is built around the highway, with small spaces separating the highway tunnel and the apartments. The designers used the areas below the highway as parking spaces for the people living in the building – a really great way of making use of residual space.

The building complex, like many in Berlin, was a response to the growing housing crisis of West Berlin. Although many new structures had been built, there was still demand for housing, and a need to renew the post-war 19th-century housing stock. Architects and engineers were coming up with new and experimental ideas of how to fit people and infrastructure together. By 1980, the first units were ready for move-in.

However, like many modernist constructions, be it due to context, time or architecture, the complex suffered from increasing crime, dirty surroundings and associated with this, stigma. The complex is operated by degewo, a semi-private social housing company (I say semi-private, as I am still trying unsure how these housing companies work here in Berlin – any explanations are welcome!). As I understand it, the housing company invested money in security, repairs and upkeep, resulting in the quite pristine environment we have today.

With all this in mind, I took a quick tour around the building to check out the infrastructure.

This bridge spans over the residential road and is actually a highway:

photo 1


Parks and open spaces abound:

photo 2


More park space:

photo 3


The building faces east and west, so everyone gets a little bit of sunlight. Helps to have an enormous balcony:

photo 4

If you’re wondering, the whole space is extremely quiet. The only sounds that come from the highway seem to be from the sides, where the highway reemerges out of the building. Otherwise, you would hardly know that there were cars travelling through. No vibrations, no interior noise, seemingly nothing.

The building complex is also a really interesting late-modernist work, with huge balconies, really interesting and complex spaces and several tunnels and pedestrian pathways through the complex. Gardens and playgrounds abound. Below is a fast-looking mailbox system. What a gem.

photo 5


Still, some of the interiors must be frightful to walk through at night, especially some of the public through-ways (like the cover photo at the top of this post).

What really surprises me about this building is the different levels of cooperation that must have gone into creating this. Architects, traffic planners, structural and traffic engineers, housing experts, politicians, planners and landscapers – it’s almost unbelievable that it all came together. I would be curious to know how the planning process proceeded and what pressures the planners and builders were under at this time. I assume that they were in dire straits and needed to, at all costs, build buildings that made efficient use of scarce land.

Check out the original architects’ webpage, with photos from the 70s and 80s:

If you’re curious, the drawings came from a catalogue of modern architecture, the citation is,
Nalbach, G., Nalbach, J. (1989). Berlin Modern Architecture: Exhibition Catalogue. Senatsverwaltung für Bau- und Wohnungswesen: Berlin



Cities are built on networks of streets that move us through urban space, while also providing spaces for us to shop, hang out and observe. In today’s world however, the history and nature of the street is closely tied to the automobile.

While automobiles have allowed us to quickly travel long distances and easily transport heavy materials, there have still been negative effects resulting from their use. Cities around the world must accommodate pollution and smog caused from fossil fuel use in automobiles. As well, cars produce high amounts of noise which reduce the quality of life for people living near high-traffic roads and highways. Cities mitigate these negative effects with speed limits and other forms of control.

With this in mind, I wanted to see how the Berlin was organized based on its speed limits. I drew the following map of Berlin’s street network:

Article 1 - Speed Map-01

Unlike many North American cities that I’m more used to, Berlin has an irregular, quasi-radial street network with a half-completed ring road – all of which are remnants of Berlin’s tumultuous history.

For example, many larger avenues were based on the 17th century region’s urban structure, where Berlin was a small walled city surrounded by a constellation of small villages. As the city grew beyond its walls, these well-used roads were solidified as thoroughfares. During the Cold War and in the divided city, West Berlin invested in building heavy automobile infrastructure, including wide highways, tunnels, bridges and overpasses to build a ‘car-friendly’ city, with the hopes that the ring would be completed after reunification. In today’s Berlin, we see more and more suburban developments growing, requiring slow roads or even private local roads and the rise of semi-gated communities.

These histories are reflected in the speeds of the roads that one sees in the map. Large mid-speed avenues grow out from the old city center in all directions. Former West Berlin’s spine is demarcated in dark grey – a fast set of autobahns that slice through the city. On the fringes are wide blocks with extremely slow-speed roads reflected in a light grey – evidence of the suburban nature of these spaces.

In today’s Berlin, I found it somehow striking to see the concessions needed for certain roads. The map of Berlin seems like a constant struggle between speed and quiet living. Many neighbourhoods throughout the city are strongly hierarchical in their street structure: moving from fast arterial streets step-wise to slow residential streets (many featuring traffic calming mechanisms like speed bumps and cobblestones). Furthermore, the highways trace through areas that are strongly industrial or otherwise follow already-present rights of ways (ex. train lines, canals, etc.). The complex decisions associated with trying to accommodate cars in order to build a car-friendly city are ever-present, and become more interesting the deeper I dig.

As I continue to learn about this city that I call home now, I am drawn to the roads and the thoroughfares – maybe because of my close connection to them when I lived in Toronto.

(see a high quality map here: PDF, 9.8MB)

Edit – added a creative commons licence to the maps, as well as my name! 

160209 - Mid Canada Corridor Header
(As part of me learning German, I’m trying to practice writing. If you found this interesting, like it, and if you found any errors, feel free to comment!)

Der mid-Canada corridor ist eine sehr große Landschaft, zwischen den größten Städten Kanadas und der nördlichen Baumgrenze (the Boreal Treeline). Innerhalb dieser Region findet man viele natürliche Ressourcen rund um die kleinen Dörfer, gewaltigen Urwälder, Schützgebiete und Reservate.

160209 - Mid Canada Corridor

Aufgrund des Ressourcenreichtums, wurden 1971 Pläne für eine nachhaltige Regionalentwicklung vorgestellt. Es gab Entwicklungs- und Planungsprobleme, zum Beispiel: Wie könnte Entwicklung in dieser Region vorankommen, sodass Arbeiterdörfer nicht abhängig von der Bergbau- und Erdölindustrien sein werden? Schon damals kannte die kanadische Regierung das Problem der ‘Mining Ghost Towns’.

Die kanadische Regierung hatte aber nur wenig Interesse an den Pläne und sie gerieten fast in Vergessenheit. Hin und wieder werden die Pläne diskutiert wenn es um die Zukunft dieser nördlichen, ressourcenreichen Landschaft geht. So gibt es viele Probleme in einer Stadt wie Fort McMurray in Alberta, die Arbeiterhauptstadt der Oil-Sands-Industrie. Trotz des höchsten Einkommensdurchschnitts in Kanada sind die Bewohnern immer noch unzufrieden und nicht daran interresiert, dort zu bleiben. Jetzt gibt es auch wirtschaftliche Probleme. Wegen des niedrigen Ölpreises hat Alberta im letzten Jahr über 100.000 Arbeitsplätze verloren.

Ähnliche Herausforderungen existieren in Deutschland mit den kleinen Siedlungen und Dörfern, die für die Arbeiter gebaut wurden. Bekannte Beispiele sind unter anderem das Arbetierparadies in Halle-Neustadt, Teile von Leipzig und Dresden und die Städte des Ruhrgebietes. Im Ruhrgebiet wird aktuell diskutiert, wie die Städte attraktive gemacht werden können, damit mehr Menschen ins Ruhrgebiet ziehen. Nach mehereren Phasen starken ökonomischen Strukturwandels, verursacht durch züruckgegangene Nachfrage für Stahl und Kohl, sowie Deindustrialisierung, musste die Region etwas tun, um sich über Wasser zu halten. Hier war die Internationale Bauausstellung Emscher Park (IBA) gut für die Region. Sie brachte viele neue Ideen, neue Gebäude, Fahradwege, Parks und Einrichtungen, sowie Kulturindustrie der Industriekultur.

Obwohl die IBA einen gute Einfluss auf das Ruhrgebiet hatte, ist dieses Model nicht übertragbar auf den mid-Canada corridor – diese ist vielleicht zu unterschiedlich. Der Corridor ist immer noch wenig entwickelt, und viel größer als das Ruhrgebiet.

Riesige, wenig entwickelte Regionen sind typisch für Kanada. Viele neue Städte entstanden im Urwald oder auf der Tundra mit keiner oder weniger Verbindungen zur anderen Städten. Es ist ein modernes Problem. Wir haben die Werkzeuge, über unbewohntes Land zu fliegen. Wir studieren, entdecken und nutzen es für unsere ökonomischen Ideale. In vielerlei Hinsicht ist die Idee des mid-Canada corridors auch ein Stück Modernismus. Zusätzlich gibt es aktuelle Probleme auf Reservaten, wo Menschen wohnen mit schlechten Wassersystemen, ohne Strom und unter prekären Wohnsituationen. Der mid-Canada corridor hat noch viele Schwerigkeiten zwischen heute und dem schönen urbanischen Zukunftstraum.


Van Nostrand, J. (2014, September). If We Build It, They Will Stay. Walrus Magazine.

Grescoe, T. (2013, November). Big Mac. Walrus Magazine.

Hussain, Y. (2015, December). Oil industry to lose 100,000 jobs by the end of 2015 as policy uncertainties, low prices decimate sector. Financial Post.

151209 - BaukulturIn a lot of urban planning circles here in Germany, there is a new concept called Baukultur, which translates loosely to ‘a culture of building.’ The term is also linked with a state-funded foundation called the Bundesstiftung Baukultur (The Federal Foundation of Building Culture, founded in 2006). In their annual report (pdfs in Eng/Deu), the Foundation gives the following as a definition for Baukultur:

Baukultur aims at good planning and building. It combines a high design standard with a holistic view of social, economic, and environmental aspects, and thus has an emotional and aesthetic dimension. Baukultur is essential to produce an environment that is perceived as liveable. It serves to secure and develop the social and economic values thus created. Producing Baukultur is a social process based on a broad understanding of qualitative values and goals and their implementation with high levels of interdisciplinary expertise. Baukultur is the positive result of a good process culture.

What I gather so far is that Baukultur is a concept, which scholars and the foundation are trying to apply to the process of building construction. They give a few examples of where Baukultur could operate on the German page:

…Private Bauherren können für sich eine Basis für den lang­fristigen Werterhalt oder Wertzuwachs ihrer Investitionen schaffen. Die öffentliche Hand kann mit ihren Projekten zur Unverwechselbarkeit unserer Städte beitragen und damit lokal und national Identität stiften. Politiker können durch Initiativen Unzufriedenheitspotenzial aufnehmen und in produktive Bahnen lenken und auf diese Weise breite Zustimmung für Entwicklungen und Veränderungen erzielen…

(sketchy translation: Private building owners can create for themselves a foundation for the long-term preservation or increase of the worth of their investment. The public sector can contribute to the uniqueness of our cities with their projects and thus help create local and national identities. Politicians can make use of the potential power in people’s discontent, steer them in productive ways and in so doing, achieve broad approval for developments and changes.)

Baukultur and the Foundation seem to be tools to connect architecture with planning, civil engineering, development and other fields to create an interdisciplinary network promoting sustainable, good construction. The Foundation works largely from the public sector (being a federal foundation), connecting with outside actors in the building sectors.

There are some things however, that I found hard to understand, which I think says something about my perspective on planning and urbanism as a Canadian/North American.

First of all, I am not used to (a certain type of) aesthetics being such an important part of planning over and above other more function-based considerations. In the case of this Baukultur report, a survey was conducted asking city planning departments what were the most important criteria to the concept of Baukultur. Most said that aesthetics (94.7%), local identity (93.0%), maintenance of worthy building stock (91.7%), and craftsmanship (84.7%) were most important, while fewer said sustainability (77.7%) stakeholder consensus (56.9%), consideration of social issues (50.0%) and adaptability (44.8%) were important. This is shocking to me, as city planning departments (from my limited experience) in Canada would likely focus more on the latter goals.

What I also found strange was that there is no ‘public’ in these definitions. The concept seems generally to be geared towards those in power and those who may be in charge of the construction of the city rather than the people who are to live in the city. As I read through the pages and report, I see that there is a general theme: that good buildings and structures will be the cause of better, more satisfied lives. I think this is somehow a dangerous path to tread if it is not in combination with stakeholder agreement and attention to wider social problems that may actually be solved with less construction.

Still, there is some mention of the importance of giving the public a say in the building process. In Germany I have heard of the so-called Phase-Zero, a term that refers to the first part of a building’s construction. It is a time when stakeholders have the most power to impact the design of a structure. Conversely, Phase-Ten is a phase where stakeholders can provide recommendations and judgement on the quality of a finished work. Both of these concepts are given space in the Report.

Beyond this, there were many other things that I found really wonderful that are often missing from the Canadian planning discourse. For example, there is a whole section on the importance of energy-saving, renewables and building construction. The nice thing is that the report and the Institute are making a case for interdisciplinary cooperation between planners, designers, city officials and the building trades. They mention many examples of where urban energy policies affect the built form of a city and, in turn, colour public opinion. This is particularly true in the choice of building materials and the construction of the facade.

The mention of conflict is also a refreshing turn (instead of the celebration of planning/architectural successes). With surveys and percentages, the report provides many examples of where planning and building policy is leading to possible conflict. Densification of urban centers was one conflict area, as well as gentrification, increasing public engagement efforts, aging populations, increasing privatization and the growth of shopping malls throughout Germany. Although they do not provide solutions, it was nice to see a somewhat frank discussion of these problems, especially since the audience of this work is so broad.

Finally the mention of the internet’s role in altering a city’s built form was definitely interesting to read. There is a section talking about the possible conflicts arising from increasing use of the internet for commerce and communication. Questions arising from lower interest in ‘brick-and-mortar’ style shopping and the increasing communication about the city through the internet were concepts that the report deemed important for their multidisciplinary audience. This was also refreshing to read as I think many Canadian planning publications and thought have shied away from wading into those waters.

As I read more and more, I am finding situations where the European planning world is simultaneously far behind and way ahead of the Canadian or North American planning world. The idea of Baukultur is something that I feel is definitely a step forward for planning theory, but I will want to keep a skeptical eye on it towards the future.


*[Visualizing Urban Futures. (n.d.). Retrieved May 27, 2016, from



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