Berlin and Public Space…

I’d like to write a bit about Berliner and their use of public spaces. As and architecture student, I am very interested in how the general population interacts with spaces, private, public and transitional. I would assume that this interaction varies depending on culture. In the US we have specific views on the uses of space and what types of behavior is permitted where. These views are deeply tied into the ownership of property and conventions of civic responsibility. For instance, the US has rather strict laws about public intoxication or the types of clothing worn in public. While these change depending on location, laws definitely contribute to behavior in public space. And then there are the informal rule which dictate behavior in public space, such as picking up after your dog(this may be a law too, I’m not sure), using your ‘indoor’ or ‘outdoor’ voice, and being generally respectful of others These standards of behavior come from our culture and are taught to us by our parents, teachers, siblings, friends. Though our culture in the US has many similarities to the culture of Germany, there may be some small differences when it comes to the use of and behavior in public space.

This topic was prompted by our 3 week check in dinner. Everyone in our group gathered in one of the largest public parks in Berlin to catch up and eat pizza. I had an fantastic time in the park and I am clearly still thinking about it. the park itself consists of a long narrow stretch of land, still wide enough to fit a football field. I heard someone mention that it was once the airfield used to bring supplies into West Berlin when the wall was still up. I don’t remember who said that so don’t quote me on that. This explanation would make sense considering the newer style of the park. Wide paved trails crisscross the area forming angular shapes of grass large enough for pickup soccer games. Several bridges also crossed the space carrying the elevated trains common to the city. If indeed the park was an airfield, I doubt the trains were there at the time. Young trees line the walk ways and here and there exposed wooden pier-like structures give way into swaths of sand and industrial steel walkways. It is a different type of park than Schenely or Frick in Pittsburgh, and certainly different from Central Park. Those parks are all curving paths, artificial hills and strategically placed boulders trying too hard to be perfectly natural. Not so here. This park is an intentional collision of the urban and the natural. And the Berliners love it.

I arrived before 7 pm and the park was packed. Bicyclists, skate boarders, roller bladers and joggers sped along the paths with the type of zeal which only accompanies a bright and balmy afternoon. Groups of friends and families lounged on benches and blankets spread in the grass. Teens kicked soccer balls around and elderly couples strolled with their little dogs. The scene seemed to come strait from a travel show documenting the culture and atmosphere of Berlin. And it was not so foreign to me at all. The atmosphere was similar to that of Schenely Plaza on a Friday afternoon. I quickly took advantage of what the park had to offer, testing out the public ping-pong tables made of stone and metal, skating around on a penny board and attempting a game of badminton. Our group finished out the night  by playing a rousing game of volleyball in the sand courts at the end of the park. We did end up having to rent the court, but 18 Euros split between 12 people is definitely worth an hour on the court.

Most of the behavior I saw in the park was to be expected, but some of it was very different from what I have encountered at home. Here in Germany, drinking alcohol in public is permitted and I saw many bottles of wine and beer among the picnic-ers. I had noticed this drinking in public before, on the subway, where it technically isn’t allowed, on doors stoops and just with ambling groups of pedestrians. Though I had seen many people drinking in public, I had yet to see anyone really incapacitated from alcohol, even late at night. Maybe the stereotype of Americans drinking excessively and the behaving poorly was well founded.

Another behavior I have noticed concerns dogs. There are many dogs here in Berlin and all of those i have seen have been pets, not strays. Usually their are not on a leash, though I have been told that there are leash laws which no one enforces. Dogs are allowed in restaurants and on the subway and they are generally extremely well behaved. They roam the sidewalk ahead of or behind their owners, carefully avoiding the road. Some wander, sniffing strangers and some stick close to their owners. In the park, many were running and playing fetch even though their was a fenced off portion specifically for dogs. This dog behavior is a sharp contrast to the dog related etiquette I am accustomed to. In the US, dogs are kept securely on leashed and if you dog should approach a stranger, or heaven forbid, jump on them, it would be a poor reflection on you as an owner. Keeping your dog under control in the US seems to be a courtesy to those allergic or afraid of dogs. I don’t get that sense here. It seems like Germans expect you to avoid dogs in public spaces if you song like them, there is little responsibility on the part of the owner. Despite this, German dogs seen in finely better trained than their american counterparts in general, though there are always exceptions. German dogs don’t or get excited, and they rarely bark or growl. Maybe the freedom of being leash-less helps keep them mellow. Or maybe there is an cultural expectation that an owner should train their dog and train them well.

Back to the concept of public space. I suspect that this enthusiastic use of public space here has something to do with the layout of the city. Berlin was mostly leveled during World War II and the resulting buildings are mostly large perimeter block of around 6 stories with relatively uniform facades and interior courtyard. Few people have yards so the public parks are likely their only access to grass. As for the interior courtyards, I get the feeling that they are still rather private, used for quiet time or entertaining small quiet visitors. I am willing to bet that anything involving shouting, playing or being boisterous happens in a park. It seems to me that the apartment-bound Berliners use the public parks as an extension of their living space.

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