What Makes a City Liveable?

I have never been to Berlin before, although I have been to Germany several times, and if I thought about it at all, I suppose I expected a rather “monumental” and forbidding Germanic landscape.

I was wrong. This is first and foremost a livable city.

We spent time today doing the usual touristy things: the bus tour with running commentary in several languages, the obligatory looks at famous landmarks–I even bought a sweatshirt at Checkpoint Charlie (it was cold!) But the real highpoint of our too-short visit was the experience of walking around the neighborhood of our hotel.

We walked to a restaurant several blocks away that had been recommended by our son (aka the Tech God). He has been everywhere, and his restaurant recommendations are always flawless-he’s a real foodie. We strolled through streets lined with 4 and 5 story apartment buildings, a mix of restorations and new construction. There were pocket parks everywhere, with children on swings and slides, young people playing table tennis (and in one case, older men playing bocce ball). Bikes were everywhere–and Berlin has the same bike-share/rental that we’ve seen elsewhere. At street level, there was cafe after art gallery (dozens of them, as we are in the arts/gallery district) after retail shop after grocery market after “wein cafe”–all at small, human scale, and all very inviting.

Berlin has an enormous amount of green space–large urban parks and the ubiquitous small “pocket” parks. What it doesn’t have is the monotony of the US suburbs. There were no quarter-acre lots with grass; instead, there were flowerpots and small potted trees on balconies–and the density that makes all of the wonderful urban amenities sustainable.

Once again, mass transit was evident everywhere. The subway, we are told, runs on minute and a half headways. Buses are everywhere. There are plenty of cars and bicycles, of course, but you can get anywhere in short order on public transit.

What really impressed me was the general attention to quality–beautiful windows and doors, etc., rather than the large, poor quality construction that characterizes so many of America’s “McMansions.” (Contrary to what all those “make yours bigger” emails we all get, size ISN’T everything.)

Finally, we remarked upon the sophistication that comes with diversity; as our waiter tonight noted with pride, Berlin is a truly international city–home, he assured us, to over 250 nationalities.

There are remarkable museums and fantastic architecture here, but it is the scale and variety of the built environment, the prevalence of the art and music, and the investment in infrastructure that makes this so livable-and delightful.

If we Americans weren’t so smugly convinced that we know everything we need to know and that we are “exceptional” (in the good sense), we could learn a lot from cities like Berlin.