On the edge— Berlin


The word “suburban” isn’t usually a compliment, but not all suburbs are created equal. Wannsee, at the edge of Berlin, enjoys high quality of life and surprising diversity, due to both idyllic geography and centuries of accidentally advantageous geopolitics.

Housing, Society, Suburbs, Transport

Suburbs evolve in different ways. Some, like Levittown on New York’s Long Island, are mass-produced experiments in affordable housing. Others are random urban overspill, like outside any Chinese city. There are exclusive but boring gated communities; low-income, densely populated housing projects on the periphery or simply the nondescript interstitial zones that the Pet Shop Boys once sang about in the 1980s song “Suburbia”. Most get a bad rap.

But while a good suburb is hard to find, some do offer personality: a quality of life that may not be…

  • Oak Park, Chicago Few suburbs attract architecture buffs like Oak Park in Chicago’s west. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first 20 years of his career here and completed 25 projects in the area.

  • Tapiola, Helsinki After the Second World War a non-profit enterprise called Asuntosäätiö (the Housing Foundation) bought 660 acres of forestland to develop into the perfect modernist garden city.

  • Hampstead Garden, London The rows of ivy covered houses, are often cited as pinnacles of early 20th century domestic architecture.

  • Echo Park, LA Before the US film industry moved to Hollywood, it used to call Echo Park home. It has become one of the stars in a city that’s almost entirely suburban.

  • Ladugårdsgärdet, Stockholm A chic, leafy suburb built in the late 1930s by a group of Swedish modernists. Functionalist apartments are set around the green vistas of the central Tessinparken.

Defending the suburb

Suburbs often get a bad press from urban thinkers. The arguments are simple: dense neighbourhoods in the core of the city require fewer services than sparsely populated places on the fringes. Suburbs force the fools who choose to live in them to be car-dependent. The fact that the people who tend to live in suburbs are, well, a bit suburban, also fails to endear them. But the fact is we can’t all live in the Marais or Nolita and at least the suburbs are denser than rural idylls. We need to make the ones that work prosper and encourage a culture of local stores and delivery services. Zoning laws should also be used to encourage small businesses to set up in the suburbs, stopping them being dormitory places. We also need to understand why suburbs continue to be built: some people like being close to the city but also desire space and greenery. Urban pontificators need to get over their prejudices.


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