I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.
But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.
The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.
On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle
At the end of April in Berlin, I met an older couple. The man and woman were both in their late fifties or early sixties. At around midnight, they were going to a club.
The 28th of April in Germany is Die Lange Nacht der Opern und Theater, ‘The Long Night of Opera and Theatre’. In every major city, all opera and theatre houses participate in a program designed to showcase the wealth of the performing arts in town. From 4pm until late, there are performances, lectures and demonstrations, concerts, readings, cabaret, excerpts from renowned productions, all reduced to short segments so that the audience can visit multiple institutions in one night. A 15 euro ticket gives you access to each and every event on the hefty program. There are shuttle buses and recommended routes.
We had just come out of an excerpt from an award-winning play at Maxim Gorki Theater, in the city centre. We’d cycled in and were now unchaining our bikes. As we discussed how best to get to our next destination, we struck up a conversation with the aforementioned couple, whose bikes were parked next to ours. They recommended a satire on Angela Merkel, playing at Kabarett Theater Distel. They were about to ride their bikes to the Komische Oper down the road for an educational lecture on ballet’s development from classical to contemporary. Afterwards, “they might catch us later” at the closing party, which started at midnight at the Volksbuehne, about 2km to the north-east.
A city is a feedback loop, relatively rigid. Living in one, it is all too easy to take the whole lot for granted, and very hard to make considered comparisons with another. I had been in Berlin for two months and had long stopped marvelling at the late opening hours of everything, from theatres to newsagents, the preponderance of bike lanes and cyclists, the respect for classical arts and culture. But this encounter moved me, because it suddenly seemed to encompass everything that Europe offered to an elderly urban dweller, and that which Australian cities have largely failed at.
Everything about this encounter would have been unthinkable in Melbourne or Sydney. Not because we are an evil people who want to limit lifestyle opportunities for the aged, but because we have not paid enough attention to avoid doing so. No Australian has ever voted to live in a country in which older citizens would not be able to ride their bikes around the inner city, from theatre to opera. We have never actively decided that our cities should be unpleasant late at night, or that nightlife must largely be limited to the young, the drunk, the loud, the occasionally violent. When did we decide to put our residential areas so far out of the city (while limiting night public transport) that being out at midnight would be an exceptional event? Did we ever decide that the elderly, once they stopped driving, should be confined to their homes? Not really. And yet, nonetheless, this is how we have shaped our cities to be.
What were the structural preconditions that allowed for that older German couple to be out dancing all night? Firstly, there needed to be a culture of late-night living robust enough for the events to be programmed in the first place. There needed to be enough people who could be out until late, who could get home easily at 2, 3, or 4am; people who lived in or within close distance of the urban core, at significant densities. In other words, there needed to be apartments. The apartments needed to come in a variety of designs, to house a demographic variety: enough young people to create demand for a club night at the Volksbuehne, but also enough old people that our elderly couple would not feel like the club night was off-limits to them. For those living slightly further away, there had to be all-night public transport, running at 30-minute intervals (at the very worst), with room for bikes. Berlin could have been a much bigger city, but without a big population within easy reach of the city centre, this event would have had no audience. Then there had to be a walkable city centre, making it possible to move between all those theatres and operas – otherwise there would be no experience of a larger event, and no ability to move between them at an exciting enough pace. There had to be footpaths to get people between the institutions at short distances, bike paths for the longer distances, and regular shuttle buses for the longest.
At 2am, Rosa-Luxemburg Platz in former East Berlin was bustling. Some of the vehicular lanes that cut through the pedestrian part of the square were closed to cars, with benches and tables laid out in front. There was a bar and food stalls, geared up to stay open all night. There was no fenced-off drinking area: people were sitting on the grass and theatre steps, milling through the neighbourhood, with open beer bottles. There was both police and private security, but nobody was ‘carding’, queuing, body-searching or manhandling anyone. Inside, the foyer of the theatre had been turned into a bar, and the stage into a dance floor. We didn’t find our elderly older couple (too crowded!), but we saw plenty of others: the dance floor belonged exclusively to the under-25s and the over-55s. Outside, it was impossible to find a single piece of iron attached to the ground that wasn’t already bending under the weight of eight or more bikes chained to it. There was no significant vehicular traffic, however, and not a single ad hoc carpark. At 3am, nobody was getting particularly violent. Instead, we were tasting the many types of sausage on offer at the tiny stall, spotting friends and meeting affable theatre tourists from Poland.
The Volksbuehne is one of Berlin’s most splendid old theatres. Sitting on the grass outside the Volksbuehne with a beer and a pretzel, I was struck by a thought. If somehow this place was teleported wholesale into the centre of Melbourne, it would instantaneously have created one large criminal event. Almost everything about it was illegal under Australian planning. In Melbourne, it would need fences, identification and parking provisions as the bare minimal preconditions. There would be no drinking outside fenced-off areas and likely, no food after about 9pm. The entire event would be ‘managed’, so to speak, by professional forces of security (probably without requisite training in the etiquette of hospitality). As in so many mass events in Australia, most people would simply expect a situation characterised by a high level of discomfort, unpleasantness and irritation. Is it any wonder, then, that elderly couples in Australia do not even entertain the thought that they might ride their bikes to a disco night at midnight?
A city is only as good as the quality of life it can offer to its weakest residents: the young and the elderly, the poor and the infirm. As Gil Penalosa, executive director of Toronto-based 8-80 Cities points out, 8 and 80-year-olds are a litmus test of how well a city works for everyone else. “We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years-old and athletic,” he said to The Atlantic Cities – not because we need to disadvantage our 30-year-old fit citizens, but because our cities are not specifically built for them either. For a long time, Australian (and American, Canadian or British) cities have been built without particularly taking into accounts the ‘soft’, social and health and leisure needs of anyone, making cities into relatively harsh environments that only the fittest can scale without problems.
Even though Australia is one of the most prosperous, peaceful and orderly countries on the planet, we still do not think of our cities as systems for facilitating a good life for all. We mostly think of them as sites for tourism, commerce, economic infrastructure, clusters of jobs and industries, as demographic disasters, as necessary evils. This becomes particularly apparent when one tries to make them better.
No particular characteristic of Berlin has single-handedly made it a good environment for an elderly lady on a bike. It’s not just the residential density, nor the good street lighting; the wide bike and foot paths, nor long opening hours of food shops. Rather, it’s the sum of all these things, a system that has taken a century to build, and will continue to take centuries to manage, preserve, and adapt as lifestyles change. A century of asking the questions: how can we improve the quality of life in our city? What’s the best thing to do? Instead, the questions we ask in Australia tend along these lines: how can we solve the most pressing problem with minimum complication? What is the least we can do to maximum effect? How can we prove that we are spending money wisely?
A consequence of such thinking is that every design measure needs to be proven effective before it can be advocated for, through expensive research and limited application trials. One would need to spend three years demonstrating that wider bike paths would save cyclist lives by a certain coefficient; one would then need to draw a decisive link between opera at midnight and improved life satisfaction in the elderly, and link it to healthcare savings in hard dollars. Someone would interview a thousand 55-year-olds about how much they go to the theatre; finding the percentage negligible they would argue that the cost would only benefit a marginal population. Meanwhile, a tabloid columnist would deride the whole idea as a waste of taxpayers’ money for lazy artists and the politicians would tread carefully around committing to such an elitist measure. In the end, the city might get bike paths, but not enough inner-city densification – effectively creating infrastructure suitable only for long-distance commuter cycling; or a public health campaign to encourage people to walk one day a year. The elderly might move to the relatively few dwellings in the inner city of their own accord, only to find themselves without decent access to supermarkets, community or health facilities and labelled as gentrifiers and opponents to inner-city vibrancy.
The funny thing about professional urban planners is that they are enamoured of nice policies: a packet of measures proven to achieve clearly defined goals. Architects and urban designers, on the other hand, sometimes appear to believe that a beautiful building or ‘precinct’ will solve all of our problems. Cycling officers focus on creating a network of bike paths, without necessarily thinking about what or where a person might want to cycle to. Yet, cities are systems of built environment and also – a corresponding way of life. We would do better to focus less on the separate elements of our cities and to focus more on the kind of city we want to live in. I, for one, want to live in a city where I will often have midnight chats with elderly couples on bikes, regardless of whether they are going to a rave, to the opera, or both.