onkel tomBerlin town planning with a purpose

Some homecoming.  For a week we explored the most exciting city in Europe. We rode trains, trams and buses to the centre and one sunny day we took the train in the other direction to discover the public housing estate that was inspired by Britain’s first garden cities. We marvelled at the plain good sense of building a housing estate on a train line. What a pity Edinburgh lacks that kind of civic imagination. Or generosity even. You’ll have had your tram Leith?

On the outskirts of Berlin, we walked through autumn trees to see an estate that houses 15,000 people.  Onkel Toms Hutte, designed almost 100 years ago by Bruno Haut and Hugo Haring, could almost be a council estate in Britain if it wasn’t for the bright colours and gardens of mature trees softening, screening and separating the blocks of houses and flats. No litter on the ground. No shutters on the shops either.


But the best part is that these houses are not cut off from the rest of Berlin. Unlike the bleak housing estates that ring almost every British city, Onkel Toms Hutte is connected by a public transport system that really works.

U bahn trains run every five minutes taking people to work, study, play or shop in the city centre. Or just mooch about as we did, wandering from the Bauhaus to the Botanics, going to the theatre and art galleries, rummaging in shops, talking politics in the bar; blurring the line between East and West Berlin.  We could get from the quiet suburb where we were staying with friends into Alexander Platz (a distance of maybe 10 miles, Berlin is a big city) in just over 30 minutes and our tickets could be used on buses and trams too.

Ah, trams.  The point about trams which often seems overlooked in Edinburgh is that they are designed for growing populations in crowded urban environments; they carry more people than buses, they speed through the traffic.  In short, they are fast. Leith Walk is long and congested with buses as well as cars. Sometimes buses sit nose to tail and at rush hour they crawl, crammed with people.  Adding more buses will increase congestion without  solving the transport problem. Leith needs the tram.

I am glad to find the Caledonian Mercury politics writer, Hamish Macdonell, urging city leaders to find the brains and balls to complete the tram line so that it runs as intended from Newhaven to the airport. It’s not exactly the Utopian vision of the early garden city planners but its a hell of a lot better than the council’s present cowardly cop-out.

ampelmannGreen ‘ampelmann’ says go in Berlin