LA Study Tour with Jack
Berlin Urban History
by Lee Jennings


Berlin is a city known for its ability to continually change. Berlin's status as a center for European culture, politics, and media has come and gone and come again. The city has an interesting and unique history both before and after the construction and fall of the famous Berlin Wall.

Medieval City

Throughout early history, the area known as Berlin contained small fishing and farming villages populated by Slavic, Saxon, Wend, and Ascanian peoples. The first written mention of Berlin occurred in 1244. Along with its sister city, Colln, located on the opposite bank of the river Spree, the area grew to 8,000 in habitants by 1400. Very little is left of this ancient settlement, but the St. Nicholas Quarter ( Nikolaiviertel) reconstructs the historical heart of these sister cities.

Berlin and Colln 1237
Source: Uber Maps Berlin

Prussian Capital

In 1415, Fredrick I represented the area in the Holy Roman Empire and in 1440 his son Fredrick II established Berlin as the capital of the region and his successors eventually established Berlin as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire. This royal family, known as the Hohenzollern family, ruled the area until 1918 when the Weimar Republic came to power at the end of World War I.

Berlin 1650 (Source: Uber Maps Berlin)

Throughout the 17 th -19 th century Berlin developed as a center of enlightenment and tolerance. Fredrick William, known as the “Great Elector,” promoted policies to re-populate the city after half of the population was lost during the 30 Years War (1618-1648). He offered asylum to French Huguenots (Protestants) and encouraged immigration from Poland and Bohemia. By 1700, approximately 20% of Berlin's residents were French, which had an important impact on the culture of the city. Many immigrants were skilled workers who contributed to the country's technical and industrial base.

In 1740, Friedrich II, known as “Frederick the Great” (1740-1786) came to power. Fredrick the great was known as a ‘philosopher on the throne' who interacted with important figures such as Voltaire and Kant. During his rule, important buildings for the arts were constructed in Berlin and Potsdam including the Berlin State Opera, the Royal Library (now the State Library of Berlin), and Sanssouci Palace.

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Map of Berlin 1650-1890 (Source: Uber Maps Berlin)

Industrialization and Rapid Growth

During the Industrial Revolution, the city's economy and population expanded, and Berlin became an important transportation and trade hub. The population grew from 322,000 in 1840 to 1,122,000 in 1880. During this time the city also expanded in size as several outlying suburbs were incorporated into the city.

As Berlin grew to become the largest industrial city in Germany, leaders recognized the need for urban planning. The Hobrecht Plan of 1862 prescribed the street layout for future growth, which included housing blocks of approximately the same size without right angles and orbital distributor roads to connect to main radial roads. This plan led to very dense development especially in the city's core and providedregular open spaces and public squares.

The Hobrecht Plan of 1862
(Source: Bodenschatz, Harald, "Platz für das neue Berlin - Geschichte der Stadterneuerung seit 1871", Berlin 1987, Transit Buchverlag, page 54)

Several important architectural and landscape projects also occurred during this time:

  • 1647- Unter den Linden . A boulevard with six rows of trees between the Tiergarten Park and the Palace.
  • 1791- Brandenburg Gate. Commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II as a sign of peace.
  • 1894- the Reichstag parliament building was completed.

Peter Joseph Lenné (1816-1886) played an important role in the city's landscape during this period. While Lenné is largely known for his work on Tiergarten Park and the Sanssouci Garden's, he also designed urban parks, canals and open space systems such as the Luisenstaedtischer Canal in 1843.

Luisenstaedtischer Canal System designed by Lenné. (Source: Luisenstädtischer Kanal

Today, the canal system has been mostly filled in and replaced with a greenway.

Luisenstaedtischer Canal Greenway 2008  

Greater Berlin Act and Cultural Peak

Further expansion occurred following World War I when the Greater Berlin Act brought together more suburbs and rural communities. The Act increased the area of Berlin thirteen-fold to 883 square kilometers. This area with a population of nearly 4 million was then divided into 20 boroughs, which allowed for efficient town planning and provided an important foundation for Berlin's rise as a cultural center in the early 20th century.

Expansion of Berlin as a result of the Greater Berlin Act is shown in red. (Source: Uber Berlin Maps)

By 1922 Berlin was the second biggest inland harbor in the world with an extensive electric railway system called the S-Bahn that connected Berlin to neighboring cities and villages. During the 1920's, Berlin reached a cultural peak with a rich salon and coffee house culture that included famous architects, scientists, and writers such as Albert Einstein, Walter Gropius, and Bertolt Brecht. Friedrichstrasse became a vibrant shopping street during the Roaring 20's.

Friedrichstrassee and Under den Linden 1910 (Source: Friedrichstrasse and Under den Linden 1910 Source: (Historic Postcard) )

WWII-The Cold War

Following the Great Depression, the German economy suffered and the Nazi party came to power. Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and over the following ten years destroyed Berlin's Jewish community, reducing it from 160,000 to 1200 people.

Thirty-three percent of Berlin was destroyed by the WWII. As part of the peace agreement, the city was divided into four sectors that largely followed the boundaries of the 20 boroughs defined earlier in the century. The French, British, and American sectors became West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. East Berlin was home to the most historic areas of the city and continued as the capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). West Berlin was physically separated from the rest of West Germany, and the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany was moved to Bonn. In 1961 a wall was built to prevent passage between the two German states. In 1989 the wall came down and by 1990 the two German states reunited and Berlin was reinstated as the capital of the unified country.

The four sectors of Berlin following WWII. (Source: Wikipedia:Occupied_Berlin.svg )
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Berlin 1943 (Source: Uber Berlin Maps)

After the Wall

Following the reunification of East and West Berlin, the German Bundestag (national parliament) voted to relocate the capital back to Berlin. In 1999, the Bundestag sat for their first meeting in the restored Reichstag building, designed by Sir Norman Foster. The new glass dome of the Reichstag became a symbol for the democratic republic which along with the adjacent new government district on the bank of the Spree River was one of several important development projects during the 1990's. The redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz was another major project that bridged the eastern and western parts of the city and showcased new ideas in architecture and urban design. Potsdamer Platz is a popular tourist destination, but it has been the subject of criticism because the land was sold by the government to four large investors including Sony and DaimlerChrysler which resulted in the construction of a very commercial environment. (Please see other course web sites for more information on these two areas).

Government District Potsdamer Platz

Despite the boom in construction, the unified city has faced economic problems including an unemployment rate of 19.4%. In 2001, Berlin borough reform reduced the number of boroughs from 23 to 12 to make management of the city more cost effective. Boroughs continue to play an important role in the city as each has its own unique character and Berliner's often identify more with their borough than with the city as a whole. With a current population of 3.5 million, the city has less people than it did before WWII. However, the population is growing as Soviet immigrants and young European creative professionals are moving to the city to enjoy the vibrant cultural life, innovative urban design, high quality of life and low cost of living. Tourism is also a major industry in Berlin because of the interesting history and architecture, the 2,500 parks and green spaces, and the nightlife.

The population of Berlin peaked before WWII. ( Source:Wikipedia: Image: Berlin Einwohnerentwicklung 1880 2006.jpg)


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Berlin 2007 (Source Uber Berlin Maps)


Bernet, C. 2004. The ‘Hobrecht Plan' (1862) and Berlin's urban structure. Urban History(31), 440-419.

Hartel, C. 2006. Berlin: A short history. Bebra verlag. Berlin.

Marcuse, P. 1998 Reflections on Berlin: The Meaning of Construction and the Construction of Meaning International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 22 (2) , 331–338 doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00143

Berlin History. (accessed February 16, 2008)

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The Berlin Cityscape – an outline of Berlin's open space system . (accessed February 16, 2008 )