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The urban expansion of Berlin, 1862–1900: Hobrecht’s Plan


Felix Bentlin

Technical University Berlin, Institute for Urban Design and Urban Development, Berlin, DE
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This paper investigates the original intentions and modifications of Berlin’s 19th-century urban development plan, particularly the different spatial configurations at the local level. The creation, adaptation and long-term impacts of the Hobrecht Plan of Berlin are assessed for urban design and planning principles used for urban expansion between 1862 and 1900. The 1862 ‘Development Plan for the Environs of Berlin’ represents a cornerstone on which the inner city is built even to this day. Morphological analyses are used to describe design parameters and the associated design principles. The origins of ideas, spatial development and planning statements are examined in relation to each other based on written and drawn archival materials together with geographical information system-based plan analysis. Individual district plans and explanatory reports provide a basis for alternative interpretations of Hobrecht’s Berlin in 19th-century urban expansion planning. The example of Berlin illustrates the emergence and transition of 19th-century urban structures, as well as the design principles underpinning morphological aspects of street networks, public space systems and block patterns. This analysis serves as a reference in the history of European planning paradigms and urban planning models in general. It highlights the contribution of small-scale urban development with a focus on squares and local patterns.


Practice relevance

This study of the planning principles for public spaces and the specific urban design characteristics provides insights into the origins of the planning discipline, the structure of master plans, and processes of formation and transformation in urban neighbourhoods. A combination of city-wide and small-scale district approaches were used to plan Berlin’s expansion. This historical analysis shows that planning and schematic designs without state regulation compromised urban planning ideas and necessary planning parameters. The dependence on free market mechanisms lacked minimum standards and regulatory restrictions on building density. Small-scale urban designs were created to accommodate urban growth. Lessons on the balance and trade-offs between free market and regulated approaches to urban design are applicable to the expansion of cities today. Street patterns, block size, public green spaces (squares, boulevards, parks), building height and density require careful control and distribution. Failure to do so often results in poor urban conditions.

How to Cite: Bentlin, F. (2023). The urban expansion of Berlin, 1862–1900: Hobrecht’s Plan. Buildings and Cities, 4(1), 36–54. DOI:
  Published on 05 Jan 2023
 Accepted on 14 Dec 2022            Submitted on 11 Apr 2022

1. Introduction

The Commissioners’ grid of New York, Ildefons Cerdà’s Barcelona blocks in Eixample, and Baron Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards are prime examples of how urban planning units play an important role in mediating between the private and public realms. The 160-year-old urban structures in Berlin’s urban expansion of 1862 in particular—known as Hobrecht’s Berlin1—illustrate fundamental and pioneering planning decisions in growing cities.

The original plans from the Commission for the Elaboration of Development Plans for Berlin and its Environs (Commissarium zur Ausarbeitung der Bebauungspläne für die Umgebung Berlins)2 under James Hobrecht (1825–1902) and his assistant, Gustav Assmann (1825–95),3 between 1859 and 1862 are influential on the present city. These plans distributed the neighbourhood square as an inner-city orientation point. These squares provide a neighbourhood-centred area—and thus act as a structuring and connecting element across the urban expansion area. These open spaces within mixed-use blocks still characterise the image of the inner city today. Together with the wide tree-lined streets, these local centres of everyday life, small spaces of identification and multifaceted urban spaces are based on the work of the 1862 Commission. Although the perception of Berlin has undoubtedly come to include later Wilhelminian urban squares, boulevards and backyards as the settings of Berlin life, the original urban plans are seldom taken into account when tackling the urban growth of the present.

In the context of scholarship, the Berlin plans were hardly considered for a long time. In the past, they were classified by representatives of urban modernism as a negative example of socially blind adaptation planning, whose spatial realisation as a symbol of a dense tenement city should be eliminated. Today, Ferdinand Boehm’s general map of what are referred to as the Hobrecht district plans of 25 April 1862 (Figure 1) is itself idealised and equated to lively inner-city neighbourhoods. In the context of the debate surrounding urban planning in Berlin, the Wilhelminian city is perceived positively and understood as an important characteristic of Berlin (Stimman 1997: 17–18; Düwel & Gutschow 2005; Bodenschatz 2010; Bodenschatz & Flierl 2010).

(a) The Hobrecht Plan, originally called ‘Development Plan for the Environs of Berlin’ and approved in 1862; and (b) superimposition of the final revised 1900 plan on today’s Berlin
Figure 1 

(a) The Hobrecht Plan, originally called ‘Development Plan for the Environs of Berlin’ and approved in 1862; and (b) superimposition of the final revised 1900 plan on today’s Berlin.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin and Geoportal Berlin Orthophoto 2020 (TrueDOP20RGB).

This paper investigates the original intentions and modifications of the development plan based on the genesis of Berlin’s 19th-century urban structures. It addresses which different spatial configurations shape the connections between private and public spaces. In doing so, it traces their historical conceptualisation. The history of Berlin’s urban expansion of 1862 illustrates that unhealthy living conditions and a lack of open spaces can rarely be remodelled after they are built. Therefore, design principles of streets, blocks and squares in metropolitan areas are contextualised for the present urban environment, ensuring the famous Berlin mixed development system (Berliner Mischung) with contradictory land-use requirements for affordable housing and productive activities.

Geographical information system (GIS)-based tracing of the hand-drawn plan is used to analyse the urban design transformation processes over several decades.4 This examination of Berlin’s urban expansion presents new perspectives on urban structures in the years of revision up to 1900. The analyses also shed light on how master plans formulate long-term strategies to address complexity, adaptability and flexibility. The work of the Commission did not develop formalistic urban planning figurations. Instead, for the first time in Berlin’s planning history, elaborated comprehensive design strategies as adaptable motifs of urban planning to scale. The set of district plans from 1862 was designed from the very beginning to be adaptable to changing demands or changing requirements in the future. As the image of a representative urban space transformed into a reproducible urban system, functional design and planning principles emerged as a consequence of political, legal and economic transformation processes initiated by the Commission from 1859 onward (Bentlin 2018a, 2018b).

This study of the planning principles for public spaces and the specific urban design characteristics can provide important insights into the origins of the planning discipline, the structure of master plans, and processes of formation and transformation in urban neighbourhoods. The research reveals answers to several questions: How were streets, blocks, and squares planned in Berlin? How were they conceived by planners? This article shows the characteristic combination of city-wide and small-scale planning approaches, which are evaluated as a contribution to the underlying foundations of the urban planning discipline.

2. Fundamentals of the Berlin growth framework

Nineteenth-century urban design often serves as a reference point for how urban quarters are conceived not only in Berlin but also in other European metropolises. Focus is often placed on reconnecting residential, recreational and commercial uses, reducing car traffic, and developing public space on a human scale to create vibrant, liveable and sustainable urban areas (Gehl 2011; Jacobs 1993). In many cases, historical examples serve as a leitmotif for urban planning efforts toward perimeter block development and public squares, as is the case of the New Urbanism movement (Grant 2002; Hebbert 2003). Shorter commuting times, livelier urban atmospheres, social mixing and a distribution of uses throughout the day are cited as advantages of this urban configuration (Grant 2002; Hirt 2007; Jacobs 1993). In addition, the global experiences of the pandemic, climate change, the mobility revolution and digitalisation are refocusing attention on the neighbourhood. Spatial models of urban development based on polycentricity, mixed use and multi-coding are increasingly characterised by a stronger focus on the neighbourhood and open spaces close to the residential environment (Bentlin et al. 2021). As a result, urban planning issues are again moving to the centre of integrated research on the character and value of historical neighbourhood structures, as illustrated by Vertovec (2021) asking how historical and current dynamics are related to structures of spatial and social polarisation.

Around 1900, Berlin was the fourth largest city of the world by population (Figure 2), growing from a typical monocentric fortress town and capital of the Kingdom of Prussia to a polycentric metropolis and capital of the German Empire (Figure 3). Berlin’s urban arterial roads in particular—the former ‘Chausses’—still link the inner city with a multitude of urban neighbourhoods (Figure 1 and 5). During the course of industrialisation and the relocation of large industries to the outskirts of the city that followed (Geist & Kürvers 1980: 179ff.), industrial and residential centres emerged along the Spree River and the city’s canal system. Between the mid-19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, world-class production and technology sites were built, with architectural mixed-use ensembles producing lively neighbourhoods: The Berlin mix (Berliner Mischung or Kreuzberger Mischung; Erbstößer 2016: 33, Fiebig et al. 1984) is still a leitmotif used today to describe the integration of both housing and production into city blocks based on 19th-century planning. Mixed-use development was established in Berlin in the typical tenement block with shops on the ground floor and businesses with production facilities in the backyard. This was based on the urban planning parameters from the 1862 Berlin expansion with large block sizes, a limited road network and equally distributed public squares.

Extract from Hickmann’s geographical–statistical pocket atlas showing the rapid rise of Berlin to become the fourth largest city in the world in a relatively short period of time (between 1800 and 1900) compared with other large cities in the world by population
Figure 2 

Extract from Hickmann’s geographical–statistical pocket atlas showing the rapid rise of Berlin to become the fourth largest city in the world in a relatively short period of time (between 1800 and 1900) compared with other large cities in the world by population.

Source: Author based on Hickmann (1902).

(a) Expansion area with 15 section plans; and (b) digitised geographical information system (GIS) graphic of the 1862 Berlin plan highlighting the commissions composition
Figure 3 

(a) Expansion area with 15 section plans; and (b) digitised geographical information system (GIS) graphic of the 1862 Berlin plan highlighting the commissions composition.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin and Geist & Kürvers (1984: 145).

2.1 Misconceptions the plan

In an international comparison, cities such as London, Vienna, Paris and Florence focused on large-scale urban redevelopment during the 19th century (e.g., Paris’s Boulevards, 1853–70; Vienna’s Ringstrasse, 1858) or decentralised development plans. By contrast, Berlin, like Barcelona and New York, opted for an expansive state-organised approach to rapid population growth. These initial urban expansion master plans5 were intended to control the development of a large area in a uniform manner (Ballon 2012, Albers 1997, Bentlin 2017: 635). They are characterised by enlarged urban boundaries and the designation of land plots mostly on greenfield sites outside the municipal city. Although the similar challenges in European cities are always pointed out, comparative studies (Hall 1986; Sutcliffe 1979; Albers 1997) see the Berlin development plan in a national rather than a global development context. This is due to the comparatively little research on Hobrecht’s professional network. The Berlin expansion is significantly limited to technical definitions of building plots and traffic areas. It is not an extension on one side of the city, such as Cerdà’s Eixample, but a concentric expansion in all directions based on section plans (Figure 3).

Examining the 1862 plan, Geist and Kürvers concluded that the development plan:

essentially [consists of] two planning ideas. On the one hand, there is the ring-like connection of the arterial roads with an inner and an outer ring road, while on the other hand, certain segments are filled with quarters featuring a fairly equal structure.

(Geist & Kürvers 1984: 144; translated by author)

In both developed and undeveloped areas, public squares were planned by the Commission in the centre of the street grids. This central positioning and the combination of open spaces with the developed grid structures created an image of localities with small-scale green structures, a chain of front gardens, tree-lined avenues and squares (Bentlin 2018c; Hobrecht 1860: 75–102). At the same time, streets, squares and blocks were fundamental to Hobrecht’s discussion of urban drainage issues and drainage planning 10 years later (Bernhardt 2005; Bentlin 2018c: 299; 2019: 206–209). Contrary to much misunderstanding, it can be made clear with reference to Hobrecht’s own words that:

consideration of the lesser or greater challenges of drainage facilities likely only had a minor impact on the preparation of a development plan.

(Hobrecht 1860: 73–74; translated by author)

Ultimately, urban design requirements took precedence over the drainage issues.

The idea of the ring road stems from 1840. Pre-existing preliminary plans drafted by Peter Joseph Lenné (1789–1866) were integrated into the plan, such as the double-ring promenade with the boulevard and crossroads squares, as well as the promenade squares at the Urban-Schlächterwiesen (Figures 1 and 5). Likewise, the square and promenade facilities of the privately owned Waaren-Credit-Gesellschaft society were copied onto the plan. In contrast, railway planning was generally omitted from the 1862 plan, and parks were not included at all. Minister Holtzbrinck only assigned a special public purpose to the existing churchyards and military drill grounds, which were to remain untouched by the city expansion planning (Holzbrinck 1862: 188). Assmann was grateful for the existence of the older churchyards because, in retrospect, they ‘accidentally remedied the lack of green spaces’ in city districts (Assmann 1871: 96; translated by author). In addition to the design of street cross-sections and block sizes, the responsible Commission composed the square layouts based on site-specific property boundaries.

In the wake of radical transformations in urban living arrangements and infrastructure (Bentlin 2018b, 2018c), square areas and blocks were outlined by the alignment plan because the plan:

at first only ascribed a negative meaning to the terrain on which streets and squares were not allowed to be built.

(Holzbrinck 1862: 186–190; translated by author)

The plan did not determine land use. It left the development inside blocks up to the private sector. The regulation of private building is important, yet not necessarily an integral part of the expansion plan. The over-densification of blocks—in retrospect, Hobrecht and Cerdà see this as a problem—was due to the lack of adequate building codes.

It was not just the experts in the Commission who prioritised owner interests and property boundaries based on the ministerial instructions on urban expansion. From the point of view of the responsible ministry, the realisation of the expansion plan was also entirely in line with liberal, private-sector urban development (Holzbrinck 1862: 183). Although the minister stated that this was a plan that would affect several generations to come, he primarily saw the private developers as the main parties responsible for shaping public spaces. It is therefore important to describe the relevant morphological patterns, which are characterised by uniform regulations in terms of dimensions, permeability and circulation, resulting in a relationship between the built environment and the open spaces over an extended period of time.

2.2 Growth and change

The square typologies in the urban expansion area are the most defining design principle of the Commission under the direction of Hobrecht and Assmann. Previous evaluations show that the positioning of the squares was not so much based on topographical or formalistic reasons but rather on functional decisions—the right-angled development of higher level intersections—in conjunction with monetary aspects, such as usable and inexpensive building plots (Heinrich 1962; Geist & Kürvers 1980, 1984; Bentlin 2019). In times of unstable political constellations and economic requirements, the public experts of the Commission developed an adaptable framework for growth (Bentlin 2017): at the city-wide level, urban structural concepts compete with infrastructure measures, while pragmatic design approaches are pursued at the small-scale neighbourhood level. By excluding the existing inner city, the planning experts adopt Prussian references of urban planning history for the expansion and develop key urban planning figures, structural principles, and organisational units.

In order to regulate the efficient use of limited land resources in urban densification and thus promote a diverse range of uses, original land divisions of small-scale building blocks were expanded in the 19th century by means of land-use classifications (Hirt 2007: 441). This division of land is a long-lasting store of information about the foundation, growth and transformation of a city. It is the built-spatial dimension of the public spatial structure that allows for different places to be connected. At the same time, the contemporary ‘squares’, also named by Baumeister and Hobrecht, were intended for political and social activities and public welfare buildings (Baumeister 1876: 178). This urban network of public spaces is characterised by a temporal and local permanence. In contrast to individual buildings, this characteristic has a greater influence on the urban structure and creates the basis for vehicles of urban identities (Frick 2008: 54–55).

In this context, a multifaceted understanding of urban growth is also revealed, which was driven, in particular, by infrastructure and economics during the period of industrialisation. The increase in competing objectives by the end of the 19th century—between ruling authorities and capital-driven investors—and their urban design was characterised by the respective intentions to gain influence on the quality of the public and thus on the behaviour of the users (Fehl 2005). The case of Berlin, with its technically minimalist plan concentrating on the distinction between private and public land-use determination (an alignment plan), can be used as an object of investigation to trace these relationships. Therefore, understanding the plan and its objectives can clarify these early planning concepts and complexities and reveal a strategy to cope with change.

3. Morphological analysis

Shortly after its announcement, the urban expansion plan of 1862, also known as the ‘Hobrecht Plan’,6 became a canvas for debates on the discipline of urban planning. The structural–spatial dimension of the plan and the associated influence on today’s urban structures have hardly been researched within their city-wide contexts. The urban planning issues in the plan have mainly been described as an outline without any in-depth analysis or only in individual case studies. The character of streets, squares and blocks in the 1862 development plan and the design principles that emerged from it could indeed be investigated with a cumulative dissertation (Bentlin 2019). However, it became clear that it is precisely the extensive reshaping of the design layout in the years of revision up to 1900 that provides deeper insights into the actual implementation of the design and planning principles. Accordingly, the individual district plans and explanatory reports after approval was granted in 1862 can be regarded more as a completed and definitive end-product than a city-wide overview plan. The examination of urban planning activities during the years of revision contributes to a re-evaluation of Berlin’s urban structure, which, especially in contrast to contemporary large-scale urban redevelopment projects or urban expansions, concentrated on small-scale concepts of urban development with a focus on squares.

Thus, in order to better understand the logic behind the concepts and the real history of recurring design and planning principles in the development plan, the blocks, streets and squares of Berlin will be examined within the confines of urban expansion planning between 1862 and 1900, starting from the morphological investigation (Curdes 1997; Humpert et al. 2002) and the urban layer analysis (Bentlin 2021). For this article, the digitised and vectorised data from the sectional plans were classified in a new database. The following section contextualises the methodology: the planning and design principles are introduced both cartographically and with primary sources from the historical planning experts. Written primary sources and hand-drawn plans are interlaced with a digital data analysis of the city as a whole. The GIS-based plan analysis is used to show the origins, advancements and interruptions of the Berlin expansion. In doing so, the paper discusses not only a historical 40-year planning and implementation process but also the strategies, ideas and contexts of city expansion design spanning from the historical time frame to the present.

3.1 Changing urban design and planning principles in master planning

Due to rampant building, in 1859 the Prussian Minister for Trade, Industry, and Public Works, August Freiherr von der Heydt, called for an up-to-date set of plans for the regulation of building development. The aim was to produce ‘feasible and expedient layouts for the established alignments of streets, [and] squares’ (von der Heydt quoted in Geist & Kürvers 1980: 485; translated by author). Hobrecht received von der Heydt’s instructions on the layout of the street network, the squares and the block sizes (Figure 3).

Free spaces must be distributed as evenly as possible and, especially if churches are envisioned on them, the highest terrains, as well as the river, canal, or harbor banks, must be chosen whenever possible; suitable greenery must also be taken into consideration.

(von der Heydt quoted in Geist & Kürvers 1980: 485–486; translated by author)

There was also a demand for a variation in the block sizes of the quarters and the positioning of larger blocks for factories on the outskirts of the city and along shipping routes. Apart from the Friedrichstadt model, the minister repeatedly emphasised that:

in the interest of more practical development […] the same should be planned with straight lines and rectangles.

(von der Heydt 1862: 3; Holzbrinck 1862: 184)

At the same time, the minister also recommended private-sector plans for the Waaren-Credit-Gesellschaft society at Arkona- and Vinetaplatz as a model (von der Heydt 1862). Based on a levelling plan, references to Prussian urban architecture, and the preservation of existing property boundaries and pathways, the planning expert Hobrecht was commissioned for a state-planned urban expansion project. In the course of the planning, weighing interests and revision processes, the Commission developed urban design and planning principles that combined design and mediating requirements.

3.2 Balancing regulation and laissez-faire

The allocation of ‘open squares’ to the new parts of the city and the ‘appropriate connection of these with the initially located main streets’ (Hobrecht 1861: 38; translated by author) is one of Hobrecht’s essential design concepts in the explanatory reports when designing urban expansion areas with numerous existing streets. Hobrecht prioritised the ‘expedient’ as an imperative, in particular ‘the expedient location of its streets dictated by public interest’ (Hobrecht 1860: 101–102; translated by author). He justified his argument with the unavoidable restrictions and burdens on private landowners whose estates had to be kept clear for further development. This principle characterised the work of the Commission and drove the adaptation of basic urban structures by means of more flexible and functional street grids, universal squares and regular blocks. These recurring motifs were developed using two design strategies: street intersections and the centre of the street grids. However, contrary to the right-angled model of Gendarmenmarkt, trapezoidal figures were also created, as the orientation to the existing streets made it impossible to create rectangular angles. Nevertheless, squares were also laid out as triangles and polygons at higher level intersections, but only because of the high ‘number of existing streets converging here’ (Hobrecht 1861: 35; see also Hobrecht 1860: 81, 85; translated by author) and not because of a formalised composition. The triangular squares in particular were intended to improve the utilisation of the surrounding building plots. This functional design principle was promoted by the presence of extensive private properties, which made it easy to convert future squares into public space. The ‘considerable advantages’ of the sole property owner thanks to the new street facilities ‘make it likely that such a large square can be created easily’ (Hobrecht 1860: 82; translated by author).

The open spaces at the centre of the rectangular street grids followed this functional principle as well, as they were positioned away from existing paths to ensure central accessibility within the building plots. The intent was to establish accessibility between productive uses, fast and extensive transport on waterways and increasingly railways, and consumer and labour markets. Since these places were not always positioned on intersecting roads, a precise characteristic parameter also determined their location. Hobrecht stated:

Free squares are predominantly at a distance of 100 to 150 Ruthen [377–565 m] fairly evenly distributed over the entire road network.

(Hobrecht 1860: 78, 82; translated by author)

Hobrecht later confirmed this orientation for existing squares in Berlin’s inner city (Architekten-Verein zu Berlin 1870: 389). However, the analysis of the plan (Figure 5 and 6) shows a generous interpretation of Hobrecht’s key parameter: in 1862, the commissioner drew up a city-wide system of squares with a distance of 300–800 m from one another.

As a result of these design and planning principles, the streets, blocks and squares appeared random and uncomposed on the plan. These design principles made it possible to take into account site-specific boundaries, existing facilities and other local conditions. The 1862 development plan provided flexible strategies aimed at ensuring functionality in the city of the future by creating:

  • Mixed block sizes
    The Commission allocated block sizes of more than 2 ha and up to 5 ha for residential and commercial purposes between the city centre and the outskirts of the city. Only blocks with access to the harbour and on the city periphery are dimensioned and positioned for industrial settlements of more than 5 ha.
  • Street grids and diagonal streets
    In addition to the rectangular street grid, the Commission developed diagonal connecting streets, in particular within the existing concentric grid and across diverging grids to ensure shorter accessibility.
  • Neighbourhood squares, crossroads and boulevard squares, angled squares and Zwickels,7 harbour and waterfront squares
    The four square typologies incorporated by the commissioner’s office form an urban fabric with a functional design.

3.3 Excess sizes, changing uses and accessibility

Previous research by Geist & Kürvers (1980) and Bentlin (2018b) concluded that the 1862 development plan focused on larger blocks, contrary to Minister von der Heydt’s instructions. The instructions included blocks without further road access and with green courtyard areas of at least 38 by 38 m (0.15 ha). The minimalist planning was hardly able to realise this building density. The block sizes follow most closely the model of Luisenstadt and not the actual model of Friedrichstadt as instructed (Hobrecht 1860, 1861). The average block size of over 0.35 ha already dominated the 1862 planning and was only adapted to existing structures at the centres of growth in Friedrichshain in the east and Wedding in the west by smaller block layouts (Figure 4).

Block dimensions of the development plan in 1862 and 1900
Figure 4 

Block dimensions of the development plan in 1862 and 1900.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin.

Assmann continued to discuss the changing concept of block use until the 1870s and developed specific planning objectives. For example, he argued for an increase in the distance between two streets from 75 m, as in Friedrichstadt, to 110–150 m in order to allow for green inner courtyards and sufficient space for the increasing commercial mix. Assmann thus established planning parameters to regulate building density. However, this requirement was ignored (until after 1900) and left to private speculation as no legal instruments were available. Here, a clear densification of block layouts is evident only around squares. Particular attention was paid to the characteristic value of block size, as it demonstrates the change from the absolutist order to the industrial age in urban planning. The reciprocal relationships between dimensioning, development and use reveals the interplay between political will, planning modifications and genuine market events. The block dimensions supported an increasing mix of uses in the blocks, e.g. perimeter blocks developed for residential purposes with interior gardens combined with commercial and even industrial uses in larger blocks.

For road access, the commissioners’ plan envisaged minimal street and urban space to access the blocks, leaving little scope for future modifications by the public authorities. The commissariat’s design ended at the block line. Unexpectedly for the Commission, tenement housing with additional backyard access to the blocks prevailed, driven by the private sector. Only in the financially strong neighbourhoods of Charlottenburg in the west and in the areas increasingly developed by private companies in the south were the blocks significantly reduced in size by 1900. Even in the areas of the development plan with multiple subdivided blocks, a high building density developed as the building code permitted a high utilisation of the plots. However, this would have limited the prevailing backyard access to simple series instead of extensive backyard structures. The fact that this building density could lead to serious difficulties was not recognised until the 1870s. In retrospect, Hobrecht was shocked by the misjudgement of Berlin’s population development in 1893 (Strohmeyer 2000: 54; Holzbrinck 1862) when he reflected on the resulting density in the new districts.

In this way, the Commission produced a plan that deliberately arranged schematic as well as unspecified blocks without any further specifications, thus also granting the developers and terrain-building companies maximum flexibility and the opportunity to maximise their profits in the following construction phases. The political and administrative decision-makers also lacked concrete opportunities to influence building density by failing to adapt the building code of 1853. In a newspaper article in the National-Zeitung from 28 January 1893 (Strohmeyer 2000: 70), Hobrecht criticised the composition of the commission responsible for drafting the building code: it was comprised mainly of lawyers and not experts in urban design and urban hygiene. With regard to the building code and the streets in the urban expansion area, which are generally planned at 26 m in width, the Commission at least accepted a high building density. However, implementing a large number of narrower streets with correspondingly lower building development would also have resulted in the elimination of the wide street spaces with their high usability and appeal, which add to the overall quality, and would have made housing more expensive. Therefore, the criticism of the excessive densification of the city in the plan is only partially valid.

3.4 The street network

Hobrecht’s guideline is to refrain from the ‘subsequent implementation of a practical street system corresponding to every traffic need’ and to merely ‘insert appropriate street grids between the historical roads’ (Hobrecht 1860: 72, 93; translated by author). Building on the existing street system, the experts added rectangular street grids and diagonal streets as essential, recurring motifs (Figure 5). The Commission focused the design of the road network on better connections to existing facilities in the urban expansion area, important state-owned facilities (e.g. military barracks) or private developments. The double-ring roads play a special role with regard to the access and circulation system. The ring connection originated from ministerial instructions and can be traced back to Lenné’s representative urban planning. In the 1862 development plan, a concentric street system of transversals and radials was developed in response to these state instructions, integrating the ring roads without additional functions or representative state buildings. This established the city’s radial traffic concept, which still exists today. In the majority of the expansion area, supplementary connections and hierarchised road systems were created consequently to react flexibly to growth.

Street dimensions in the development plan in 1862 and 1900
Figure 5 

Street dimensions in the development plan in 1862 and 1900.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin.

The commissioner’s office defined a layout of the road network that was considered to be completely outside of the building blocks with additional access points, out of public interest. Hobrecht, however, prioritised the ownership conditions over the maintenance of a symmetrical or straight road network and the unity of the ring road systems, because ‘it would represent a hardly justifiable hardship’ (Hobrecht 1860: 94; translated by author) for the landowners to implement such a system against the boundaries of plots and buildings.

The inner development of the blocks was not within the planning strategy. This demonstrates the market-liberal character of the urban expansion. Even road land of minor importance on the outskirts of the city was to be financed and built by private-sector actors (Assmann 1871: 101–103). Hobrecht added that these private initiatives:

also [are] to be supported in every way and […] with regard to changes in the development plan, [are] to be granted every and absolutely greater relief than has generally been the case thus far.

(Architekten-Verein zu Berlin 1870: 388; translated by author)

For the development of large areas, private construction companies were preferred over state, municipal or public welfare institutions, i.e. the public authority itself, the Church or cooperatives. This reduced the need for coordination between the landowners and the police headquarters coordinating the expansion. It also required less public funding for the purchase of road land. Hobrecht would have favoured a less detailed urban expansion plan—at the scale according to today’s neighbourhood blocks. Following his ideal understanding of planning, an average of 50-ha area units would probably have been positioned along higher level connecting roads and defined by state planning with a few main roads, planned and executed by private development companies.

Although the design of the urban network was derived based on existing conditions (i.e. routes, land plot boundaries, state facilities, private building developments), the street cross-sections offered the greatest scope for public design. However, the commissioner’s office only considered greenery (trees and planting) for these sections. The subsequent integration of a railway infrastructure had a considerable impact on urban planning (Bentlin & Lammert 2018) and contributed to ‘the deformation of entire urban quarters’ (Kieß 1991: 26; translated by author). Consequently, barriers such as railway embankments and new road elements such as level crossings appeared for the first time.

In a reconciliation of interests between landowners and railway companies, public open spaces and city-wide pathways were eliminated in the revision years of the plan. Street directions and squares were relocated or even removed or reduced in size to a great extent. Even the overarching design concept of the quarters and the basic motif of the plan of the double-ring road were interrupted considerably. As a result, the purposeful, or functional, connection of the streets, which Hobrecht always formulated as a dictum, played a subordinate role. The Commission could not implement this idea due to power and property relations from the past. The result was a lack of open and green spaces and disrupted street connections between Prenzlauer Berg and Moabit, Friedrichshain and Neukölln, and Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg, which still exist today.

3.5 Changing the fabric

The positioning of squares was initially based on the hierarchy and orientation of the street system (Figures 6 and 7). The Commission thus distributed right-angled and irregular squares throughout the urban expansion area. These varied according to the intersection function and allocation of plots that were as right-angled as possible for ‘appropriate’ building plots and strongly oriented toward existing road connections. Although the right-angled squares were the most prominent square typology, the Commission also developed public urban spaces that were less elaborate but served different functions in the urban expansion area based on their location, shape and distribution. The angular squares and Zwickels originated from an effort to avoid acute-angled blocks. The crossroads and boulevard squares arose from the interplay between street crossings and ring promenades. The harbour and riverside squares were extensions of harbour basin facilities and positioned only along canals and the River Spree. The neighbourhood squares were constituted by their location within the central positioning on a street grid instead of a building block.

Public square typologies in the development plan in 1862 and 1900
Figure 6 

Public square typologies in the development plan in 1862 and 1900.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin.

Public square distribution in the development plan in 1862 and 1900
Figure 7 

Public square distribution in the development plan in 1862 and 1900.

Source: Author based on plans from Landesarchiv Berlin.

Figures 6 and 7 show that the large-scale angular squares were only continued in a few places in the north (Wedding) and east (Friedrichshain) until 1900. Following the approach, however, the small-scale Zwickels, at intersections in particular, were applied throughout the city until 1900. Partly as a result of the expansion planning, but also without any preliminary planning, the Berlin corner (Berliner Ecke) was established. Its urban design origins can be found in the city expansion of Luisenstadt (design for Köpenicker Feld in Luisenstadt by Lenné from 1843) with Moritzplatz and Heinrichplatz. Here it can be seen how the functional logic of avoiding acute angles developed into producing public spaces at the macro- and micro-levels. Especially with regard to today’s urban spaces, it becomes clear that the sequencing of various angular squares and Zwickels characterises streets to this day with their diverse outdoor restaurants and cafés, playgrounds, and urban dwelling spaces.

The crossroads and boulevard squares were part of large-scale plan figures, such as the boulevard fragments (in the southern part of the ring road, Lenné’s generously designed sequence of streets and squares, called Generalszug: Breitscheidplatz, Wittenbergplatz, Nollendorfplatz to Kaiser-Friedrich-Platz; and in the eastern part of the inner ring road along Danziger Straße, Petersburger Straße, Warschauer Straße: Bersarinplatz, Petersburger Platz, Arnswalder Platz, Danziger Platz), which is why they also served as collectors within the street network. Due to the failed ring road planning for Berlin, many of these boulevard squares were eliminated (Bentlin 2017; Bentlin & Lammert 2018: 192) and remain undesigned as green spaces, such as Danziger Platz. The inner ring promenade, which has been predominantly designed as a very wide traffic and transit space so far, offers particular potential. Here, the fragility of city-wide urban design planning becomes apparent: the public spaces of the ring roads today only function on an axial fragment (Generalszug) or they serve only as a neighbourhood or green space without a cityscape-defining ring connection.

Harbor and waterfront open spaces were integrated into the development plan at the express request of the magistrate for water infrastructure projects (von der Heydt 1862, Bl. 7), but the harbour sites were rarely created. Expanding the waterways required enormous investments and long-term planning periods, as illustrated by the 50-year implementation time of West Harbor (Westhafen). The water network with its harbour and waterfront sites could not keep up with the dynamic development of the railway infrastructure network. Only harbours that existed before 1862 and the envisioned Urbanhafen are referred to today as public open spaces and squares—including sports and school facilities established subsequently—on the waterfront of the urban expansion. Berlin’s distinct and neglected waterfront locations are a relic of failed infrastructure planning. With regard to the popular green spaces at the former Urbanhafen, the valued atmosphere of Berlin as a green city on the water within densely built-up neighbourhoods could still be reclaimed in some inner-city locations.

Outside of Lenné’s plans in the south of Berlin, the neighbourhood squares are the most concise and largest square complexes, greatly characterising the image of the city to this day: moving clockwise from Charlottenburg through Wedding to Friedrichshain and across the Spree River. They are public open spaces within a mostly rectangular block pattern and have comparable dimensions to their surroundings. They were not leftover spaces created as a result of acute angles or interruptions in the block pattern, but rather served as storage and market places with customised greenery. The construction of public buildings or churches was intended there in particular. In many cases, the squares were completely cancelled or significantly reduced in size during the revision years, and some even changed position and orientation. Only a few squares have remained to the present day without significant modifications. While squares in the area of the former Customs Wall (Akzisemauer) were constructed by Lenné and Johann Carl Ludwig Schmid, many squares, especially in the north-east, were not completed until the mid-20th century due to peripheral locations and a lack of urban growth. Today, these areas are used for railway infrastructure, parks, cemeteries, sports fields and allotment gardens. The areas have also been used for social infrastructure (schools, kindergartens) and alternative forms of housing as late as the post-war years and after the reunification of Germany. The fact that it was precisely the neighbourhood squares beside the streets of Hobrecht’s Berlin that could be established as an identity-forming model for the city’s public space is also proven by urban expansions carried out after 1900 around the Bavarian Quarter, and in the Schiller Quarter or Weitling Quarter.

4. Conclusions

The Berlin development plans of 1862 and 1900 represent snapshots of the disciplinary development of urban planning, providing evidence of an industrial adaptation of the block in the history of urban expansion based on design decisions. The unexpected transformation of blocks through backyard access and the unplanned integration of railway infrastructure also led to the discussion and application of the first planning parameters and urban design strategies on this exemplary element of industrial urban design. The debate about the design parameters of the Berlin block can be seen as preparatory work for the reform of the later building codes. This examination played an important role in the first manuals on urban design, as well as in the work of Baumeister. In this way, the Commission made an enormous contribution to the elementary fundamentals of the emerging discipline. The Commission’s decision of block enlargement against ministerial instructions and the contemporary conception of a naturally dispersed urban expansion probably show the most influential decision-making in the Commission’s urban design: The schematic blocks without subdivision are the starting point for Berlin’s multifaceted backyard structures with residential, commercial and production areas.

The planning decisions can thus also be seen as a pragmatic consequence of the predominant ownership structures. Of particular relevance, however, is the lack of assurance of minimum governmental requirements. The Commission does not define urban design benchmarks, protected areas or priority settings vis-à-vis planning openness and adaptability. However, this pragmatic approach to planning, combined with the schematic character of the plan and a strong orientation toward the interests of private developers, leads to an imbalance. In the revision years, the public planning concepts—the close-knit network of squares and the completion of the ring boulevards—were subordinated to the investment pressure of developers and the terrain and railway companies. Those concepts were merely non-binding components of the master plan. It was precisely small-scale and local design concepts, such as the various square typologies, that managed to maintain their presence and demonstrate the fundamental necessity for adaptability in urban planning:

The plan should be understood as thoroughly changeable and malleable and must be adaptable to any new combination that arises from changing causes.

(Architekten-Verein zu Berlin 1870: 388; translated by author)

This maxim of Hobrecht’s leads to fractures and missing links in the former basic motif of the ring road, especially at the city-wide level. The expansion of the infrastructure and large-scale industrial settlements have divided the Berlin metropolitan area into isolated areas, somewhat like islands. Nevertheless, the Hobrecht squares are still characteristic of the cityscape today.

The motifs developed by the Commission were as likely to be subordinated to the railway infrastructure as they were to the revised property boundaries. The instruments for regulating urban development were oriented toward fire safety standards imposed by the building police, but not toward an ideal block with a green courtyard in a concentric city-wide layout. Strips of lawn, avenues of trees or front gardens were thus also subjected to processes of negotiation and redistribution. This did not change thereafter either: first, between the interests of private land owners and public planners, and later in the face of an increasing traffic flow within a defined road cross-section. Therefore, responsible planning can be demonstrated when scope for shaping unknown futures is ensured. In times of radical changes, the strengths of master plans do not lie in predicting urban development dynamics, but rather in constructing a regulatory framework that can be continuously adapted and at the same time that ensures design leeway, such as minimum standards for public spaces, in a growing city. Just as the Greek polis, the Roman colonia and the medieval civitas expressed the sum of the life contents of their time, today’s Berlin urban layout was essentially shaped by social change and industrialisation in the 19th century. In this sense, the 1862 development plan never ceased to be relevant for planning.


1As a preliminary to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) research project ‘Value and Making of Hobrecht’s Berlin—Growth, Change and Heritage of the Berlin City Expansion’ (Vom Wert und Werden des Hobrechtschen Berlin), 2014–18, a term was introduced at the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning (ISR) at TU Berlin (Rhede et al. 2011; Dolff-Bonekämper et al. 2018). 

2In 1859, James Hobrecht was commissioned as head of the Commission, which drew up 15 section plans of the intended city expansion by 1862. Hobrecht himself worked as head of the Commission until 1861; until the publication of the section plans on 9 August 1862, Assmann and Sesshaft were in charge of drafting the set of plans. The plans covered the already existing city of Berlin like a belt with the inner-city areas of Neukölln, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, Charlottenburg, Moabit, Wedding, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. 

3Gustav Assmann was deputy head of the Board of Commissioners, especially during Hobrecht’s business trip to Hamburg, London and Paris between 13 August and 9 November 1860. He is the main author of the critical discussion on the urban planning principles of the plan, the building typologies and the housing shortage from among the officials responsible for creating the plan (Assmann 1862, 1871, 1873). Due to the wartime loss of 13 of Hobrechts 15 handwritten explanatory reports on the section plans, Assmann’s publications are of particular importance for today’s research. 

4As a result of industrial restructuring and the implementation of new infrastructure for transport or energy production, there were early revisions to the plans; changes were incorporated into the black plans with coloured ink. One of the most obvious and comprehensive changes was made in connection with the construction of Berlin’s railway infrastructure, but smaller changes were also made on the initiative of private landowners and development companies. The plan as such was valid until the end of the First World War, and the revisions were integrated and thus became part of a comprehensive set of plans until 1900. 

5Urban expansion master plans were created almost simultaneously in Copenhagen (Jens Conrad Seidlin 1857), Barcelona (Cerdà 1859), Madrid (Carlos de Castro 1860), Berlin (Hobrecht 1862) and Brussels (Victor Besme 1866). 

6With regard to the second Berlin development plan, the name ‘Hobrecht’, as head of the Commission from 1859 to 1861, is used collectively for all those who worked on the plan from 1852 to 1900: this is a linguistic means of expression that has grown over the last 160 years. In the academic context it is necessary to speak of the development plan of 1862 (Bebauungsplan 1862) in order to use a designation that does justice to the comprehensive genesis of the plan with clearly differentiated responsibilities and its multilayered substance. 

7In the discipline of urban design, the German term Zwickel describes triangular public micro-spaces used to avoid acute-angled building plots. Stübben commented on these spatial leftovers: 

Usually the traffic-less Zwickel forming behind the sidewalk line are unclean and purposeless. […] Zwickel, which are not easily accessible to traffic, are therefore part of the road embankment and serve mainly for the positioning of waiting carts.

(Stübben 1890: 129–132)


Many thanks to Fritz Lammert and Annika Lesem for their dedicated support with visualising the data.

Competing interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the author upon reasonable request.


The data used in this article originate from a research project funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft—) [grant number 253506335].


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