Berlin Planning Studio

Global Reach:

SPPD Students Fill in the Blanks Near Berlin’s Central Train Station

By Cristy Lytal

SPPD students in Berlin SPPD students take part in a planning studio project in Berlin

During spring semester, 15 graduate students from USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development collaborated with students from the Technical University of Berlin on a comparative study of transit-adjacent urban redevelopment.

“The overall focus of the Berlin planning studio was the large-scale redevelopment of inner-city rail station sites,” said Deike Peters, a SPPD adjunct and director of the planning studio, which was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service.

Joining Peters, a German urban planning academic who splits her time between Berlin and Los Angeles, as co-instructors of the studio were German-Chilean architect Paola Alfaro D’Alencon and Colombian urban designer and USC alum Rafael Pizarro, who are affiliated with the Technical University of Berlin.

The inner-city rail station in question was Berlin’s Central Station, a massive symbol of connectivity straddling the former site of the Berlin Wall. Although the station opened in 2006, the surrounding areas have yet to be redeveloped.

Working in small groups, the SPPD students tackled key concerns, including the reasons for the underdevelopment, existing plans and potential land uses. They also explored the lessons that Berlin can teach its sister city of Los Angeles on the subjects of transport and urban development.

“It was really a great dialogue between us and the students from Berlin, because they were providing input on all the work that we were doing, and we were trying to do the same,” said Nat Gale, a master of planning/master of public administration student at SPPD. “The German students were all very based in urban design, which was interesting for both the transportation and the urban redevelopment groups from L.A., because they had different perspectives. And I know the urban design group from L.A. learned a lot from them as well.”

SPPD students presented their results on both sides of the Atlantic — at a public event at the Technical University of Berlin, an SPPD lunch at USC and an exhibition in downtown Los Angeles.

A group of SPPD students interested in transportation policy and planning did a comparative study of five separate train stations and turned their results into a video.

A pair of SPPD urban design students focused on ways to utilize the open space surrounding the Central Station to draw commuters to the future businesses and developments in the area. They defined successful open space as inviting, easily accessible and lively places that encourage activity, gathering and sociability. They made several recommendations, including pedestrian-friendly strategies such as narrowing roads, constructing crosswalks and diverting taxi traffic.

“It’s very clear that the Central Station really didn’t prioritize pedestrians,” said Chris Kidd, a master of planning student at SPPD. “It didn’t need to because there was nothing around. But as these nearby developments start to be built out, they’re going to need to think about pedestrians. And if they start doing that now, they have a better chance at places and businesses being successful right when they start.”

Two urban economic and community development teams from SPPD addressed different sites surrounding the Central Station and came to similar conclusions about the need to create what SPPD student Joy Kwong called “a sense of place and shared experience.”

Her team suggested several community-geared temporary land uses such as flea markets, farmers markets, food trucks and open-air art exhibitions. They also played up the attractive natural features of their sites, such as leafy trees that could shade a seasonal biergarten or ice skating rink and a revitalized harbor next to the station that could provide a picturesque setting for parks and waterfront restaurants.

The second SPPD development team turned its energies in a similar direction with a project titled “Community, Culture and Connectivity,” which incorporated a design center for local artists, an urban farm, a community center with adult education and daycare, and a cultural market with exotic spices, vegetables and products.

The SPPD students did venture beyond the train station, however, exploring a city with one of the most dramatic urban histories in the world. In addition, L.A. sustainable urbanist James Rojas shared his interactive urban models of Berlin and Los Angeles with them, courtesy of a grant from the Berlin-based Checkpoint Charlie Foundation.

Although the SPPD students’ specific plans focused on Berlin’s Central Station, transit-adjacent urban redevelopment is becoming increasingly relevant in the Golden State as well. “This is a very opportune topic,” Peters said. “It’s something that California is definitely debating at the moment.”

Posters, pictures and the video done by the transport group will be shown one last time during the next Downtown L.A. Artwalk on May 13 as part of the “Berlin-L.A. Temporary Lab” in Gallery 727. The gallery, located on 727 S. Spring St., will be open from 6 to 9 p.m.