75: Urban Innerscapes or a Tale of Two Continents

Little lanes web through Swiss town's downtown.

Canadian humorist and economics professor Stephen Leacock once wrote that after the Second World War, Europeans were left to grapple with these two facts:

  1. Their cities had been bombed to smithereens
  2. This improved them.

Rooftop courtyard and green space imbedded in Manor, Biel's largest department store where the top two stories are of condo-apartments. The town has many rooftop gardens.

He wasn’t making light of war’s devastating effects, but pointing out that architectural opportunity was out there in that cities could be re-imagined into something better. Did it happen? Who knows for sure? Evidence does exist, however, that suggests Europeans have a handle on urban living.

Take a Google Maps birds-eye view of  a city’s downtown such as Victoria, British Columbia and you will see whole city blocks engulfed in monolithic structures (the street view is more charming, but bear with me for a moment). Then, take a Google Maps birds-eye view of Biel/Bienne or even a larger city such as Bern, Switzerland’s capital, and you will see green punching through the heart of the city’s downtown blocks.

This house, grand by Swiss standards, is tucked between apartment blocks and townhouses.

The greenery sprouts from courtyards (both rooftop and ground-level) and rivers of lanes, sometimes so narrow so as to appear to be sidewalks. Often, behind those curb-hugging buildings, one can find hidden villages of smaller townhouses, coachhouses, cottages and even grand homes.

I don’t want to damn North American cities with faint praise, but they sometimes seem to be thin on outdoor nooks and crannies. Here, when we bumber about cities of varying sizes, we find any number of them in the form of squares, courtyards, pocket gardens, and parks. It as if the Europeans found urban life so exhausting they were compelled to build plenty of resting spots to get them through their day.

This may not be fair. Europe and America may be apples and oranges in such things. Europeans may have more public spaces, but they are more apartment-dwellers so they need them. We North Americans tilt toward spacious suburban life that allows generous private gardens (or trample zones, as our yard was when the kids were growing up).

Here’s a peek at a few hidden corners and lanes in Switzerland.

Pedestrian-only lanes are lovely.

Gardens grow between apartment buildings - some elegantly coiffed, some left to spill over with vines and greenery.

Courtyards are common in our Swiss town.

A charming flagstone courtyard that we snuck into while near Lausanne, Switzerland. One of the apartment dwellers caught us poking around, but she was friendly about it. How can you not expect uninvited guests when your front door opens to this?

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82: Wrought iron and tulips

Switzerland is more a country of rugged mountains and unfurling bicycle paths along dreamy farm pastures and steep-set vineyards, but it is also a country of gardens. Albeit, so far we have not seen any as beautifully arranged as those found in England or Spain, but lovely all the same.

Here are a few examples of the springtime awakening of Biel/Bienne’s urban gardens. Mostly tiny little postage-stamp green spaces, some are all about function with pebble-bases and bicycle lock-ups, while others show a little more affection for the greener things in life.

If by chance you have landed on this site because you are a gardening fanatic, the best place we have seen for gardens is Victoria, British Columbia. I don’t just say that because it is my home, but because as a reporter I once covered a good part of the region testing out bicycle routes to the downtown core, during which I came upon unheralded residential streets of floral bounty – home-gardens that would never hit a magazine’s page or attract comment in the media, which is what makes their discovery all the more sweet.

Here are the ordinary and yet still adorable urban patches of Biel/Bienne as seen over the Easter weekend.

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