In the sprawl of a contemporary North American city, it can be tempting to envy urban Europe for its density. For the most part, historic European cities are far more densely populated—their streets, by comparison, appear to be hives of vibrant activity, with compact but handsome apartments that model healthy, sustainable metropolitan living. But look to the densest urban areas in each European country and you’ll see a more complex, ambivalent picture of how they came to be.
Take, for example, Northern Neukölln, Berlin. Though it’s increasingly seen as a desirable place to live today, for much of its existence this dense quarter was considered a social and aesthetic menace, known for overcrowding, dinginess and a generally poor quality of life. Through the twists and turns of history—and the increasing displacement of the lower-income tenants for which it was mainly built—its tightly packed streets and courtyards have come to be seen as a positive model of urban development, containing the single densest square kilometer in Germany.