About

This blog covers environmental and related topics in Germany on which little information is available in English – often none at all. Richard Karty is an urban ecologist with a Ph.D. (Doktorat) in forest ecosystem science. (more…)

The City Museum – Gaudí in a scrapyard of the imagination

Another digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.

It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.

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Travels in Bordeaux and the Dordogne a.k.a. Perigord


A digression from environmental topics – photos of my travels in southwest France in summer 2018. Believe it or not we saw all this in five days not counting the travel day on each end. My favorite part and one of my favorite things ever, anywhere, is the house (actually, castle) of the greatest tapestry weaver of the 20th century, so to skip to that click here .

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In Indianpolis, inspired public art once connected the public to their overlooked waterways. Then they turned the art museum into an Instagram playground.

The Indianapolis Art Museum once had a fine reputation for challenging and praiseworthy exhibits. Last year they threw it overboard in favor of marketing gimmicks, yoga, craft beer, and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.

 

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Two of the most compelling and pioneering works of site-specific environmental art of recent decades – as much community engagement as art per se – took place in Indianapolis in the mid 2010s. Although they were the work of one of the most important living creators of public and “land” art, little record of them remains online (the most significant source is here) and they have disappeared from the online presence of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which commissioned it. You won’t find them on the website of this once-esteemed institution ever since its highly controversial rebranding last year, which has been described as “walking away from their mission” and “the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017“, resulting in an “Instagram playground” with “fairgrounds-style attractions”.

The two works, called FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015), consisted of over 100 outdoor interactive installations along the city’s White River and in a park next to the museum, created in collaboration with ecologists at Butler University and Reconnecting Our Waterways, a local environmental organization. along with commissions for dance, music, and poetry works, other public events, and online tools for encouraging connection to and reflection upon local waterways and aquatic ecosystems among the general public.

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A rare heath ecosystem just outside Berlin

I recently visited the Döberitzer Heath, a twenty-square-mile nature reserve on a former military training ground outside of Berlin. Like many military bases, it served as an unintended nature reserve for many decades before decommissioning because manoeuvres don’t disturb the ecosystem all that much – you need a lot of empty space for firing weapons – and the land was strictly off-limits to visitors and every other possible use. (Click to enlarge)

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Dessau, where 1770s modern meets 1920s modern and Europe’s only artificial volcano

The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm is a breathtaking and absolutely unique series of parks and gardens from around 1770 with villas, pavilions and other structures scattered around these two towns in eastern Germany and constituting one of the largest neoclassical assemblages in the world. Sadly, it is little known, even by Germans, although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be the first introduction of Enlightenment neoclassical aesthetics into Germany, an early rumble in the seismic shift from baroque and rococo flamboyance to sober interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles and, by extension, the embrace of humanistic reason, scholarly curiosity, and open-minded exploration. Its patron was Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, more commonly known as Fürst Franz (Prince Franz) or Friedrich Franz. He wanted to bring Enlightenment values and education to the general public, and so the parks were open to the public and included demonstration gardens and farms for agricultural education and research.
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What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier


One symptom of our society’s decreasing connection with nature is that hardly anyone knows the names of plant species any more, and it’s not entirely due to too much time spent staring at screens. It’s also because identifying plant and animals – especially plants – can be very, very hard: while there are 10,000 bird species worldwide (of which 1,100 in the U.S. and 514 in Germany) and 3,600 snakes, the plant enthusiast must contend with 400,000 species globally (U.S: 17,000; Germany: 4,100). Still. the diversity champions are the beetles, with as many species – just species of beetles – as there are plants.

There are two main reasons for the difficulty in identifying plants, one intrinsic to plants themselves and one more human-centric, and this post is about how botanists have made the impediments a little less impeding. The relevance to Germany is that nowadays it has some outstanding information design in the area of plant identification, although in prior decades the U.S., U.K. and Australia also had fascinating innovations that are now nearly forgotten. (more…)

Bundesnaturschmutzgesetz? – ‘Der Spiegel’ on changes to Germany’s Environmental Protection Act

National habitat conserv law weakened crop
The title of this commentary from Der Spiegel newsmagazine about a significant weakening of Germany’s federal environmental protection laws is a pun that loosely translates as Environmental Destruction Agency. (more…)

The Great Urban Tree Map Showdown

Berlin’s map is for pros, New York City’s is for the masses.

 

I have noticed the online tree maps from the Berlin and New York City parks departments are very different and decided to compare them. Both cities have mapped their street trees – allegedly all of them – and made interactive maps and data publicly available but they have interesting differences.

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Berlin

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New York City

 

 

 

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With 67 shopping malls and more on the way, Berlin embraces its inner suburbanist

One of the biggest surprises awaiting the visitor to Berlin is the startling number of shopping malls. It can seem as though you’re never more than ten minutes from one. I had to compile my own map to see where they all are, as well as a New York City malls map for comparison. Click on the images below for the full interactive maps.

Berlin has 67 malls and there is “no end in sight” to the construction of more according to the Tagesspiegel newspaper; in fact three more are currently planned. New York has 16, which means Berlin has ten times as many malls per capita and four times as many per square mile. If New York City had the same density of malls it would have 156. It’s possible, though, there could be an upside to the mallification to which Berlin is thought to represent – by Americans at least – an antithesis.

Berlin (left) and New York. Click for interactive map. Blue lines are 10 miles. Grey denotes area beyond NYC limits. Malls in blue are not accessible by subway.

Greater berlin w 10 mile line NYC whole city w 10 mile line 2

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Taking a page from Robert Moses’s playbook: Is Berlin de-greening?

Berlin is bucking global greening trends by building a new highway through its urban core and loosening environmental protections. Officials say there are no other options.

 

Berlin is the last city you’d expect to repeat history’s mistakes. Yet many observers feel the city has recently been doing just that by weakening its environmental protection laws, violating EU environmental regulations, and reopening one of the darkest chapters in 20th-century urban planning history: building a new freeway through the urban core along the lines of those commonly – but far from exclusively – associated with Robert Moses’ notorious 30-year reign as New York City’s omnipotent post-WWII chief planner. There and in countless other places, freeways in the middle of cities were promised to be essential components of “urban renewal”, a term that is now generally agreed upon to refer to the precise opposite of its intended meaning.

Both the freeway and rollback of environmental protections reverse the direction taken by livable cities over the last few decades. Planners, historians and city-dwellers are in agreement that virtually every freeway ever built in an urban core has been an unqualified disaster for the overall integrity of urban life, which is why no truly livable city has built one in the last 30, perhaps 50, years. Similarly, it seemed the matter was settled on the many values of urban green space.There’s no need to go into the how and why here, as mountains of research and inquiry have covered the topic.

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Leipzig’s prodigious green turnaround

Stream daylighting on a possibly unprecedented scale

 

The city of Leipzig, once home to Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn and in 1989 a crucible of sorts for the Peaceful Revolution that led to the reunification of East and West Germany, has made itself a world leader in urban stream restoration over the last two decades, very much under the radar. Since the late 1990s the city has been systematically reviving streams and canals that have been buried in underground pipes and paved over for the last 50 years, or simply silted up with mud, both in the city center and surrounding countryside. The massive turnaround from sooty, crumbling city core and toxic, industry-scarred countryside to lush green and blue 21st-century urban region is on a scale hard for us Americans to comprehend.

Outside the city, no less than 26 lakes created by the closure of all but one of the area’s open-pit coal mines are being natur-ized (it’s not restoration per se because they were never natural lakes) and connected by natural and artificial waterways and locks to create a region-wide network entirely passable by small boats and, it is hoped, fish.

Elstermühlgraben von Friedrich-Ebert-Str(Westbrücke) auf Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Str 14 d

Elstermühlgraben Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Straße 5 09 85pt

Elstermühlgraben Stadthafen 1 10 aElstermühlgraben Stadthafen 4 Vom Blüthnersteg 13a

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Book Report: Early nature conservation in Germany

Two remarkable finds from a flea market last week are fascinating evidence of how the topic of the interactions between people and nature gained recognition at quite an early date in Germany, before World War II and arguably well before it caught on in the United States.  These are two books for popular audiences, from 1921 and 1939, that combine ecology, geography, botany and cultural history in a way that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t show in the U.S. until some decades later.

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Alpine Plants and their Protection

 

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Land and People in the Lüneburg Heath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From ancient Roman times clear up to the present, much has been written on the Germans’ distinctive relationship with the natural world, a connection with both positive aspects (conservation, health, alleged arcadian ‘vigor’ in contrast to decadent Roman refinement) and negative (some of the most virulent nationalism in all human history). Also, Germany was one of the birthplaces of modern ecology in the 19th century, along with England and France. So here’s some tangible evidence of how people were learning about nature before WWII.

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Emergency rescue and plant poaching observation post, from ‘Alpine Plants and their Protection

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29 volumes of ‘Land and People’

 

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Living buildings

Just a few quick words about a fascinating little corner of the arboriculture world known as tree shaping or arborisculpture, the training of living trees into sculptures, furniture, buildings and other structures. (The far more common espalier is a tree or shrub trained to grow flat against a frame or wall, often for increasing fruit production.)

The field’s greatest visionary was Arthur Wiechula (German, 1867 – 1941) who envisioned growing entire buildings and researched the physiology of the necessary grafting.

Smaller works such as chairs and individual sculpted trees are documented since at least the 19th century, with Germany perhaps the chief center of activity, followed by the UK and US. Germany has most of the world’s living buildings – a couple of churches and a four story pavilion. India, however, has largest, oldest and most functional living structures. In the state of Meghalaya are footbridges, formed of living roots of Ficus trees, that reportedly are centuries old and able to support 50 people.

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Germany’s remarkable repurposed industrial heritage – part 2

Previously I wrote about Germany’s abundant and well-funded industrial heritage sites where disused rust-belt facilities are repurposed into multi-use parks with landscaping, nature, culture and recreation coexisting among the dramatic metal and concrete relics. Here I will cover more of the remarkable architecture both new and old.

In many sites striking new pedestrian / bike bridges connect public spaces that are separated by roads, rivers and other obstacles. They help make up for the country’s otherwise abysmal modern architecture which stands in sad and ugly contrast to the rich variety of fresh and exciting buildings in pretty much every other western European country.

The first one is a unique type of drawbridge in Duisburg that stretches up to lets boats pass, without opening as such, like one of those stretchy watchbands made of metal links, or a cat’s back, which has earned it the nickname “cat’s-hump”.

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Germany’s repurposed industrial heritage and the “quintessential park of the 21st century”

Lately I have been discovering Germany’s many extraordinary Industriekultur and Industrienatur sites, which are decommissioned rust-belt industrial facilities repurposed into hybrids of historical monument, recreation park and nature reserve. The sites are cleaned up, the enormous concrete and rusting metal structures largely left in place, the buildings – including numerous architectural landmarks – restored, and the grounds are partly landscaped with ultramodern design and partly allowed to be re-greened by nature running its course.

The buildings are renovated into diverse combinations of arts venues, recreational facilities or opened for tours. But the most striking features are outdoors where the industrial and the natural are interwoven.

I cannot get over how much of this stuff there is and how well-funded it is. There are hundreds of these sites throughout Germany; the greatest concentration is the Ruhr region, Germany’s rust belt. They are linked by bike paths and region-wide sequences of green spaces as well as extensive networks of regional culture agencies providing a vast assortment of Industrieroute planners, maps and guides.

One site that has gotten attention in the US is Landscape Park Duisburg-North, which the New York Times calls “the quintessential park of the 21st century”, its “nightmarish hulks… almost mythic in their lurid grandeur”.

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