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

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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 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. Tree shaping has seldom implemented although the principle is the same as the far more common practice of espalier, which is a tree or shrub trained to grow flat against a frame or wall in a garden, often for increasing fruit production. Tree shaping has little practical application but it is nonetheless interesting as a creative expression of the wonder, strength and beauty of trees and how humans can engage with them and the broader natural world.

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 built with the aid of metal scaffold. 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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Berlin hints at private development in largest park, bypassing landslide referendum

“The law’s construction ban won’t be overturned, only the paragraph that contains it.”

 

In a controversial move that stunned Berlin’s park users and fans of its abundant green space, the Berlin city council recently announced it is free to ignore at will a construction ban in its largest park which was formally enacted by a citizen referendum that won by a landslide less than two years ago. The park, Tempelhofer Feld, is a former airport with an airfield the size of Central Park, one and a half times the size of Berlin’s next-largest park, the centuries-old Tiergarten, and the referendum – which was not merely advisory but understood to have the force of law –  dictates that it remain in its current state, an undeveloped airfield crossed by two mile-long runways, with a ban on landscaping and permanent structures except for a handful of restrooms and kiosks around the perimeter.

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The airport closed in 2008 and lay in a state of limbo for 6 years, its airfield open to visitors as a provisional park devoid of any facilities and its terminal – built in the 1903s by Hitler and for decades the world’s largest building – largely empty although occasionally rented for trade fairs and corporate events. Citizens undertook the city’s arduous referendum process (petition, then an entire second petition, then vote) to save the field and runway as a park, enact an inviolable 10-year construction ban and rescue the site from its likely fate – backed by the mayor, the city government and deep-pocketed developers – as a residential /office/ retail complex with golf courses, with non-binding promises of unspecified amounts of “affordable” housing. Some renderings showed a heavily landscaped, resort-style park in the middle. The ensuing voter referendum won 64 – 36 %(I covered the story here).

Then in December 2015, the city decided it needed some area within the park boundaries for refugee camps (yes, they call them camps; more on that below) and stated its legal right to ignore the referendum which virtually all parties agree has the force of law. Citizens were outraged.

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Berliners, taking on City Hall and big business, rescue its largest park from commercial development

Locals fought back against gentrification and saved a beloved yet stark, almost ascetic park. Outrage over the country’s flood of colossal public works boondoggles probably helped.

 

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In 2014 Berliners fought for, and won, the preservation of the airfield of Tempelhof, the decommissioned main airport near the city center, as an extraordinary and striking park instead of turning it over to developers for housing-retail-office complexes. I was in the fall and loved the sweeping uninterrupted emptiness which in good weather fills with people doing everything people do in parks.

It’s more an un-park than a park as we know it. They didn’t just vote to keep it as green space, they voted in a law to preserve the airfield untouched and completely ban alterations and permanent structures of any kind. There will be no landscaping, no trees, no sports fields or playgrounds. Just one flat featureless grass expanse the size of Central Park, crossed, of course, by runways. In my hour or two there I saw no benches or rest rooms. (I later learned there are four of the latter, on the the outer perimeter. Central Park has 16 scattered throughout.) But that hasn’t stopped the park from becoming enormously popular.

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The near-anonymous architect who defined the postwar German cityscape – and why boring design is important

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

Pass-through to the kitchen was innovative when Stallknecht designed it around 1959. Photo is from 1974.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently learned that virtually nothing in English has been written on the man who was arguably the most important German architect since World War II. And so I wrote what is only the second English-language article (and only Wikipedia entry) on Wilfried Stallknecht*. By “important” I mean “had the greatest influence on buildings in Germany”. He didn’t redefine architecture as we know it or create a revolutionary visual language, and his buildings are neither beautiful nor dramatic, but he may have had the most influence on the largest number of buildings. The wide influence stems from two innovations dating from 1958: prefabricated apartment buildings that went on to house millions, and a single-family house design of which 500,000 were built.

Stallknecht and his team were the first to build apartment buildings using prefabricated panels. (more…)

Landscape with Sheep and Stadium, Munich

Rare heathland habitats thirty minutes from city center

 

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Recently I saw in a documentary these sheep next to the high-tech Herzog & de Meuron starchitect stadium in Munich (about twice the size of New York’s Citi Field) and had to find out what was going on.  It turns out the area is a nature preserve consisting of rare chalk heathland remnants and it is indeed adjacent to the stadium. Nothing in English has been written about the site, to my knowledge. The stadium by the way is as futuristic as it looks and I will write about it soon.

This type of heathland was once more common in Europe, although never greatly widespread. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or bad thing that the stadium is right alongside. On the one hand it’s great to protect nature so close to busy places. On the other, since they were building on a site where there wasn’t a stadium previously, you’d think they could have found someplace less environmentally important and fragile.

The site, the Fröttmaninger Heath, is one of a handful of similar small patches in a mosaic of villages, outer suburbs, small farms and former artillery ranges traversed by highways on the city’s northern fringe. The North Munich Heathlands Association, a partnership of local towns, vigorously protects them by means of an exhaustive ecological planning, research, and restoration program along with recreation management and a supermodern visitors center. And yet the combined size of the eight sites covers less area than JKF airport. I don’t recall ever seeing a comparable depth of documentation online for a US nature reserve except the very largest, such as Yosemite. It is publicly funded and not a private non-profit organization relying on donations.

Nature in Europe is interesting because their conservation works the opposite of ours. While we promote biodiversity by keeping people out of wild places and letting nature run its course, they do the opposite: promoting biodiversity by letting people in. When I first learned this it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept because we are so used to the idea of wilderness and wild places.

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World longest building: Beach resort built by Hitler, never used, still standing

 

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The world’s longest building is a never-used Nazi-era resort called Prora which would stretch the entire width of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Built by Hitler on the Baltic Sea to provide recreation for the masses, the buildings were completed and are still standing, but the resort never opened. Just under 3 miles long, it has capacity for 20,000 guests and is nearly impossible to photograph in its entirety because it shrinks to a hairline in any comprehensive view.

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The buildings lay vacant from 1939 to 2011 apart from sporadic, partial use by the former-East German (more…)

A ghost neighborhood in St. Louis, depopulated due to flooding

These are former residential streets in St. Louis that have been permanently evacuated in the 2000s and most of the houses demolished due to severe, persistent flooding, mainly in the basements. There are definitively no plans for resettlement. The problems had been noted in the 1950s by the Metropolitan Sewer District and persisted until the demolition, and still persist in varying degrees in nearby inhabited streets. The cause of the flooding seems to have been poor sewer and city planning dating back at least to the 1940s. My understanding is that, in short, there should have been either more sewers or fewer buildings. and the fate was sealed decades ago, leaving no other option apart from vacating entire blocks.

The collapsed house is the only one like it in the immediate area. Nearly all the others were razed without a trace; the few remaining (more…)

The Stalinist DUMBO known as Industry City

Saturday I was at Industry City, a gargantuan 100-year-old factory and warehouse complex of a dozen buildings each fully as long as two football fields on the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 9 miles /14 km from central Manhattan. The original name, Bush Terminal, was changed to Industry City in the 1980s.

The place was teeming with designy design people buzzing around designy design studios and Brooklyny artisanal food stalls with enough repurposed wood and rusted metal to reach from here to the sun. The whole thing is pretty icky, basically like DUMBO* on a Stalinist scale and manages to combine the worst elements of both so a friend and I are calling it Stalinist DUMBO. Heartreaking that so much dramatic space and the memory of all those 20th century factory workers seems focused now on $4,000 chairs.

*extremely gentrified former-warehouse area in Brooklyn – Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass for our overseas readers

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Kiel University going carbon-neutral

Kiel University in Germany has a plan to be climate neutral by 2030 with zero net carbon emissions in the areas of electricity, facilities management and mobility: Climate Neutral University

Purple area shows their carbon emissions have already declined, about 5% from 2013 to 2104.

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Winter in the Berkshires

The resonating caused by rocks hitting the ice was one of the most unearthly sounds I’ve ever heard.