The tree that smells like cake

A much shorter post than usual – just a quick note to say that yesterday I had the good fortune to experience the tree that smells like cake, which is something few people ever encounter, and in fact for many it’s physically impossible. The tree, called katsura in English and Japanese – its native habitat is Japan and China -, releases the scent for just a couple of weeks in the fall, and although the species is not rare it is uncommon, being used occasionally in parks and gardens. But many people are unable to detect the scent, for genetic reasons, so a lot of factors have to fall into place in order for the extraordinary scent to be experienced.

The leaves smell distinctly like cake – some say caramel or cotton candy – and indeed the German word for it, Kuchenbaum, translates as caketree . Scientifically, it’s Cercidiphyllum japonicum. The scent is due to maltol, a compound also present in breads, warmed butter, uncured smoked pork, chicory, milk, cocoa, coffee and roasted malt. I saw it on October 31 and I believe this was towards the end of the scent-releasing period.

Finding a katsura may be easier than you think, because a great many cities now have interactive maps of all their street trees where you can search for whatever species you want to find. Just search the internet for  “urban forest map” and the name of your city, or check the (very incomplete) lists here and here. You’re out of luck if you’re in Berlin, though. In theory Berlin has an online tree map but, bizarrely, it doesn’t have a way to simply search for a species and see it on the map.

Welcome to stuffy, uptight, downtown Munich. Don’t forget your swimsuit. Or surfboard. Or skis.

This is the river Isar in the middle of Munich, just blocks from the city center. Today it looks like a wild natural river but until a few years ago much of the greenspace along the shores was orderly and park-like, the banks straightened and stabilized with stone, concrete and earthworks. This is the story of how a city with a stuffy, uptight reputation (whose accuracy I neither verify nor refute) tore out the orderly, linear shores and restored the river to about as wild a state as possible in an urban center, embracing nature in all its wildness and messy, ecologically healthy vitality – something which even places that are said to be the opposite of stuffy <coughberlincough> are often slow to do.

Continue reading “Welcome to stuffy, uptight, downtown Munich. Don’t forget your swimsuit. Or surfboard. Or skis.”

“Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change

This post is available in German at the BUND (German Alliance for Environmental and Nature Protection), here.

 

To say that Berlin is lavishly endowed with public spaces that are manifestly unused despite being paved is an understatement. I’m pretty sure Berlin has more unused paved space relative to the amount of functioning space than any other major city. (If you can think of one, let me know in the comments.) I am not talking about vacant lots that could hold buildings, or any place with significant foot traffic, or squares or plazas that are actually used, or even the parking lots that exacerbate climate change by incentivizing car travel. I refer instead to the inexplicable empty stretches along buildings and at streetcorners that go unused by pedestrians, sidewalks extravagantly and desolately out of proportion to their foot-traffic load, and large traffic islands and medians. Continue reading ““Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change”

De-paving with Operation Stonebreak

Water in cities has a critical role in climate adaptation, from bathrooms to backyards to sewer lines. An engaging exhibit in the Netherlands explains how.

 

Here’s a detour to the Netherlands, where I saw an excellent exhibit in Haarlem, at an architecture and urban design museum called the ABC Architecture Center, on how the region’s water systems will be affected by the climate crisis and how the city is starting to adapt.

Continue reading “De-paving with Operation Stonebreak”

Mythbusting the weather: Berlin’s rainy reputation belies a grave lack of water

Despite its abundant waterways and reputation for rainy weather, Berlin is in many ways as dry as Spain or Texas. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions in fines are looming due to ongoing violations of E.U. water protection law. Solutions will be tough: Berlin has 13 mayors and a bizarre water supply system, the only one of its kind in the world.


Berlin is always seen as a watery place: everyone loves the abundant rivers, canals and lakes and hates the grey damp winter; panic – much of it unfounded – over basements flooded by a high water table is something of a municipal religion. The surprising truth, though, is that Berlin is a very dry place with dried-up forests, shortages of water, and extremely low rainfall, in fact less rain than parts of Spain, Italy, and pretty much all of the United States including Texas and Florida, apart from the deserts and parts of California. The climate crisis did not cause any of this, but it’s making everything worse.

Drought risk. Berlin is rated medium-high (red, 4 out of a maximum possible 5), along with Cuba, Haiti and eastern Mexico. “Drought risk” factors in population density and demand for water along with supply of water.

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Green Party in 2nd place in Germany – and why yesterday’s European Parliament election has worldwide impacts

On May 26, Europe had its elections for the European Parliament, which will have massive implications on issues such as climate and nationalism. Here is what you need to know, in 60 seconds:

Why should I care about this election?

The results will have a large impact on how the whole world deals with the climate crisis, inequality (via global trade agreements), human rights (ditto), refugees and other issues that affect everyone.

Just give me the take-home message in ONE SENTENCE.

Continue reading “Green Party in 2nd place in Germany – and why yesterday’s European Parliament election has worldwide impacts”

Conservative, religious Bavaria has just passed some of the world’s strongest environmental protections

One of the greatest victories for environmental protection in decades recently took place in the German state of Bavaria, and went nearly unmentioned in the English-language media: an extraordinarily strong people’s referendum was approved by a wide margin and has become law. It beggars belief in both the strength of its protections and the overwhelming popular support it received in a famously conservative part of Germany. It flat-out mandates organic farming, ecology education in schools, and stream conservation, among many other things, and stands in stark contrast to the surprising environmental laggardness of Berlin and other parts of the country.

Equally astonishing is the way it became law. Bavarian law prohibits referenda from appearing on election ballots, and it prohibits the gathering of signatures in public. Instead, signers must each make a special trip to their city hall, which is the only place where the petition may be signed, during a two-week signature-gathering period. Eighteen percent of all registered voters in the state did this – double the minimum threshold of 10%. Many signers had long waits in lines stretching down the street in freezing temperatures – more than 11,000 on the first day at Munich city hall alone. The mayor was the first in line.

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Cars 1, Democracy 0: “A new low for city planning in Berlin” says former commissioner as People’s Forum gives way to car traffic

After 26 years of hemming and hawing, the city of Berlin recently decided for good that the central focal point of the federal government district, where a “citizens’ forum” was supposed to be built, will remain a street with car traffic and an empty span of concrete and lawn on either side. The original plans from the time of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall called for this focal point to have public spaces and facilities where citizens and government would interact, the governed and the governors, a democracy lab. This is a “new low for city planning in Berlin”, said a former Berlin Planning Commissioner. The media has been unanimous in deploring the decision and calling it a betrayal of the people and abdication of civic duty; I was unable to find even one statement in support of abandoning the forum. I will argue that the decision has the hallmarks of being fuel for hard-right racist populism.

The outlined square is the Berlin city council's idea of a cheerful and internationally-recognized icon of German democracy
The outlined square is the Berlin city council’s idea of a cheerful and internationally-recognized icon of German democracy

Continue reading “Cars 1, Democracy 0: “A new low for city planning in Berlin” says former commissioner as People’s Forum gives way to car traffic”

After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany

Finally, some good environmental news from Germany, whose status as environmental leader has dwindled in recent years from its peak in the 90s and 00s when it made great strides in areas such as renewable energy, green roofs and recycling. Since that time, the country has been “jeopardizing its reputation as a global leader” and “spectacularly missing its 2020 climate target” as the state news network put it – so imagine what others are saying. However, there is at least one large sign of improvement. Last week the environment minister introduced a strong and decisive climate action bill which is the country’s first-ever specific legislation for greenhouse gas reductions with quantitative targets and penalties for noncompliance. Continue reading “After a lull, signs of movement on climate change in Germany”

The City Museum – Gaudí in a scrapyard of the imagination

Another short 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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In Indianapolis, trailblazing environmental art once connected the public to their overlooked waterways. Then they turned the art museum into an Instagram playground.

From 2010 to 2015, over 100 engaging and innovative land-art installations in Indianapolis raised public awareness of river ecology and water infrastructure. But the once-prestigious museum behind them has since pivoted to crass marketing gimmicks – yoga, craft beer – and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.

 

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There’s a famous story by Borges about a map that’s so detailed, it’s as big as the territory it describes. A few years ago, the artist Mary Miss actually made such a map out of metal and mirrors as way to build closer and more thoughtful connections between its residents and their waterways.

It was actually two projects, FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015). They consisted of over 100 giant oversize map pins with bright red basketball-size pin heads placed throughout the city to mark various features of the local urban waterways such as small dams and sewer outlets. The goal was to increase the public’s connection with the natural urban environment, specifically rivers, streams and water infrastructure. Further, every site had an ingenious interactive installation that not only provided multimedia information about the water features, but literally, physically engaged the viewers by involving bodily movement and play. A worlds-first phone app called Track a Raindrop provided user-friendly visualizations of how stormwater travels through the city infrastructure.

Continue reading “In Indianapolis, trailblazing environmental art once connected the public to their overlooked waterways. Then they turned the art museum into an Instagram playground.”

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 a remote part of eastern Germany, forming what is probably the world’s intact largest assemblage of neoclassical structures, gardens, and designed landscapes. Sadly, it is little know even by Germans, although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus design school after it moved there from the town of Weimar.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be one of the earliest and most extensive introductions of Enlightenment values and neoclassical aesthetics into Germany from their origins in France and England, an early rumble in the seismic shift from baroque and rococo flamboyance to restrained interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles.

It was about more than just aesthetics, embracing humanistic reason, scholarly curiosity, open-minded exploration, and social and educational reform. The Garden Realm was just one of a remarkable range of Enlightenment-related endeavors of the duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold III, 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 plants any more. Until a few decades ago, significant portions of the population knew their local flora because people spent more time outside and had more contact with the natural world, and the subject was taught in schools. Today, plant identification and local flora have not only all but disappeared from schools but even from universities – even from botany departments. I have Masters in botany and a Ph.D. in ecology and received barely any training at all in field skills – it was pretty much all lab science. Birding is still widely popular of course, and is even attracting a newer, younger, urban generation of enthusiasts. But plant identification is having no such resurgence.

Plant identification is hard. There are 40 times more species of plants than birds in the world so the pool to be narrowed down is much larger. You’d think plants would be easier to identify than birds because they don’t move and you can get as close as you want to them, for as long as you want. Sadly, that’s not much help.

This post is about how botanists have tried to make plant identification easier and in the process created small masterpieces of information design. Continue reading “What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier”

Environmental Destruction Agency: tiny edit to an amendment could cripple Germany’s natural areas protections

National habitat conserv law weakened crop

Merkel’s environment committee is considering changing one word in an environmental protection law – from “involvement” to “agreement” – which could make it nearly impossible to establish protected natural areas, because all the ministries, such as Commerce and Transportation, would have to sign off on them.

Below is my translation of an opinion piece about it from Der Spiegel magazine (sort of like Time). My title, “Environmental Destruction Agency” is loose translation of the original, which is a pun based on the similarity between the German words for pollution and protection.  Continue reading “Environmental Destruction Agency: tiny edit to an amendment could cripple Germany’s natural areas protections”