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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 are slow to do.

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“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. (more…)

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.

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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. Unsound water management in violation of European Union law is incurring punitive measures, but the issue is virtually unknown to the general public – and complicated by Berlin’s strange water system, the only one of its kind in the world.


Berlin is always viewed as a watery place: everyone loves the abundant rivers, canals and lakes, and hates the grim rainy fall and winter and the high water table that poses constant and costly flooding problems to basements and construction projects. The surprising truth, though, is that Berlin is a very dry place with dried-up forests, near-shortages of water, and extremely low rainfall, in fact less rain than parts of Spain, Italy, and most of the United States including Texas and Florida. The only places in the U.S. that get less rain than Berlin are the deserts, the Mediterranean zones of California and parts of the Great Plains. The climate crisis did not cause any of this, but it’s making everything worse. (more…)

Why yesterday’s European Parliament election affects us all. Also, Greens in 2nd place in Germany

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.

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Bavaria – conservative, religious, and now, radical environmental trailblazer

One of the greatest legal victories for the environment in recent history recently took place in the German state of Bavaria, and went nearly unmentioned in the English-language media: an extraordinarily strong people’s referendum on environmental protection was approved by a wide margin and has become law. It beggars belief in both the strength of its protections and the staggeringly strong popular support it received. It makes organic farming mandatory,  ecology education in schools mandatory, protection of streams mandatory, and much more.

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

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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. (more…)

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.

Over 100 engaging and innovative land-art installations 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”.

 

FLOW 19L

 

Two of the country’s most compelling and pioneering installations of site-specific environmental art in decades – as much community outreach as art per se – took place in Indianapolis, of all places, in the mid 2010s. The two projects, called FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015), 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.

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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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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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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…)