'Landscape' Category

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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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…)

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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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”.

 

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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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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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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…)

Long buried in concrete, Leipzig’s urban streams are seeing the light of day

Restoring degraded, concrete-encased urban streams is essential for healthy ecosystems and resilience to the coming impacts of climate change. In this area, the eastern German city of Leipzig has been busier than most.

 

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 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 formerly sooty, crumbling city core is now crisscrossed by tidy canals that, despite their intensely un-natural urban context and industrial history, are intended to provide at least some of the functions of natural streams.

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 recreational boats and, it is hoped, fish.

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

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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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Winter in the Berkshires

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