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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.