1982: The climate alarm was sounded in a small German town. Andy Warhol was involved, tangentially – along with the man he thought should be the U.S. president.

f(German version of this post is here.)

On October 20 came the bombshell-but-utterly-unsurprising news that Total, a French oil and gas company similar to Exxon, Shell and BP, has known about the climate crisis since 1971, and covered it up, just like the others did.

A smaller bombshell is my recent discovery, buried in a book from 1982, that an art museum in a small German town was addressing the climate crisis in that year, in a small but substantial way. The story involves Joseph Beuys, arguably the most important European artist since World War II and, oddly enough, Andy Warhol, the closest there is to an American equivalent of Beuys.

Campaign poster by Warhol for the Green Party in Germany (“for the Greens”, 1980); explanation of climate change from a German art museum (1982)

Continue reading “1982: The climate alarm was sounded in a small German town. Andy Warhol was involved, tangentially – along with the man he thought should be the U.S. president.”

Everything you always wanted to know about green infrastructure but were afraid to ask

Second in the EYAWTKA series. This post is an annotated and tightly edited list of resources on green infrastructure for managing stormwater, water pollution and urban climate adaptation that I don’t think you can find all in one place anywhere else. It began just as some reminders to myself and then I figured maybe others might find it useful. It’s far from comprehensive but it is highly selective – for every link here, many less optimal ones were weeded out.  Specialists may want to skip to the BMP tools and databases farther down.

Green infrastructure is a set of methods for cities to prevent flooding and water pollution by incorporating nature in built structures instead of fighting it by just building ever bigger structures with ever more concrete. It’s a subset of what is often called nature-based solutions, best management practices (BPM) or low-impact development(LID). These terms aren’t identical but they overlap considerably, and further, they don’t have standardized definitions, although green infrastructure itself arguably has a more specific and distinct definition than the others. That being said, green infrastructure has an entirely different meaning in the US than it does in Europe, where it refers to any and all parts of the landscape that are not built – forests, parks, meadows, gardens, lawns, everything. In the US it means built structures that use natural processes.

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High modernism at the coal mine

A sprawling and little-known masterpiece of 1920s-modernist architecture deep in Germany’s rust belt narrowly escaped demolition – and still looks like it came from the future. A must-see for Bauhaus fans.

My birthday present this year was a surprise trip to a disused coal mine. Which was perfect because I’d been dying to go and that’s because this particular mine is not only located in a former rust belt with a fascinating history of environmental destruction and recovery, it’s also the world’s largest assemblage of architecture in the 1920s- and 30s-modernist style (often inaccurately called Bauhaus) outside of – oddly enough – Tel-Aviv. Continue reading “High modernism at the coal mine”

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

While green infrastructure has been booming for two decades in cities around the world – big, small, “green”, not green – it’s barely on the radar at all in Berlin. How could the capital of one of the world’s most prosperous countries not have gotten the memo?
This post is available in German here.

Berlin’s been talking about the necessity of stormwater-capturing raingardens for twenty years but has none to speak of except for a few isolated exceptions, primary in outer suburbs. By contrast, New York City, to name just one example among many, began building nearly thousand of them every year starting around 2014 and continues to do so. Other cities started ten years earlier. I wanted to understand what’s going on and began by observing whether Berlin would have space for them.

To say that Berlin is lavishly endowed with public space that is manifestly unused despite being paved is an understatement. I’m pretty sure Berlin has higher proportion of unused paved space than any other major city. (If you can think of one, let me know in the comments.) I am not talking about parking lots, plazas that are actually used, any areas with significant foot traffic, or vacant lots suitable for buildings. I mean inexplicable empty stretches along buildings and at streetcorners that aren’t used 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”

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 Berlin city council 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, calling it a betrayal of the people and abdication of civic duty. I was unable to find even one statement  in the media 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”

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”.

 

FLOW 19L

 

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.”

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 urban streams, once buried in concrete, 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

Elstermühlgraben Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Straße 5 09 85pt

Elstermühlgraben Stadthafen 1 10 aElstermühlgraben Stadthafen 4 Vom Blüthnersteg 13a

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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 disused airfield for use as a giant park. Outrage over the country’s flood of colossal public works boondoggles probably helped.

 

Tempelhof pano 1 wide
In 2014 Berliners fought for, and won, the preservation of the airfield of Tempelhof, a decommissioned airport near the city center, as an extraordinary and minimalst park – more an un-park – instead of turning it over to developers for housing-retail-office complexes. I was there in the fall and I loved the sweeping uninterrupted emptiness which in good weather fills with people doing everything people do in parks.

They didn’t just vote to keep the site as green space, they voted in a law to preserve the airfield untouched and completely ban alterations and permanent structures of any kind – but only for ten years, as I understand it. There will be no landscaping, no trees, no sports fields or playgroundsm except on a narrow outer perimeter band. 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 restrooms on the perimiter) But that hasn’t stopped the park from becoming enormously popular.

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