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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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)
Berlin’s map is for pros, New York City’s is for the masses.
I have noticed the online tree maps from the Berlin and New York City parks departments are very different and decided to compare them. Both cities have mapped their street trees and made interactive maps and data publicly available but they have interesting differences.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Locals fought back against gentrification and saved a beloved yet stark, almost ascetic park. Outrage over the country’s flood of colossal public works boondoggles probably helped.
In 2014 Berliners fought for, and won, the preservation of the airfield of Tempelhof, the decommissioned main airport near the city center, as an extraordinary and striking park instead of turning it over to developers for housing-retail-office complexes. I was in the fall and loved the sweeping uninterrupted emptiness which in good weather fills with people doing everything people do in parks.
It’s more an un-park than a park as we know it. They didn’t just vote to keep it as green space, they voted in a law to preserve the airfield untouched and completely ban alterations and permanent structures of any kind. There will be no landscaping, no trees, no sports fields or playgrounds. 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 of the latter, on the the outer perimeter. Central Park has 16 scattered throughout.) But that hasn’t stopped the park from becoming enormously popular.
Rare heathland habitats thirty minutes from city center
Recently I saw in a documentary these sheep next to the high-tech Herzog & de Meuron starchitect stadium in Munich (about twice the size of New York’s Citi Field) and had to find out what was going on. It turns out the area is a nature preserve consisting of rare chalk heathland remnants and it is indeed adjacent to the stadium. Nothing in English has been written about the site, to my knowledge. Continue reading “Landscape with Sheep and Stadium, Munich”
St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park is said to have the largest intact collection of Victorian-era park pavilions – a dozen or so – outside of London’s Kew Gardens. Also, there is abundant evidence of St. Louis’ once-large German population, long since dispersed and assimilated nearly without a trace. The zinc stag came from Berlin; there are statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (sometimes called “father of the American military” for his essential service in the American Revolution and who was trailed by rumors and public accusations of homosexuality), and others by a German sculptor.