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)

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No, climate change didn’t “cause 242 deaths” in Europe’s floods

Can we say “we told you so” now? Ignoring ecologists’ warnings about bad land management – along with poor governance and costcutting – caused those deaths at least as much as the climate crisis did.

Last week twice as many people died in floods in one small area in rural Germany than die in the entire U.S. in an average year of floods and hurricanes combined. In the media – and it’s safe to assume, the general public – the climate crisis is taken to be a primary cause of the disaster and its 242 deaths, 184 of them in Germany.  This assumption is factually incorrect.

Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, experts have calculated that climate change only modestly increased the intensity of last week’s storm. It was indeed a 400-year storm, that is, the kind that happens on average, without climate change, once in 400 years. The question is, are the 184 deaths and $34 billion in damages in Germany normal for a 400 year storm with a slight climate-induced intensification? (By comparison, Hurricane Sandy caused twice as much damage and one and a half times as many deaths across the entire eastern U.S., Canada and Caribbean over ten days, as occured in about two days in just a few counties in Germany.)

The answer is no, it’s not normal. Even a 400-year storm does not normally cause this much destruction. The primary cause wasn’t climate, as the experts have calculated. It had to be something else and that something was a massive failure of governance and decades of intentional disregard for basic principles of hydrology and ecological land management. The principles have been understood for at least a century and in some cases, such as “don’t build in a flood plain”, millenia. They’re not new or controversial. They’re things everyone learns in mid-level college courses on the topics. And they predict precisely these kind of disasters.

The ecological principles in question are essential to prudent land-use planning and flood and river managment to protect the safety of people and the health of our land, water, soil, flora and fauna. In essence it’s about using the earth’s natural flood defenses instead of fighting them by using concrete as a weapon in an attempt to beat nature into submission.

The clearest explanation of the situation I know of appeared, interestingly, in a book about landscape history from 1956, and it explains perfectly the conditions that enabled last week’s floods, and nearly all urban floods everywhere.

The 2021 floods explained – in a book from 1956

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In Berlin the toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)

Raw sewage flows into the waterways in Berlin and many other cities on a regular basis. Some are doing more about it than others.

When you flush a toilet anywhere in central Berlin during a moderate-to-heavy rainstorm, much of the waste goes directly into the Spree river that runs through the city, or into one of its several canals. This happens on 30 to 40 days each year, sometimes as many as 60. This post is a documentation of just a few of the 120-odd outlets where the untreated sewage enters the waterways. Continue reading “In Berlin the toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)”

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 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 using nature instead of fighting it. It’s a subset of what is often called Best Management Practices or Low-Impact Development. Sometimes it’s called nature-based-solutions or sponge city because it’s about soaking up rainwater. The term has an entirely different meaning in the US than it does in Europe, by the way, where it refers to any and all parts of the landscape that are not built up – parks, forests, gardens, lawns, fields, everything. In the US it means built structures that use natural processes.

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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 <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.

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 even 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”

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 shows 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 is confronting the challenges of urban water pollution and the extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. Continue reading “De-paving with Operation Stonebreak”

Mythbusting the weather: Berlin’s rainy reputation belies a grave lack of water

Despite its plentiful lakes, rivers and canals, and reputation for rainy weather, Berlin is in many ways as dry as Spain or Texas. Yet it uses more water than is refilled to its supplies every year, and hundreds of millions in fines are looming due to ongoing violations of E.U. water protection laws. 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 waterways and lakes and hates the grey damp winter; panic – most of it without basis in fact – over basements being flooded by a high water table is something of a municipal religion. They say it has more bridges than Venice (hardly an accomplishment given that the whole city of Venice could fit inside Berlin’s airport alone and Berlin has 14 times as many people ). 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. Berlin has a negative water balance, which means more water is leaving the city than is coming in.  The climate crisis did not cause any of this, but it’s making everything worse.

Drought risk. Berlin is rated medium-high (red, 4 out of a maximum possible 5), along with Cuba, Haiti and eastern Mexico. “Drought risk” factors in population density and demand for water along with supply of water.

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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.

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.

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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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