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.
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 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 is factually incorrect.
Although the climate crisis is well on its way to being the biggest environmental catastrophe in human history, in this case it’s being used as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from decades of bad land management, flood planning and disaster preparedness. Germany flagrantly and consistently ignored the most basic principles in these areas, defying the urgent pleas of experts in many disciplines. This left the region vulnerable to a degree most people can’t imagine could even exist in a modern country.
Here’s how we know this. Hurricane Sandy, the largest in North American history, affected the entire eastern U.S. and Canada and the Caribbean over ten days, whereas the European storm affected a region with a tiny fraction of the area and population (maybe 1/1,000th?) over just two days. But Sandy only caused twice as much damage and two and a half times as many deaths. There’s only one possible explanation, which is that Germany was more vulnerable. In other words, a given amount of rain per hour per square mile caused many times the death and destruction as it did with Sandy – and this was entirely in a rural area.
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.
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.
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?
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 a 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”
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”
Despite its plentiful lakes, rivers and canals and its 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 pretty much all of the United States including Texas and Florida apart from the deserts, and less than many parts of Spain and Italy. Berlin probably a has negative water balance, which means more water is leaving the city than is coming in – in other words, the supply is dwindling and will someday run out if drastic action is not taken, although we can’t be sure because the authorities themselves have neither the data needed to find out nor the staff or funding to collect it. The climate crisis is not the main cause of any of this and the problems existed before climate change became severe, although this fact is known mainly among scientists and almost completely ignored by the media and the administration.
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.
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.