Another short digression from the environment. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri (video here) is one of the most extraordinary places for culture and fun in the world. Occupying a ten-story shoe factory from the early 1900s, it seems to be the result of a mad self-taught tinkerer, the set designers of Blade Runner and Brazil, and the fantasy-art-nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí trying to make an all-ages playground and museum of 20th-century culture at the same time, out of scrap metal and discarded airplanes and factory machines.
It has twisting multi-story slides and climbing cages indoors and out which lead to buses and airplanes and a ferris wheel perched several stories above the ground, tunnels between floors, antique natural history exhibits and carnival game stalls, free-form mosaic-covered art nouveau/science fiction-inspired arches and staircases, collections of parts of historic buildings, a working antique shoelace-making machine, an indoor skate park, the world’s largest pair of underwear, vintage jukeboxes, and a 19th-century log cabin – to name just a few of its many, gloriously incongruous parts.
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 made something very similar with oversized map pins installed around Indianapolis as a way to build thoughtful and meaningful connections between its residents and their rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.
It was actually two projects, FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015). They consisted of over 100 giant map pins with bright red basketball-size pinheads placed throughout the city to mark various features of the local urban waterways such as small dams and sewer outlets. Further, every site had an ingenious interactive installation that not only provided multimedia information about the water features, but also physically engaged the viewers by involving bodily movement and play. A world’s-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)
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. Further, it was an early progenitor of what we now call environmental education and public access to green space. Sadly, it is little known even by Germans and almost not all outside Germany 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 thinking, values and neoclassical aesthetics into Germany from their origins in France and England. This seismic shift embraced humanistic reasoning, scholarly curiosity, and open-minded exploration. In terms of art and aesthetics, it marked a shift away from the baroque flamboyance and rococo excess of the 17th and early 18th centuries and towards restrained interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles.
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.
One symptom of our society’s decreasing connection with nature is that hardly anyone knows the names of plants any more. Until a few decades ago, significant portions of the population knew their local flora because people spent more time outside and had more contact with the natural world, and the subject was taught in schools. Today, plant identification and local flora have not only all but disappeared from schools but even from universities – even from botany departments. I have Masters in botany and a Ph.D. in ecology and received barely any training at all in field skills – it was pretty much all lab science. Birding is still widely popular of course, and is even attracting a newer, younger, urban generation of enthusiasts. But plant identification is having no such resurgence.
Plant identification is hard. There are 40 times more species of plants than birds in the world so the pool to be narrowed down is much larger. You’d think plants would be easier to identify than birds because they don’t move and you can get as close as you want to them, for as long as you want. Sadly, that’s not much help.
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.
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.
One of the biggest surprises awaiting the visitor to Berlin is the startling number of shopping malls. It can seem as though you’re never more than ten minutes from one. There are so many that I felt compelled to count and map them and see how New York, for example, compares. Short answer: Berlin has 67 malls and New York City has 16. Proportionally, Berlin has ten times as many per capita and four times as many per square mile. If New York had the same mall density it would have 156.
But in the real world the difference is greater, since most of New York’s are in remote outer-borough locations so millions of New Yorkers have rarely seen or even heard of them: Manhattan has three; Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens each have only one that is accessible by subway.. Click on the images below for the full interactive maps.
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.
Two remarkable finds from a flea market last week are fascinating evidence of how the interactions between people and nature were recognized very early on in Germany, at least in comparison to other Western cultures including the United States, despite its early accomplishments in nature protection. (Interesting, this recognition is meagre in Germany nowadays but that’s beyond our scope here.) 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 appear in the U.S. until some decades later.
Just a few words about a fascinating little corner of the arboriculture world known as tree shaping or arborisculpture, the training of living trees into sculptures, furniture, buildings and other structures. Tree shaping has seldom implemented although the principle is the same as the far more common practice of espalier, which is a tree or shrub trained to grow flat against a frame or wall in a garden, often for increasing fruit production. Tree shaping has little practical application but it is nonetheless interesting as a creative expression of the wonder, strength and beauty of trees and how humans can engage with them and the broader natural world.
The field’s greatest visionary was Arthur Wiechula (German, 1867 – 1941) who envisioned growing entire buildings and researched the physiology of the necessary grafting.
Smaller works such as chairs and individual sculpted trees are documented since at least the 19th century, with Germany perhaps the chief center of activity, followed by the UK and US. Germany has most of the world’s living buildings – a couple of churches and a four story pavilion built with the aid of metal scaffold. India, however, has largest, oldest and most functional living structures. In the state of Meghalaya are footbridges, formed of living roots of Ficus trees, that reportedly are centuries old and able to support 50 people.
Previously I wrote about Germany’s abundant and well-funded industrial heritage sites where disused rust-belt facilities are repurposed into multi-use parks with landscaping, nature, culture and recreation coexisting among the dramatic metal and concrete relics. Here I will cover more of the remarkable architecture both new and old.
In many sites striking new pedestrian / bike bridges connect public spaces that are separated by roads, rivers and other obstacles. They help make up for the country’s otherwise abysmal modern architecture which stands in sad and ugly contrast to the rich variety of fresh and exciting buildings in pretty much every other western European country.
The first one is a unique type of drawbridge in Duisburg that stretches up to lets boats pass, without opening as such, like one of those stretchy watchbands made of metal links, or a cat’s back, which has earned it the nickname “cat’s-hump”.
Lately I have been discovering Germany’s many extraordinary Industriekultur and Industrienatur sites, which are decommissioned rust-belt industrial facilities repurposed into hybrids of historical monument, recreation park and nature reserve. The sites are cleaned up, the enormous concrete and rusting metal structures largely left in place, the buildings – including numerous architectural landmarks – restored, and the grounds are partly landscaped with ultramodern design and partly allowed to be re-greened by nature running its course.
The buildings are renovated into diverse combinations of arts venues, recreational facilities or opened for tours. But the most striking features are outdoors where the industrial and the natural are interwoven.
I cannot get over how much of this stuff there is and how well-funded it is. There are hundreds of these sites throughout Germany; the greatest concentration is the Ruhr region, Germany’s rust belt. They are linked by bike paths and region-wide sequences of green spaces as well as extensive networks of regional culture agencies providing a vast assortment of Industrieroute planners, maps and guides.
One site that has gotten attention in the US is Landscape Park Duisburg-North, which the New York Times calls “the quintessential park of the 21st century”, its “nightmarish hulks… almost mythic in their lurid grandeur”.
“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.