Dessau, where 1770s modern meets 1920s modern and Europe’s only artificial volcano

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.
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What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier


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.

This post is about how botanists have tried to make plant identification easier and in the process created small masterpieces of information design. Continue reading “What plant is that? Ingenious efforts to make identification easier”

Environmental Destruction Agency: tiny edit to an amendment could cripple Germany’s natural areas protections

National habitat conserv law weakened crop

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.

Below is my translation of an opinion piece about it from Der Spiegel magazine (sort of like Time). My title, “Environmental Destruction Agency” is loose translation of the original, which is a pun based on the similarity between the German words for pollution and protection.  Continue reading “Environmental Destruction Agency: tiny edit to an amendment could cripple Germany’s natural areas protections”

With 67 shopping malls and more on the way, Berlin embraces its inner suburbanist

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.

Three more are currently being planned in Berlin and there is “no end in sight” according to the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Berlin (left) and New York. Click for interactive map. The blue lines represent 10 miles. Grey denotes area beyond NYC limits. Malls in blue are not accessible by subway.

Greater berlin w 10 mile line NYC whole city w 10 mile line 2

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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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Book Report: Early nature conservation in Germany

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.

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Living buildings

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.

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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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The world’s longest building is a beach resort built by the Nazis. It never opened.

 

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The world’s longest building is a 3-mile-long resort built by the Nazis that never opened and lay vacant for 72 years following its completion in 1939, apart from some uses by the military. Its first tenant as a resort was a youth hostel that opened in 2011, occupying an eighth of the structure. Soon after that the German state sold off half of the remainder to real estate investors, who in turn began selling it off as million-dollar vacation apartments. This follows a established pattern of intentional wealth redistribution from the middle- and lower classes to the ultra-rich, as the former social-democratic state sells its assets at below-market value to speculators. (A typical example is Berlin, which has sold off 80% of its public housing stock to investors who routinely turn 1,000-percent profits in the deals.)

It’s called Prora, it’s on the Baltic sea, and in a straight line it would stretch the entire width of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. It’s nearly impossible depict the whole building in photographs because in any view that shows it in its entirely, all that’s visible is nondescript grey line.aerial bing 1 crop enhance 50Prora resort is highlighted

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