“Usage Conflicts”: Berlin debates whether it has enough space to adapt to climate change

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.

You’re never more than a block or two from a soul-crushing concrete desert like this one which, being in front of piano store, looks like a square where piano frames would get stoned to death for committing crimes.

This post contains pictures I’ve been taking of these spaces, to show how they could be used – but aren’t – for plantings or micro-gardens or, preferablly, specially engineered raingardens, which many cities in the U.S. and elsewhere – but not Germany – have been installing for decades to collect rainwater from the nearby pavement and let it sink into the soil instead of overloading the sewer system and polluting the waterways.

A raingarden is much more than a tree pit. There’s a lot going at the curb level and underground to get the stormwater to infiltrate downwards, but it’s invisible to the casual observer. For example:

top: NYC DEP; bottom: Philadelphia Water Department

Raingardens, also known as bioswales, are a type of green infrastructure. They are cheaper than the traditional “grey” infrastructure such as sewer pipes, tanks and sewage plants for reducing the stormwater overflows . They have additional benefits such as mitigating urban heat islands and increasing green space and quality of life, and as the climate crisis exacerbates the problems of stormwater overflows and hotter cities, they’re becoming even more necessary.

If Milwaukee can do it, then why not Berlin?

My inspiration for this post was the discrepancy between the near-absence of raingardens in Berlin and their adoption in many other cities over the last decade, along with a few eyebrow-raising events I have attended here over the last year or so, where the resistance to raingardens was remarkable. They’re cheaper, greener, and more climate-friendly than the alternatives and in other countries, support for them is unanimous, from social-justice  and environmental advocates to engineers to city hall, once the ball gets rolling.

So why is Berlin resisting them when no one else is? What’s going on here?

For example, there was the panel discussion at the Berlin city council on “usage conflicts”  in planning raingardens, where the topic was how green infrastructure pits stakeholders  against each another due to their conflicting demands for the ostensibly scarce available space. This was surprising because the cities that already have raingardens in abundance have only a fraction of the available space as Berlin has, yet they manage to fit them in.

It was curious to see the city focusing on potential conflicts that may or may not arise before the administration and the public have shown any substantial interest in green infrastructure in the first place. “If all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail”: the issue has been framed as one intrinsically permeated with conflict. But it could just as easily been framed as a propitious way to achieve shared goals.

Or the time an official from the Department of Environment, Transport and Climate Protection gave a lecture on Berlin’s ostensibly pre-eminent raingarden program – but she had exactly one example to show that’s been built so far. It was from 1997. (New York City has built 4,000 since 2013 and has 5,000 more under construction.) When she went on to describe a flagship project currently being planned, the audience of engineers and urban planners erupted in laughter at its implausibility.

Or yet another panel discussion, where a prominent landscape architect dismissed an audience question about why Berlin is so far behind in green infrastructure with a smirk and a blanket claim that what the other cities are doing is “mostly just hype”. At which point the audience turned their heads to the questioner and tut-tutted about the impertinence of questioning Berlin’s supremacy.

Or still another discussion, where Berlin’s leading expert on the topic said that if other cities with less space have managed to fit in raingardens, he would like to see it. (A Google search will find dozens of such cities in two seconds.)

Scorched-earth austerity and pick-up sticks

Without question, the Berlin has room for thousands of raingardens without affecting foot or bike traffic, but the hurdles go beyond worries about space. City agencies – all of them, not just environmental – paralyzed by decades of scorched-earth austerity policy, gutting of the personnel ranks, and crippling cuts to public services that would make Republicans envious, lack the funds and personnel to take action. The result is a hot-potato game of buck-passing. In German it’s called Beamten-Mikado, “civil servant pick-up sticks” – whoever moves, loses – but Berliners celebrate it as a principled resistance to – well, no one knows what, exactly. And so, motivated by my curiosity about whether space really is scarce enough to provoke “usage conflicts”, I began to document it.

Here are raingardens in New York City and Syracuse. Notice how they fit into fairly constrained spaces on the sidewalks. You can find these in dozens of cities around the world.

Now here are typical Berlin streetscapes that I marked to show the unused space that could be at least partially greened, with no impact to speak of on foot or bike traffic or public recreation.

The markings are conservative in that they still allow for broad pedestrian and bicycle lanes that are considerably roomier than average for foot- and bike-friendly cities, although in many cases those lie outside the picture. Trust me, these spaces really are not used, because there is so much other room for plazas and cafes and protests and markets that isn’t even in the pictures. If you look closely you’ll notice one or two exceptions have been made for public squares per se that are punishingly ugly and patently unused. The pre-eminent example of this is the abandoned plan for a Citizens’ Forum (Bürgerforum) next to the parliament building, which gets a whole post of its own here (German coverage here).

Here are further examples where I haven’t added the markings (because it’s time-consuming). The areas with grass could be rebuilt to accept stormwater runoff from the pavement and planted with mixtures of pollinator-friendly species, most likely natives.

Even in the U.S., which is not normally considered an environmental leader, dozens – probably hundreds – of municipalities are incorporating green infrastructure into their programs for climate-oriented stormwater management and combined-sewer overflow reductions, which in many cities around Berlin’s size are costing $1 billion to $5 billion. In New York, where I worked in this field, the raingarden program was first announced in 2011; by 2019, 4,000 of them had been built and 5,000 more were under construction. The city also has stopped building new grey stormwater infrastructure and will henceforth only be building the decentralized green kind.

Yet New York has only a small fraction of the available space that Berlin enjoys, proportionally speaking, and the population density is much higher and the diversity of people and cultures wider and more disparate. “Usage conflicts” would surely be more likely in crowded and heterogenous New York than in Berlin with its ample elbow room and lower heterogeneity, yet they haven’t been a significant obstacle in New York. And so, given that Berlin has minimal political support for green stormwater infrastructure and even less money and technical know-how, warning people about conflicts that may or may not ever arise doesn’t seem like a promising way to get people on board with the idea. Or if people are worried about them, why not talk to people who have already gone through the whole process? (Berlin does have a green infrastructure program but only for new developments that pave over land that wasn’t paved before – this at time when Germany is paving over green open space at the rate of 120 football fields per day. The program does not in fact reduce the harm that stormwater is causing; it only maintains the status quo.)


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