Friday, July 20, 2007

That's all folks!

Some good things must end!

As I come to the end of this remarkable journey, I am filled with great appreciation for my remarkable experiences and lasting memories. People, places and plants come together in extraordinary ways across Europe! I have great appreciation and deep gratitude for many people that made this extraordinary journey possible.
- Eisenhower Fellowships for investing in me as part of their 2007 Urban Challenges Program
- My husband and daughters for graciously putting up with my absence for two months
- My work family at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for giving me the opportunity to travel and learn, and absorbing all my work during my travels.
- My program coordinators in Spain, Germany and Brussels for putting together wonderful opportunities for me to explore unique landscapes and learn from the experiences of local talent
- All the great people – officials, design professionals, artists, gardeners, greening enthusiasts that I met across Europe who were generous with their time and their experiences
- The network of Eisenhower Fellows who extended their hospitatlity and were generous in sharing their time, making me feel welcome as I traveled alone.

It’s been fun to blog during my trip - I return to Philadelphia energized by all that I have learned. Even more so, I return with a sense of affirmation for all that we are doing that makes Philadelphia a great city. It takes being away for a little while to appreciate home, and I’m eager to be back! Thanks for tuning in, I look forward to seeing you all out and about soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lasting Impressions

My travels in Europe have been a great opportunity to experience many facets of urban life – revealing the value and important role that open space and green infrastructure plays in the economic, social and environmental success of European cities. Europeans love their cities. Everywhere I went it was evident that city residents have deep connections to its parks, gardens and greenways. Their daily lives integrate enjoying and caring for the outdoors in unique and wonderful ways. This societal commitment to the environment reflects in government policy and practices as well – at local, regional and federal levels.

The evidence of what quality open space and green infrastructure can do as part of the economic engine of cities is clearly demonstrated in many European cities, with the planning design and implementation processes clearly linked to economic and community building projects such as riverfronts, downtown centers, and neighborhood developments. The dramatic greenway in Lyon, the rust belt renaturalization projects of the Emscher River Regional Park in north Germany, Berlin’s new greenways masterplan, the newly constructed cover park on the M-30 parkway in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao’s revitalized riverfronts – these are just some of the examples of how open space issues are positioned as critical components of these massive infrastructure projects.

In Spain, I marvel at the ways in which everyday lives of its people play out in the grand parks and plazas of its cities. Arts and cultural institutions play a significant role as part of these spaces in Spanish cities – integrating such institutions into new public spaces has been a strategic direction for new developments. As center stage to community life, these spaces are grand or intimate, ornately designed or plain paved plazas, filled with trees or not, and all of them serve as outdoor spaces for families, the elderly, teenagers and office workers. There are many clues to successful landscape design in these spaces – where community needs are met beautifully and a sense of place is created. When life is integrated as well as it is in Spain with its great outdoors, it’s a sure formula for success.

My four weeks in Germany leaves me inspired by many things German. Most of all, I am in awe of the high level of commitment to conservation and preservation of the environment – from individuals, kids, local communities, cities, as well as government at all levels. This commitment comes through in many ways and is well integrated with daily life – individual recycling and reuse practices are very sophisticated, public transportation is the norm, alternative energy is widely used in homes across the country, and finally the huge love of the outdoors makes its citizens active environmentalists. I learnt about the concept of ‘upcycling’ from a professor in Kassel, Germany who is creating items of higher value from recycled materials – and is experimenting with costructing gabions and concrete blocks from crushed materials available at abandoned factory sites. I found out that a teabag is most efficiently recycled by using all four bins readily available on city streets – the metal staple, the paper, the string and the tea leaves all deposited in the appropriate recycling container!

Germany’s strong environmental ethic is evidenced in the local, regional and federal policies regarding environment protection and urban regeneration. At the federal level, the government has an ecological tax on petrol and other non-renewable sources of energy, and has pledged to cut down their 1990 carbon-dioxide emissions by 21% by 2012. Their emissions are already down by 18.5 %. There are plans to shut all its 19 nuclear plants by 2020. Research into renewable energies is a high priority, as is developing new businesses related to alternative energy. The utility company is required to buy any power produced by an individual or an organization at four times its regular costs, creating incentives for every homeowner to put up solar panels and pump energy into the grid. Wind farms are everywhere and by 2025, there is a plan that 15% of electricity will be produced from this source. The largest solar power plant in the world, located near Munich produces enough electricity for about 5000 people. Rivers in Germany are cleaner than ever, this is quite remarkable given that the Rhine was considered ‘dead’ by the 1970’s. All these policies have had an effect of creating new ‘green’ businesses, promoting environmentally friendly practices.

New landscapes in Germany may not attract the celebrity designers that have flocked to Spain. Yet, German firms such as those led by Peter Latz and Herbert Drieseitl are gaining international acclaim for their innovations in sustainable landscapes. Some of their work as well as the work of others include excellent examples such as the newly reclaimed industrial areas in the Emscher region, reclamation landscapes in Munich and Frankfurt, and the massive redevelopment efforts that are underway in Berlin. Investments in landscapes are not confined to new ones alone. Continued support and stewardship of longterm spaces such as community gardens, local parks, signature spaces in the downtown areas, bikeways and regional parks continue to receive significant federal, state and local funds. The investments in city infrastructure and related quality open spaces are staggering – and from all levels of government. I am in awe of the community gardens, old and new that continue to be thriving open space assets in larger German cities. The older historic parks such as the Tiergarten in Berlin, or the Englishergarten in Munich are great examples of regional open space assets that have a timeless appeal to its users and continue to be cared for with supportive management practices.

My stop in Brussels to get an orientation of the European Union and its approach to the urban environment was quite an eye-opener! Can you imagine a bureaucracy that works on a model of collaboration and consensus building across 25 nations in 23 languages? There have been criticisms of EU practices, and I am struck by the high level of checks and balances that exist in all their work. The links between EU, federal, regional and local governments exist in the form of working partnerships and ongoing relationships. It’s quite amazing to see how much knowledge the EU program staff I met had of local and regional issues. Since the EU funding works in a predictable seven year cycle, there is great opportunity for collaborations from all levels to create project ideas together, fund and implement them, observe them and create the next level of investment. It was great to get such a great overview of the EU’s role in urban environmental issues. Particularly in some of the newer EU member countries such as Spain, Ireland and the eastern European nations, EU’s role in their redevelopment has played a significant role in their economic comeback.

And there is much more, and the stories are long! I was in search for synergies between people, places and plants, and what I have learned about all three has given me much to pause on and assimilate. I also feel a sense of affirmation for many of the things that we do so well in Philadelphia and at PHS.

Monday, July 2, 2007

An old American army base reclaimed

The Maurice Rose Airfield, an American airforce base located near Frankfurt was always a topic of conversation among locals because of the noise. When the base was closed in 1992, the community immediatly took it over as a place for walks, hikes and biking to the consternation of the authorities who were eager to seal off the place because of the contaminants in the ground. A happy compromise was reached when the authorities and the community were able to work with a GTL Landscape Architects from Kassel, Germany to create a master plan for the base that cordoned off spaces that were considered contaminated, remediated some areas, and created a reclamation landscape in other parts of the site that has become an area for returning diversity of flora and fauna.

The design was able to successfully intervene in strategic, yet simple ways to retain the feel of the old use, and yet create new spaces for community recreation. The old control tower is now a cafe and environmental education center. On weekends, families gather here to get started on their weekend adventures. Parts of the main runway have become a great roller blading area. Further out, sections of the runway have been torn up for nature to reclaim. What remains are the old markings along which narrow paths, remnants of the runway have been kept.

A new pedestrian bridge links sections of the new park together creating a big loop for bikes and hikes.

The bridge is elegant in its design, also creating a stopping point for looking at the river below and watching the canoers and fishermen. The asphalt expanses remain on site in some locations, but have been broken up to create drainage. Then nature takes it course ... Left over rubble is contained in gabions to create seating.

The park is used in many different ways, and its clear that the community has adopted the site as its outdoor room. Horse riders go by ......

A family outing includes a stop at the newly created pond among the rubble.

Canoers launch their boats from the bridge .... Bikers zip by ........
Signs made by children let people know not to disturb the tall grasses during the nesting season.
What I am most struck by is the re-naturalization process that is occuring on areas of the old runway and concrete pads that were broken up and left to be. There are three types of areas - large slabs, medium sized pieces, and the third size is rubble the size of soccer balls. Each area shows a variety of species, both flora and fauna returning. There is a debate among the landscape architects whether nature should continue to take its course, or should there be any intervention if the non-native species taking hold are invasive. Meanwhile, visitors climb over slabs of concrete. I peek inbetween and find a number of frogs leaping around. I hear that some of the species of frogs are now on the return. There is a monitoring process underway to see how these spaces evolve and what nature brings back. As a reminder that all this is very close to a metropolitan area, the skyline of Frankfurt hugs the edges of the park.

An EcoCity in the Black Forest

My train winds its way to Freiburg into the heart of the Black Forest. The views are breathtaking as we enter the south of Germany. My visit to Freiburg is primarily to see how this small city has focused on creating a model sustainable community -Vauban, experience the black forests, and visit with forestry professors at the technical university in Freiburg.

Freiburg is surrounded by the beautiful Black Forest mountains and located along the Dreisam river, on the foothills of the Schlossberg. The forests are so named because of the pines that give it a dark appearance from afar. These are beautiful mountains, giving Freiburg a unique and magnificient landscape as a backdrop. I am lucky to stay in the oldest inn in Germany during this visit - its family run, and has a great old world atmosphere. The daily market held at the town square is charming as well as a great support to local farmers and artists who bring their wares here everyday. As I walk through the town center, I notice open drains with stormwater flowing though them! This unusual system of gutters – Bachle in German, was originally installed to provide water to fight fires and feed cattle. Today, the system manages stormwater flow, and remains a quaint element along the streets of Freiburg. Freiburg gets its reputation as an eco-city because of its base of solar industries and alternative energy research.

Vauban, a community to the south of Feiburg, is located on an old military base occupied by the French - now rehabilitated as an eco-community. When the military left in 1992, a group of people squatted here and fought for the development of an alternative community with local government. Over the years, the army barracks were developed into flats and dormitories, and a master plan for the new community was developed with significant input from the residents.Even today, some of the caravans and creatively modified vehicles of the early residents have a place in Vauban. This planned community has developed over the years into an impressive model for sustainable living. Everyone cycles, and half the community is car-free. Its impressive to me to hear that local families go off to their vacations to France via bikes! Trams, bikes, buses and walking are the main ways for residents to get places. There was some interest among residents to do away with streets altogether, but a compromise was reached with the city to alleviate concerns about emergency access. I notice kids travelling by themselves, going to the local library or the swimming hole - walking or biking. Small stores and businesses are located on the ground floor, with apartments above on the main streets.
The apartment block below is built on land that was bought by a group of families, who then hired an architect to design the multi-family building. This way, the families cut out the developer from the mix, and worked directly with the architect to develop the building plans, customizing their units within a framework agreement. The families saved money this way, but the architects job must have been pretty challenging with multiple clients and potential conflicts of needs and interests.
Vauban has an outdoor kindergarten as an option for families to choose from. I am amazed to find out that they actually live upto their name and conduct all their activities outdoors, regardless of weather! The location below is where they meet every morning. I understand that 5% of Germany's pre-schoolers are in outdoor kindergartens.

Play spaces of all kinds abound, mostly designed by parents and local architects and artists. While the developments may have been created with a similar look and feel, the play spaces, and the green areas give Vauban a distinctly unique feeling with lots of visual variety and interest.

There is very little lawn, another strategy for the community to cut down maintenance costs and create sustainable landscapes. The plant materials are rich - great displays of grasses and perennials.
The expanse of solar panels on top of homes are most impressive. Its great to see them dotting the skyline. Residents have the option in Germany to sell power back to the utility company at four times the cost of regular electricity. Vauban is the only place where I see this happening across the community.
Work continues at Vauban to complete its final phase of new homes. At its completion, there will be about 10,000 residents in this community living this sustainable lifestyle.

New use for an old airport

Messestadt Reim served as Munich's airport until 1992. When the airport was moved to a northern location, the city had a chance to propose a new use for the old airport area - a huge growth opportunity for Munich. This city has a dense urban form with very little real estate opportunities near the city center. What is remarkable about this development is the approach that was taken to plan and develop the site - putting the land and the landscape first. Messestadt Reim is located in a unique plain and meadow landscape at the foot of the Alps, and the new development celebrates the features of this landscape type in many ways.

Planning this new development included some critical decisions to integrate work places, homes, education, commerce and recreation. The Munich Fair, the convention and trade center for the city was relocated here. The next step was to put in all the infrastructure and utilities, including all the landscape elements. Today as I walk through the site, construction still continues on some of the phases, but the development has a complete feel, because the trees and landscaped parks, and plazas have had a chance to mature and become a part of the new residents and workers. This complex is incredibly well planned, and its features include district heating, use of a third of its energy from renewable resources, and green roofs on all flat surfaces. Stormwater is efficiently managed on the site, and residents have great quality of life without having to own cars. Two train stations, buses and trams serve the complex efficiently.

I am most taken by the elements of the landscape and their manifestation as part of the development. The plan includes simple elements like oaks, pines, and birches.Hedges define spaces and create rooms in the landscape. Large areas are managed as meadows - reminding us of the airport that used to be.
I walk upto the highest point on the site and see incredible vistas around me - the forests, the beach area, the new eco-high school with its green roofs. Meanwhile, construction continues within the framework of the landscape that was installed as part of the first phase of the project. Plantings follow the airport grid. The beach and water body was created as part of the first phase to have local recreation opportunities.
Plots for community gardens are planned into the development and have been successful in attracting gardeners. The development charges a fee for the plot and there is a waiting list now for new plots.

Most of the landscape is filled with grasses and perenniels, there is very little grass that is mowed beyond the seasonal mowings of the meadows.

There are hints of the wide airport runways- long vistas and great green corridors that give residents opportunities for many active and passive recreation options.
Kids have taken over this area and created their own hide-out!
Very simple courtyards serve as bike storage areas, and small play areas for younger kids.

These flats have just been constructed, yet the trees were planted a couple years ago.

Wonderfully creative play areas dot the development.

The local kindergarten's play area ....
Bike paths connect every part of the development as well as link to greenways that connect to the city center.
The main part of the development includes a large plaza with a grove of pine trees - very simple, yet quite elegant.
There is also space for a farmers market and local products at the train station plaza.

It seems to me that this development works because there is a lot of consideration given to choices that people could make as part of their daily lives. The landscape amenities play into this focus in a huge way, providing many recreation and quality of life elements that make families choose this development. Messestadt Reim is a case in point of how critical quality landscapes are to urban life.