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.

1 comment:

eredux said...

Check out this US Carbon Footprint Map, an interactive United States Carbon Footprint Map, illustrating Greenest States to Cities. This site has all sorts of stats on individual State & City energy consumptions, demographics and State energy offices, State Taxes and more down to the local US City level...