All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Julia Wertz’s Tenements, Towers & Trash

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I love browsing in the “new acquisitions” section of the downtown Vancouver Public Library.  This week I borrowed a new book by Julia Wertz, Tenements, Towers & Trash: an unconventional illustrated history of New York City.

What a delight.  She has been working for the New Yorker magazine on “then & now” type feature, rendering old photos into illustrations and accompanying them with illustrations of the same spot in its current state.

There are also more conventional historical features, such as illustrated bios on journalist Nellie Bly, abortionist Madame Restell, and Typhoid Mary, or essays such as “micro-living: real estate biggest scam”, or “the great pinball prohibition”, and lots more, all quite fun.

Of greater relevance to this blog, though, is the surprising amount of material of an environmental nature.  The topics are diverse, from the six-page spread “from horses to electric cars: a history of street cleaning in New York City”, to the invention of toilet paper, Staten Island boat graveyard, the Fresh Kills landfill and 911’s impact on it, to a long spread on Bottle Beach.

This last one, subtitled “Vintage trash and horse bones”, is particularly interesting.  Bottle Beach is on Barren Island, facing Dead Horse Bay, in Brooklyn (what names!), on an island that was a centre of rendering.  Dead cattle and pigs, but mostly horses (ubiquitous in NYC before the advent of cars) were rendered into fats, soap, and glue; whatever remained of the carcasses was thrown into the water.  A fish oil processing plant and a landfill added to the mess.    Fast forward one hundred years, and the beach is now an ugly mess of trash eroded away from the old landfill, but also a collector’s paradise, since the trash is all, well, vintage.  A tree near the beach is festooned with old bottles tied there by collectors (most were lost after Hurricane Sandy went through). On the last panel Wertz portrays herself saying “it’s just so beautiful!  This disgusting heap of garbage is making me have all the feelings!”

My favourite may be the one-pager entitled “In the Drink”.  I’ve reproduced it below.  And no, we don’t have copepods in Metro water (but yes, they’d be kosher if there was any).  Between UV and ozone disinfection, and secondary chlorination, the poor little critters don’t stand a chance.  A shame, maybe?

More illustrations, and info about the artist, can be found here, here, or here.


Written by enviropaul

June 24, 2018 at 10:12 am

Israel and its environment: sun and city

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Tel Aviv and its beach

I mentioned in an earlier post about Israel that I found there a confusing mix of inspiring initiatives and baffling, self-destructive policies.  That post was about water, where the paradox is most evident; this post is about how energy and urban development policies play out in Tel Aviv.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Ibn Gabirol, a large commercial avenue.  On every roof you can see hot water tanks connected to solar collectors.  This didn’t surprise me; they are the result of a policy that dates from the 60s, that requires every household to have its own solar hot water unit.  The energy savings are substantial, but I was a bit puzzled; there were no photovoltaic cells to be seen anywhere.  (These are now so efficient that it is cheaper to heat up water using the electricity from a PV unit than from a thermal collector.)  I asked Amitai, our tech-savvy host.  He sighed.  He said it was absurd, but not only are there no subsidies but the national electricity company won’t allow individual homeowners to connect to the grid.

Hot water on the roofs (not my photo!)

This, in a high-tech country that has developed remarkable large solar farms in the Negev desert.  There not only field-size arrays of conventional PVs, but also some pioneering concentrating solar systems that produce electricity overnight (I missed being able to visit one of them by a few months, dang).  Still, for all that, renewable energy represents less than 2% of all the electricity generated.  Amitai explained that the company is afraid that rapid adoption of solar would threaten the large investments in coal and gas plants.  I saw some rooftop PVs here and there, but only on institutional buildings.  (This may be changing, though; the country is considering re-introducing a Feed-In Tariff for rooftop PV.)

The old power plant by the beach

The same goes for wind energy.  According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, there are only two wind farms in the country, for only 6 MW, barely 1% of the solar PV capacity.  A recent project in the Golan Heights has been canceled.  Local environmentalists opposed it, because it threatened a local species of buzzard; but the decision ultimately came down to the Air Force, afraid of being impeded in what is still technically a war zone.

This is a paradox: in a country that has created the conditions for industrial creativity to thrive (Israel is now a by-word for start-ups), energy management is top-down and stifles creativity.  Whether it is because electricity is a mature industry, or because it has inherited the leaden bureaucracy that originally characterised the new nation, hard to say.  But the same heavy-handedness is shown in its treatment of Palestinians, where it takes a downright scary, punitive tone.  For instance, Israeli authorities confiscated a PV system in the Palestinian village of Jubbet Ahd Dhib, in the West Bank south of Bethlehem, because the villagers “did not get the proper permit”.   Best of luck getting the permit.

Ah, let’s get back to happier topics, such as Ibn Gabirol Avenue in Tel Aviv.  This is a street full of cafes, restaurants and independent retail stores.  This is where I discovered the rather unique way used by the locals to get around: electric power on two wheels.  There is an extensive bike path network in the city, facilitated by the fact that sidewalks on streets like Ibn Gabirol are quite wide.  A great many people of all ages use these paths (watch when crossing a street!).  The majority, though, do not use their leg power; rather, what seemed most common are electric bikes.  Almost as common are little scooters.  Far from being kids’ toys, these powerful little contraptions are used by everyone from businessmen in suit and ties, shoppers, to couples that fit snugly on the small foot platform.  I was entertained watching them go by while nursing a drink in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops that line the sidewalks.  There were also the occasional cargo bike, tricycle, even a motorized unicycle that looked like a stripped-down Segway.  It’s a high-tech place.








Of course, Tel Aviv is ideal for bike (and scooter) commuting: it’s mostly flat, and mostly sunny.  But I suspect that there is another incentive at work.  Every Shabbat, from sundown on Friday and most of Saturday, there is no public transit.  None.  No buses, whether local or intercity.  No trains, either, despite the nice new network along the coast.  And the subway under construction won’t run either.  Most Telavivi resent the situation, and blame Jerusalem for this predicament.  But try as they may, there is no way to move the government to reverse a law passed long ago to appease the religious parties.  This law is more than an annoyance; it has severe economic consequences such as delaying vital infrastructure projects (there can be no construction on Shabbat).  And, of course, it negatively affects Israel’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But to get back to Ibn Gabirol – the avenue has something else to offer, a characteristic that, to my knowledge, is unique in the world but totally unappreciated.  It has a unique set of arcades that are nearly fully continuous for over the two kilometers of length between City Hall and the Yarkon River.  Despite the traffic on the busy six-lane avenue, the arcades make for a very inviting pedestrian experience.   Restaurants and cafes spill out on the sidewalk under the arcade overhang (we spent a good deal of time just chilling out at many of them), and protect you from the sun (and the occasional rain – even from hail, which we experienced once!).

The arcades are nothing fancy; they are created because first floor of the buildings that line the street extend over half of the sidewalk, supported by columns.  The buildings are otherwise quite non-descript and utilitarian, built as low-rise apartment buildings that were originally quite affordable.   There are clones of these buildings all over the city; what is unique about Ibn Gabirol is the continuity, which create this continuous, arcade-like safe space shared by pedestrians and café tables (the bike lanes are on the other side of the columns).

We were visiting Tel Aviv when the Toronto van attack that killed ten pedestrians took place.  I couldn’t help but notice that such an attack could not have happened on Ibn Gabirol.  The space under the overhangs (the arcades, so to speak) is protected by the concrete columns that hold up the building overhangs.  But further, on the outer side of the sidewalk is a row of obstacles between the street and the bike lane; the row of trees is not a surprise, but the space between them is taken up either by solid bike racks as well as sets of facing chairs bolted onto the sidewalk.  These amenities are well used; the bike racks were mostly full, and on many of the chairs were people occupied in a lively conversation.

But this was not meant for protection; Tel Aviv is full of public spaces and public amenities such as these chairs: little parklets, spaces for kids, and well-used fitness equipment, to say nothing of all the beaches and waterfront boardwalk, all publicly accessible.  This was certainly a pleasant surprise to see in a country with a right-wing government that seem to have little patience for community-minded initiatives.

A woman we met (a lefty artist who grew up in a kibbutz) told us:  yes Ibn Gabirol is great, a wonderful and unique design!  But it was never copied, and she was at a loss to explain why.  So I still can’t figure out this country.  I’ll leave you with a few photos of Ibn Gabirol (and a video, not taken by me).  Including one that features a major flaw in the bike lane design – a metaphor for the country, maybe?

A cafe under the “arcade”

An overview of Ibn Gabirol











Well, the vendor booth was there first…



A good view of the continuous sheltered path under the overhangs








Written by enviropaul

June 10, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Israel and its environment: water

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Tel Aviv

I spent a couple of weeks recently in Israel, a purely touristic trip.  But of course, I can’t just let go of my interest in the environment; here are some of my disorganised thoughts about what I saw.

I say disorganised, because the environmental record, like the whole of the country, is a bit of a paradox: how can a country so progressive in its culture, a country that could be a ray of hope for the whole middle east, adopt policies reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, apartheid, and an Iran-like theocracy?  And the environmental record is no different: amazingly good in some cases, weirdly and unexpectedly bad in others.

Israel is, of course, world renowned for its water conservation initiatives.  This is not something you see as a tourist; all you know is that the tap water tastes good, is completely safe, and is abundant.  But I knew where that water was coming from; before leaving, I made sure to read Seth Siegel’s 2015 book Let There Be Water: Israel’s solution for a water starved world.  According to Seagel, water saving technologies as diverse as the dual flush toilet and the drip irrigation system were all developed in Israel – including sewage recycling, using membrane filtration technology (after standard treatment).

So I knew that what I was drinking was recycled sewage; and somehow, knowing that, instead of producing an ick reflex, made me feel strangely smug.  Hey, watch me flush guilt-free; it won’t pollute, it won’t make someone sick, it won’t even waste water – it’s coming back, closing the cycle, and fully clean.

The membrane filtration is the same technology that is used for ocean water desalination, which is also used and was pioneered in Israel.  But filtering treated sewage, as opposed to filtering sea water, uses much less energy.  And that remains true even though Israel’s sewage is ironically the saltiest in the world (due to the extensive use of salt and brines in classic kosher cooking).

You don’t see any of that as a tourist, but you see some of the results: in Tel-Aviv, the beaches are clean and full of swimmers, surfboarders, and small-craft sailors.   And yet, the city struggles with periodic coliform contamination of its beaches.  This is because the cycle is not, despite all intentions, fully closed.  The sewers that bring wastewater to the treatment plants also convey rain water; and during major storms, they get overwhelmed and overflow (they is little storage capacity in the network).

Still, the pollution numbers are not all that different from, say, English Bay in Vancouver.  But you’ll find in Tel Aviv something you don’t find in Vancouver:  an app that tells you exactly where the pollution is, what beaches are closed and why.  This is typical for this computer start-up mecca.

Since I mention the sewers, I can’t resist posting this little video about the artwork on manhole covers.  You get the real relaxed, California-like vibe that permeates the city, so different from Jerusalem – and notice the bike paths, they are everywhere.

As a tourist, you can also stroll along the Yarkon River that bisects the city, along a wonderful linear park across Tel Aviv itself and extends into the suburb of Ramat Gan.  The park is used by cyclists and joggers as well as kayakers, or by anyone looking for an oasis of shade. Despite being Israel’s second longest river after the Jordan, the Yarkon is less than 30 km in length; Israel is a small country. It used to be an open sewer; but after an extensive clean-up program, the small stream was declared fit to swim in 2011. This was a very pleasant surprise; during an earlier visit (in 1980) I remembered this part of the city as distinctly unpleasant.  Hard to believe that as recently as 1997, four athletes died and sixty were acutely sick after accidentally falling in the river; this was the result of a severe fugal infection contracted from aspiration of the polluted waters.  At the time, some of the smaller towns along the Yarkon didn’t even have a sewage treatment system; that the river is now clean, a mere twenty years later, shows how fast the progress was.

The Yarkon River in Tel Aviv

On the bus between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I was amazed by how the scenery had changed in nearly 40 years.  Israel is famous for having “made the desert bloom” – or rather, for having planted tree seedlings over land that was dry and damaged.  What looked like a distant green fuzz all these years ago now looks like a deep green forest.  I was pretty speechless looking at this forest that wasn’t there before, and that went on for over an hour.  This forest, along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor, is the most famous: six million trees were planted in 1951, one for each of victims of the Holocaust.  And this forest, remarkable as it is, is only one of many such plantings.  The largest, the Yatir forest north-east of Beersheeva, is truly amazing, a biodiverse assemblage of drought resistant species that has rolled back the desert despite an average yearly precipitation of less than 300 mm (this is only about 20% of Vancouver’s).  This was accomplished in part by cleverly modifying the landscape; small embankments slow surface runoff and ensure that rainfall recharges the groundwater.  (Basically, Israeli water managers have done the equivalent of what beavers do: small dams everywhere, making the land work like a sponge.  This is not a new technology; archaeologists have discovered abandoned water impoundments that date from the Byzantine era, but the modern scope is unprecedented.)

Salt concretions on the Dead Sea shore

But this feeling of elation was a bit dashed when I arrived at the Dead Sea, a few days later.   I knew that the Dead Sea had been receding (after all, it is one the main topics of Canadian environmental writer Alanna Mitchell’s book Dancing at the Dead Sea) but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.  I had stayed at the Ein Gedi oasis, in a little youth hostel near the shoreline; next to it was a fancier spa (that I couldn’t afford) and a few other facilities for tourists that come for the beneficial effects of the Dead Sea mud.  All these facilities are now abandoned ruins; the sea is now too far below, having dropped by about a meter every year since 1970.  The road itself has been rerouted; sinkholes have appeared at random (including under the old road) because the groundwater is now so low.  The sea level is dropping because the waters lost to evaporation are no longer made up by the flow from the Jordan River, which is fully diverted for irrigation in Israel and Jordan.  And the sinkholes are largely due to pumping of groundwater by a local water bottling company.

Well, at least the wilderness around Ein Gedi, and the two small canyons that have year-round flow, are now protected into an ecological reserve.  Silver lining.

But there are plans afoot to replenish the dead sea.  Israel and Jordan may cooperate on a large project to bring waters from the Red Sea, at sea level, into the Dead Sea, which has the lowest elevation in the world, 430m below sea level.  This drop could be used to generate electricity, and the electricity produced would power a desalination plant, boosting the amount of water available for irrigation to both countries.  And the brine could be dumped into the Dead Sea, raising its level with few environmental impacts (the Dead Sea has little life in it, hence its name, and its salinity is about the same as that of the brine rejected by a desal plant).   This may raise the sea to its original level, saving the few shoreline marshes that were used by migrating waterfowl.  This is not without risk, though; apart from the obvious issues of cost, the chemistry of the Dead Sea waters is quite unique and different from sea water; the proportion of bromine ions is much higher (which supposedly account for its therapeutic properties) than that of sea water brine.  What the consequences would be for the mineral extraction industry at the south end of the sea are unclear.

Problems in Israel, environmental or otherwise, are never simple.  According to 2009 statistics, 1.9 billion cubic meters of water are consumed yearly, half of that for irrigation, leaving a comfortable 137 liters per day per person for domestic consumption.  But of that total, only a very small fraction (about 5%) is available for Jordan and the Palestinian territories, combined.  Lack of water in the occupied territories may be the biggest aggravation faced by the Palestinians, making any prospects for peace ever more elusive between water-rich Israel and its parched, desperate neighbour.

I spoke to an engineer, an Jewish immigrant from Russia who was able to leave after the communist regime fell.  Needless to say, he had seen his share of strife and absurd political decisions.   He explained to me that Israeli politics are essentially reactive; nothing happens, nothing gets done until there is a clear emergency.  He pointed to the country’s water politics; there had been little investment in techniques such as desalination,membrane filtration, and groundwater recharge until the country nearly ran out of water – then things moved quickly, and “the problem was fixed.”  This was in response to my question about the environmental situation, not the occupied territory politics, but I expect the answer would not have been that dissimilar.  He was fairly cynical about politics, shrugged his shoulders a lot in a disabused fashion.  But he was not pessimistic; he said that the country seems to eventually always muddle its way through to a solution to its problems.  Here’s to hope for the long run.


Books mentioned:

Siegel, Seth 2015.  Let there be water: Israel’s solution for a water-starved world. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Mitchell, Alanna 2004.  Dancing at the Dead Sea: tracking the world’s environmental hotspots.  Toronto: Key Porter.

Written by enviropaul

June 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm

What can a poor student do?

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What to do about climate change?

“But me, as a student, renting, poor, what can I do?  Is there anything someone like me can do?”

The question was about climate change, and it was the question that stumped Federico Rosei.  The celebrated physicist, expert in energy and nanotechnology, had just concluded his presentation, a guest of the KPU Physics department and the Canadian Association of Physicists.  As expected, the talk reserved a large place to climate change and energy topics – and a description of how, as a society, we seem to be rushing headlong towards a cliff.  Dr Rosei answered the question of “what can someone do” as if it came from a general member of the public, with the usual recommendations for saving energy, from getting better house insulation to replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.

The questioner would have none of it, though.  He was a student in the physics program.  As with most students, there is little money, and few possessions: so no car, no home of his own. A renter can’t be asked to replace his landlord’s drafty windows with energy efficient ones, even if he had the money to do so.

Part of the problem is with the question itself.  We are so accustomed to think in terms of individual, as opposed to collective, action. We use a morality filter to gauge actions into good or bad, and then turn back that lens on ourselves, hoping for a feel-good glow if not bragging rights.  In that context, answering that the problem will only be solved through collective action seems a bit of a cop-out when faced with that question.

I, too, have been stumped by that question.  It seems to come up in my intro class every year, whenever we discuss climate change.  I had to mull over it, and here’s the answer I use.  It comes in three parts.

The first part is to become politically active.  This is an activity that costs no money, just a bit of time.  This doesn’t mean running for office – just being vocal.  Politicians are the ones who can implement policies that can make a lot of difference.  We tend to have a cynical view of politicians; but politicians mostly just respond to their constituents.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease; if you don’t squeak, expect to be ignored.  And so, expect that politicians will implement programs similar to those found in Europe that make it worthwhile for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings.

So, speaking up is the first step of becoming politically active; getting organised is the next.  It is always surprising what a phone call to a local counsellor or an MP can accomplish, because so few of us bother to do it.  So imagine what organising hundreds of people to call about, say, poor transit can accomplish.

Indeed, collective action is always required to effect a big change.  As Martin Lukacs writes, neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals:

Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gunfight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.

Collective action is needed, clearly.  But the wish to do something as an individual is quite primal, it is an urge to fix a problem once the problem has been seen.  That urge can be counter-productive, though; as Annie Leonard describes, satisfying it often serves to scratch an itch, to produce a feel-good, even smug feeling; but recycling cans is not going to address climate change on its own.  In fact, there aren’t any individual actions that can, on their own, even if practiced by many.

But yet, even a poor student can do things that make a difference.  This is the second part of the answer.  The good part is that it is simple, and can even save money: it’s about better food choices.  Curbing food waste should be the first reflex.  North Americans waste about one third of the food they purchase, according to some estimates.  Cutting down that waste by half, say, also reduces by the same proportion the amount of energy spent, and greenhouse gases emitted, to produce that food.

Not all foods are equivalent. In general, producing a kilo of beef causes much larger emissions of greenhouse gases than a kilo of pork, which itself produces more emissions than a kilo of chicken. A kilo of prawns raised in a pond in South-East Asia is said to be responsible for emissions similar to that of a family car driving from Vancouver to Toronto. And of course, by that measure, a vegetable-based diet has the least emissions.  Reducing food waste and eating a plant-based diet, collectively, has more of a positive impact than rooftop and solar farms.  And, of course, there is organic food.  In this case, its importance is not so much that fewer toxic pesticides are sprayed; rather, it is that organic farming produces fewer emissions than industrial farming, and also removes carbon dioxide from the air and segregates it away in the form of increased soil organic matter.

And there is a third point that may be just as important.  You’re a student, so keep studying, learn more about the issues, focus a bit of your research on that.  You’re smart; you may be the one who discovers a breakthrough, invents a new system that addresses the issue.  You may be the one who invents the new supercapacitor that makes energy storage a problem of the past.  You may be the one who formulates a policy that enables oil patch workers to recycle themselves into geothermal system installers.  Or you may fail and not invent any of that, but become the inspiration that will make another succeed.  Don’t ever give up.

Not convinced?  Then take a look at these articles, linked below.  You’ll feel better.

Written by enviropaul

March 12, 2018 at 5:01 pm

International Women’s Day 2018

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In the pages of the Globe, today (March 8, print edition), there is a special section for International Women’s Day.  Nine women were featured in a banner spread over three pages.

All are remarkable, but I had never heard of many of them, so I thought I should do a bit of research.  I was surprised by how prominent environment and social justice were as issues of concern for these women.

Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett is an ecological economist from McGill.  She addressed last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos with a keynote talk on hope and sustainability (more details here and here; I learned, among other things, that McGill is trying to become carbon neutral, yeah McGill!).

Frances Edmonds is Head of Sustainability at HP Canada.  The company has partnered with WWF on a remarkable project.  It plans to enroll 500 companies to raise money for conservation projects.  The companies, small and medium-sized businesses, can then benefit from HP’s expertise in responsible IT purchasing, sustainability reporting, and employee engagement.

Emma Gilchrist needs no introduction; with her website, she is a one-woman wrecking ball of the hypocrisy of the corporate sector in the energy industry. Her site is one of my favourite source of environmental information for Western Canada (see here on Site C, for instance) and she also writes for DeSmog’s US and UK counterparts.

The rest of the list is heady company, too, even if there is less direct environmental focus.  Vicky Kaspi is an astrophysicist and Joëlle Pineau a leader in artificial intelligence, both from my alma mater McGill University.  Jessica Chastain is the well-known actress, producer, and feminist activist (PETA calls her the sexiest vegetarian; I’m not sure what I think of that).

Kate Coffey is recognized for her role in helping communities in Sri Lanka; she won the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2017 from Vega Alliance.  Cindy Blackstock is a child welfare advocate from the Gitska Nation; among other remarkable deeds she forced the feds to back down and was awarded $20,000 compensation when it was ruled that the government had retaliated against her for her outspoken activism.

Finally, there is Hannah Alper.  The sixteen-year old activist hosts a remarkable blog about activism on issues of social justice, health, and education, as well as environmental issues.

For all the woes of the planet, there are reasons for optimism.

Written by enviropaul

March 8, 2018 at 9:53 am

A courtyard in Ottensen

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The inner courtyard, safe for kids and cats

Hamburg has a lot of green space, even though they can’t always be seen from the street: they are in the inner courtyards.  These courtyards are a fabulous amenity, providing an antidote to urban issues: they offer quiet, green, safe spaces.

Hamburg is particularly fortunate in that respect.  Not all courtyards are great; Hamburg learned from Berlin’s experience.  In Berlin the buildings are taller and the courtyards narrower, so that they are permanently shaded, particularly dreary in winter.  In Berlin the apartment buildings of the inner city were built fast to accommodate an unprecedented migration from the countryside between 1850 and 1900.  They came to be called mietskaserne, the hovels of the poor sketched by Zille or Kollwitz, built without lawns or green space, “the dark, infested, despised Hinterhöfe – the tenement blocks – of Berlin”, to quote Alexandra Richie, who documents details such as there being only one toilet, out in the courtyard, emptying into a cesspit, for every ten flats.

Hamburg was never as big a draw as Berlin, and city planners, Fritz Schumacher among them, had a chance to reflect on Berlin’s experience; they decreed that inner courtyards needed to be sufficiently large to let in sunlight and allow for good air circulation.  As a result, many of the Hamburg buildings built in the 1900-1920 period have grassy courtyards with large old trees.

I had a chance to experience that for myself.  During one of our visits to our friends Stephan and Anya, I asked if we could go into the courtyard of their building.  Their building is one of many contiguous apartment blocks on Friedensallee in Ottensen, an established neighbourhood of Hamburg, that enclose a large inner yard as the buildings, 1930 vintage, occupy a whole city block.

The inner courtyard, with the three new buildings in the centre

The courtyard is the size of a small city park.  It’s mostly lawn, some trees, with a few swings for kids and a sandbox.  People have strung a few communal clothelines.  There are a few flower beds, but surprisingly no vegetable garden.  Stephan explains that people are concerned that the soil may still be poisoned by the residues of bombing from the second world war.  The courtyard is not fully open; there are a few fences that divide the courtyard into maybe three sections. Too bad.

We went to another one of the courtyard sections, one that can be accessed from the street.  There is a break between the buildings, wide enough for a car.  There is a small parking lot.  This is a change; in the sixties, much of the courtyard was a charmless parking lot.  There is only a little stub of a parking lot left; the rest was progressively returned to grass, or built over.

The new apartment blocs in the courtyard

This is the development that caught my eye.  The former parking lot is now home to three mid-size apartment buildings, three-story structures completed in 2012 with 32 dwellings.  These have the sharp look of very energy efficient buildings.

Walking around, we struck a conversation with a woman named Elke, a mother of twins.  She invited us to her apartment.  It’s on the ground floor, very bright with natural light, despite it being an October afternoon; this is due in part to the open plan design, which is a relatively new concept here.  I found it very comfortable, and she confirmed that it is very well insulated, and has a heat exchanger to provide ventilation when it is very cold.  But windows can also be opened; this isn’t a box with stale air, far from it.  Again, I was impressed that, at least in German buildings, the more energy efficient ones are also the most comfortable ones, where the indoor air feels freshest.

She found the inner courtyard ideal for her boys (I forgot to ask; the twins look like they were five or six years old).  She says she doesn’t need to worry; the courtyard gives plenty of space to play, it is safe (no cars) and there are neighbours who also have kids to play with.  It was very easy to fit in.

This may unremarkable except for the fact that she is a single mom, and that this is a large, modern apartment in a desirable part of town.  But these three units were also built with the objective of providing affordable housing (part of the subsidy money comes from the city, part from the developer in exchange for different conditions), so the rent is means-tested.  In Hamburg, being a single mom does not condemn you to poverty.

Visiting the yard also solve another puzzle – are there no cats in Hamburg?  Or do they not go out?  There are many, and they do go out – but they stay safely inside the courtyards, well away from traffic.

And this far from the only addition to a city courtyard.  This type of infill has been done all over, increasing urban density in a manageable way, without altering the character of the urban fabric.  I already mentioned another complex nearby, Fette-Hӧfe, in a previous post.

A view of the courtyard from the kitchen window of the apartment of our friends

Call me naïve, but this strikes me as an ideal design for mid-level urban density: apartment blocks with large, airy courtyards that allow for some infill.  This strikes me as a form that Vancouver should use for development, something to provide housing for so-called missing middle.  There are a few examples in town; I can think of the Marquee building, or the co-housing development on 33rd.  There should be many more.

I do like courtyards, clearly.  More details about the neighbourhood of our friends can be found in previous posts, here and here, that I wrote when we first arrived in Hamburg.  I found that the city provides excellent documentation for its housing initiatives; much of what I visited I found in a publication (212 pages, free!) called Mehr Stadt in their Stadt: Chancen für mehr urbane Wohnqualitӓten in Hamburg (More city in the city: options for better quality urban housing in Hamburg, downloadable from the city site here).  As for the Richie quote, it’s from Richie, Alexandra 1998.  Faust’s metropolis: a history of Berlin.  New York: Carroll & Graf.


Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2018 at 5:37 pm

The Green Network of Hamburg

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Hamburg’s green spaces

“Imagine leaving your house in suburbia and being able to walk, jog, or bike all the way downtown, following a system of interconnected wetlands and streams leading down to the major regional river.”

The Dancing Pants, public art along the Eilbeck

This sentence in an article by Celina Balderas Guzman (ref below) caught my eye.  She mentions that one would come across community gardens, sports fields, ecological reserves, as well as more technical features such as areas for sediment and runoff capture, or even energy generation. She mentions the role of wetlands in controlling pollution from urban runoff.

This sounds all fine, except for one thing: it is preceded by the heading “constructing our future”, as if this was a holy grail of urban planning, some kind of unattainable ideal of urban planning worth striving for.  In many cities, that may indeed be the case.

But there is at least city where what is described is not the future, but the reality.  That city is Hamburg, Germany.  Surely it is not the only one; but this is one city I know well, where I have walked and cycled extensively along its extensive network of trails and green spaces, so I will use it to illustrate the point.

Cycling along the Eilbeck canal (note the porous pavers)

At first glance, Hamburg doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for a green city.  It’s a prosperous merchant port city (the second largest in Europe), a manufacturing and publishing centre, busy labouring under the grey skies of the North Sea; not where you would expect a colony of tree-hugging nature lovers.  It’s also a modern city that had to rebuild itself repeatedly.  The British air force reduced the city to ashes and rubble in 1943, wiping out whatever remained of the historic city one hundred years earlier.  Before that, the occupying army of Napoleon had cut down every single tree in and around the city to ensure a clean line of fire for their guns.  That protecting nature may not have been a top priority would have been understandable.

But maybe that’s just it; after so much destruction, people get attached to what has survived, and to what can grow back.  And, true to form in a port city, Hamburgers are attached to the water.  It’s not just the shores of the Elbe river, where the port is located; every river and creek that run through the city, every canal, every lake and pond is sacred.  People have consistently refused any proposal to bury a creek, no matter how insignificant.  This is why there are so many bridges in Hamburg; but that is also why there are so many green corridors; these are the shorelines of all these creeks.

Schumacher’s connectivity plan, 1919

So when Hamburg planner Fritz Schumacher drafted his city plan in 1919, he already had his green axis delineated: the shorelines of the Elbe, Alster, Osterbek, Wandse, and Bille rivers and their tributaries.  This axial plan, with green radii converging on downtown, has broadly remained unchanged over the years.  What is new is the outer ring of (almost) contiguous green space that connect the linear corridors, like a wheel rim resting on spokes.  This outer ring is not all that different from others in cities such as Hanover or Leipzig, except that it is wholly within city limits.  The city is working on connecting the missing parts; for instance, Düppelstrasse, an ordinary street in the dense neighbourhood of Altona-Nord, will be turned into a green corridor to connect two of the neighbourhood’s parks.  The extent of this ring is remarkable: 90 kilometers long, it creates a rough circle 9 to 10 kms around the downtown area.  This supports the inner ring, which neatly defines the downtown area as it is set where the ancient fortifications were; a large part of the inner ring is the famous Planten un Blomen botanical park. Detailed maps of the rings can be found on the city website here, and details about the city’s initiative (in English) here, here and here.

The outer and inner rings of the Hamburg Green Net

What that means for the visitor is that you can indeed walk pretty much everywhere outside of downtown along a green trail or in a park, away from cars and noise.  I walked (and cycled) along the Alster and the Wandse from the centre to the city limits and further, on green paths along canals (near the lake), then through green linear corridors along a natural watercourse, with cafés and parks, wetlands, dams and weirs, including a large one on the Alster with a power station and fish ladder.  These areas are very popular for walkers of all sorts, and along the trails public art can be seen.

But I also walked along a small tributary of the Osterbek, the Seebek in the Steilshoop neighbourhood (hydrology nerds: it’s a little fourth order stream).  This is an ordinary residential neighbourhood of brown brick apartment buildings.  The creek wends its way between the buildings, alternating between wooded and grassy areas.  It’s a grey December day, there are few people around, and it’s a bit forlorn.  But I wanted to see the work that NABU, the local environmental organisation, had done to rehabilitate the stream.  Out went the concrete embankments; replacing them are natural meanders and large woody debris and rocks to increase the flow depth and make the stream effective as fish habitat.  NABU also created protected nesting habitats for kingfishers, bats, and solitary bees.  But this was done in a very German way (or so it strikes me): the environmental group works with the city and together they determine priority areas for conservation, and the city funds the initiatives and supervises the work alongside NABU volunteers.

The Seebek creek winds its way between apartment blocks

I also visited Eppendorfer Moor, a 26 hectare wetland by the Alster near the Jewish Hospital.  A friend had told me it was gorgeous; he probably visited in summer (in December, there was no sign of the endangered ferns said to grow there).  Still, I could see the control weir; this wetland, like many throughout the city, is not only a green space for ducks, it also provides storage capacity for rainstorms.   This urban pond has an interesting history.  Originally it was dug for peat, then drained for farming.  The 76th regiment had their shooting range there.  After the war, the plan was to fill the wetland with rubble.  But, in a move typical of Hamburg, locals thwarted the plan.  A night-time planting operation led by Werner Hoffmann, head of the Gardens Department, forced politicians to reconsider.  (Unfortunately this action brought in non-native species.)  What is remarkable is that this wetland, one of many in the city, is only about five kilometers from downtown.

But these are far from uncommon.  I counted twenty-six rivers, and gave up count of the innumerable lakes and ponds, public parks, nature reserves, community gardens, and connecting trails.  Even the numerous cemeteries are visited for their treed park-like appearance; indeed, the Ohlsdorf cemetery, at 391 hectares, is the biggest park-like cemetery in the world.

Eppendorfer Moor in winter

This is possible, in part, because Hamburg, despite being a large European city, is not particularly densely built; the average population density is similar to Toronto, and since much of the residential sector consists of four or five story walk-up apartment buildings, this leaves much room for green space.  There is also the fact that most of the industrial activity (the harbour, the Airbus works, the chemical and metallurgical plants) are all on the south side of the Elbe (where canals, not creeks, are the main water feature), leaving the core and the north free of heavy industry.   But the key is really in the creeks; by stubbornly clinging to their creeks, Hamburgers have ensured that green linear corridors were preserved.  This is good not only for the many who like to go spazieren, but also for the ecological integrity of the city.  Birds, insects, mammals, lizards, even plants thrive when they are not cut-off from each other by roads and buildings; and of course, the creeks themselves provide the aquatic habitat that supports the terrestrial food chain.

Imagine what Vancouver would look like if its many creeks such as Brewery Creek or China Creek had not been paved over; this may give you an insight into Hamburg’s topography.  Here we speak of daylighting creeks to restore the ecological habitats and undo the damage, whereas in Hamburg, aside from the pollution issues, there was little physical damage to most of the water habitat.  This also means that the city has much more storage and absorption capacity for large storms, and so lower vulnerability to rainstorm flooding.  This is a lesson that our own suburbs, such as Surrey, are now heeding.

Crossing the Alster on the Green Network

But if the green network in Hamburg already accomplishes much of what Balderas Guzman confines to the future (stores and clean excess runoff, provides natural habitats), there is something that it cannot do: provide a viable alternative for commuters.  Yes, some people do use the network, but it’s mostly for recreational use; the distances involved are too large for walking (or even cycling, in some cases), and – this is key – there is an excellent public transit system.  A blind spot in the much-criticized book Infinite Suburbia, where Balderas Guzman’s article appears, is the lack of an acknowledgment of the environmental problems caused by suburban development, in particular poor transportation.  This is an issue that a network of connected trails and wetlands, future or extant, cannot solve by itself.

Marvelous as it may be, as in the case of Hamburg.




Celina Balderas Guzman 2017.  Suburban Wetlandia.  In: Infinite Suburbia, edited by Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pg 489.

Written by enviropaul

February 1, 2018 at 9:56 am