All things environmental

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

The German Green Belt along the old border

leave a comment »

The old GDR patrol road, now part of the Green Belt

A monument of repression turned into a symbol of renewal – that’s what Wikipedia calls the German Green Belt.  Most people have heard of the Berlin Wall; but fewer know that there was an equally lethal wall, 00 km long, separating the two Germanies.  It is this strip along the former border that has been transformed into one of the longest linear parks of the world, a strip of wild land 1400 km long, almost continuous.  What makes this zone special?  Christian Schwägerl explains:

In most parts of Germany, East and West, intensive agriculture, highways, and cities put huge pressure on ecosystems and many species of plants and animals. But the border area was off limits to most humans for decades, and thus became a safe haven for rare wildlife and plants. “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing,” [BUND’s Dieter] Leupold said as we walked recently along the former border near the East German city of Salzwedel. “We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.” In the end, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified.

A green strip through farmland in Saxony-Anhalt

It is not quite complete – and may never be.  As soon as the landmines were removed, some farmers quickly took over the land.  Still, there’s an impressive 68% of the original area that is protected in one form or another.  Nature has taken over even areas of concern: the two control strips, 2 meter and 6 meter wide, respectively, where generous amounts of herbicides were used along with raking to create a smooth strip of soil where footsteps could be easily seen.  Given a chance, nature is pretty resilient.

Connectivity is one key element of large linear natural areas like this one.  It facilitates species migration between areas that would otherwise be isolated habitats, islands of wilderness in a sea farms.  For instance, the Green Belt connects with the 25,000 ha Harz Natural Park or the 15,000 ha Schaalsee Lake natural reserve of moors and meadowlands.  It also makes it easier to create new areas that serve as both natural areas and floodplains, such as the Lenzener Elbtalaue:

[This] Elbe river floodplain near Lenzen is of national importance for its habitat types and complexes characteristic to the middle Elbe river floodplains and its strong potential for establishing near-nature alluvial forest over a large area. The floodplain between the new dyke and the river has become a mosaic of new flood channels, semi-open meadow countryside and alluvial forest that will eventually grow through natural succession to cover an area of some 300 ha. The new habitat complexes created as a result of the project will benefit species including beaver, fire-bellied toad, tree frog and white-tailed eagle. The area’s ongoing development will be documented in evaluations in 2016 and 2021. During the floods of 2011 and 2013 the dike relocation had beneficial hydraulic effects by reducing peak levels.

The Green Belt and connected projects

But the connectivity aspect has important implications beyond local species migrations.  The German Green Belt is only one part of a larger project, the European Green Belt, which runs further south along the borders which used to make up the Iron Curtain, along the Czech Republic, Austria, the former Yugoslavia, all the way to the Greek and Bulgarian border.  These still function as political borders but there are new initiatives to ensure that the borders also work as wildlife corridors.  Likewise between Finland, Norway and Russia.  This creates a long north-south corridor that spans many ecosystem types, a bit of a counterpart to the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project in North America.  These are seen as vital for enabling wildlife to adapt to climate change.

The idea originated with bird watchers on the western side of the border, who had noticed that otherwise rare species were gathering in the green areas of what was otherwise a death strip.  It wasn’t greeted warmly by everyone, though:

“There were fears that ecologists would turn this thing into a new border, create exclusion zones and forbidden areas, not to serve communism, but environmentalism,” says Leupold. Those fears were unfounded, he adds, but need to be addressed.

The fear of exclusion zones is certainly understandable, when one looks at what used to be there.  Aside from the narrower wall area, with landmines and watchtowers, there was a five kilometer wide strip that “only reliable friends of the regime” could enter or farm.  Villages such as Bardowiek, inconveniently located along the exclusion strip, were simply stripped.  Delving into the wall’s history makes for depressing reading – I prefer to focus on some of the more comical or absurd aspects of it.  For instance, there is a small area of Niedersachsen, Amt Neuhaus, that is on the eastern side of the Elbe River, and it is the only part of the former west Germany with a strip of the wall through it.  This is because the British did not want to build a bridge across the river to link that small strip of right-bank land to the rest of the state; they just gave it to the Russians.  When the wall came down, the locals insisted on rejoining their former state.  Or take the village of Rüterberg in Mecklenburg.  It is located on a broad bend of the Elbe river that was bypassed by the wall, completely cutting off the town from the rest of East Germany – or from West Germany across the river, for that matter.  According to Wikipedia,

From 1988 to 1989, the local residents, led by Hans Rasenberger, raised the idea of creating a free town, with the powers of establishing their own laws, breaking their ties with East Germany. The “Republic” was proclaimed by an assembly of 90 citizens on 8 November 1989, just a day before the fall of the Berlin wall. On 14 July 1991, the secretary of state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern acknowledged the right of the people of Rüterberg to use the title of Dorfrepublik (Village-Republic).

There are several articles (here, here, here, here, and here, for instance) where more information may be found. There is also a short video of a trip made by a pair of tandem-bike riders along the green strip and nearby areas.  But for anyone not familiar with Germany, I recommend this half-hour video from the tourism series Check-in (in English): host Nicole Fröhlich, who grew up in nearby Eschwege on the Western side, explores part of the Green Belt and chats with Elisabeth Langlotz, a resident of Vacha on the east side, who lost access to her family across the river when the wall went up (between 8:00 and 14:00, in particular).

It should be depressing – a story of human cruelty and self-inflicted damage.  Instead, it is a beacon of hope – just the kind of stories I’m a sucker for!

Written by enviropaul

July 19, 2020 at 12:04 pm

Datteln 4: a new German coal plant shows diseconomies of scale

leave a comment »

A new coal-fired power plant opened last month in Datteln, just north of Dortmund in the Ruhr area of Germany.  The news was greeted with howls of indignation.  Greta Thunberg tweeted that the opening of the plant is a shameful day for Europe.  Deutsche Welle reported that protests greeted the opening:

Around 500 climate activists on Saturday gathered outside the new Datteln 4 coal power plant in Germany’s Ruhr region, to protest against its opening. Fridays for Future, Greenpeace, as well as German groups Ende Gelände and the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) were represented at the protests. During the night into Saturday, climate activists graffitied the slogan “Climate crisis, made in Germany” on the side of the tower.

This had followed earlier protests and occupations of the worksite last February.  For Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail, it is an example of the power of the coal industry:

The priority is restoring employment in a hurry – all the better to win elections – not decarbonizing the way we live and create wealth… On May 30, Germany opened the enormous, €1-billion ($1.5-billion) Datteln 4 coal-fired power plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel had vowed last year to close all of the country’s 84 coal-fired plants by 2038. Datteln sneaked in under the wire, revealing the power of the coal lobby has barely waned.

What is going on?  Germany has been held up worldwide as an example of enlightened decision maker when it comes to energy and greenhouse gas emissions.  Is the country changing course?

The truth is complex, and hinted at by Reguly when he mentioned “under the wire.”  Construction of the plant started in 2007, and the planning and authorization process took place even earlier, of course – in another era.  The plant – a living fossil, as it were – provides a nice example of diseconomies of scale: what may be wrong with huge projects.

In the face of it, though, the plant is not a bad one. According to the magazine Power Technology, the plant stands

among the world’s most modern coal-fired power plants under development…with a net efficiency of more than 45%. It will produce district heating in addition to generating power generation. Upon completion, the project will replace the aging Datteln 1-3, and Shamrock (Herne) power plants. [It] will be equipped with an advanced multi-step flue gas purification system, which will eliminate nitrogen oxides, dust and sulphur from the flue gas. Using combined heat and power technology, the Datteln 4 power plant will also produce approximately 1,000GWh of district heating, sufficient to supply for approximately 100,000 houses. It will provide district heating to Castrop-Rauxel and Dortmund-Bodelschwingh areas.

Out of the total electricity produced, 413MW of traction current will be delivered to Deutsche Bahn’s grid for its railway system. The remaining 642MW will be transmitted to the region’s public electricity grid.  The 50Hz power generated by the plant will be converted into 16.7Hz, which is ideal for the train system, by a traction current converter facility to be constructed along the power station. The converted energy will be fed to Deutsche Bahn’s 110kV high-voltage grid.

Fortum, the Finnish plant owner and operator, had this to say:

We understand people’s concerns, and we agree that coal must be phased out, and emissions must be reduced. However, the transition to a low-emission society must be made without compromising the security of supply or an affordable cost of energy, in a socially just manner. This has been the starting point for the comprehensive solution of the German government, which allows the commissioning of Datteln 4 and systematic phasing out of coal by 2038.

The German government is committed to reducing emissions quickly, so old and inefficient power plants will be decommissioned first. As long as coal is needed to ensure the security of supply, it should be used as efficiently as possible.

So, overall, not such a bad project: a very efficient new plant that will replace older plants and produce more energy, electricity and thermal, for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  (And it will power the DB trains – I love trains!) Nonetheless, the project abounds in irony.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the project.  A small local project would likely not have attracted so much attention on both sides of the debate.  As it stands, despite opening, the plant may get mired in lawsuits as well as protests from environmentalists.  Michael Buchsbaum, in the on-line Energy Transition magazine, wrote last December that

as the government embarks on a bizarre sales campaign peddling the idea that Datteln’s advanced technology will somehow help improve the climate, activists are organizing a protest wave that will dwarf previous actions around the embattled Hambach Forest… Given the swelling numbers of activists joining Fridays For Future, Ende Gelände, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups, there will be no shortage of demonstrators.

The project, indeed, seems to be affected by what economies call diseconomies of scale.  That is the opposite, of course, of economies of scale: a bigger company, a bigger manufacture, benefits from its size because it can do things more efficiently – until the increased complexity brings it to its knees.  This is what we’re seeing in a lot of megaprojects, particularly in energy generation.

Wikipedia lists a number of reasons that explain diseconomies of scale: increased communications cost, duplication of effort, office politics, top-heavy management, as well as slow response time and inertia.

Slow response time is key in here.  The project was planned before the German government decided to get out of coal by 2038, and improved efficiency seemed a reasonable justification at the time.  And of course, in the early 2000s, nobody could have predicted how quickly the cost of wind power would have dropped.

Large projects are chronically plagued by cost over-runs.  Muskrat Falls in Labrador is a classic recent Canadian example, to say nothing of the on-going saga of Site C dam in BC.  Researchers Benjamin Sovacool, Daniel Nugent, and Alex Gilbert reported on over 400 energy projects (The Electricity Journal, 27(4), pg112-120, 2014).  They found that large hydro projects had average costs overruns of 70%; nuclear plants, 117%; in contrast, wind (both on-shore and offshore) averaged 7.7% overruns.  The wind farms represented 35 projects for a total capacity of 6200 MW.  Thirty-nine large solar farms (PV or CSP) had a mean overrun of 1.3%, where it did occur; over a quarter of the projects were built below cost.

This illustrates the intrinsic complexity of big projects.  Wind and solar farms are made up of simple components, endlessly multiplied.  In contrast, Datteln 4 is one giant single-block systems.  It was scheduled to come on-line in 2011, but was both over-budget and delayed.  In this particular case, this was largely due to “the continuing curse of T24”, to use the expression of the magazine Modern Power Systems.  T24 is a type of steel alloy that was selected for the boilers at Datteln, but stress corrosion problems forced its replacement with another material, the T123 alloy, at considerable expense and delay.

So it may be a bit unfair to accuse the German government of betrayal.  It had to deal with the result of decisions made two decades ago.  Yes, it could have vetoed the opening and compensated the owner; it chose to mothball two other plants instead, a pragmatic, cheaper strategy, possibly, but an unpopular one with terrible optics.

There is an understandable fascination with large projects.  They incorporate the most recent technology – and offers technical challenges of great appeal to engineers.  To politicians, they may seem to offer silver bullet solutions (electricity supply issues? Gone) as well as irresistible vanity projects (WAC Bennett got his name on a dam – why not me?).  But their complexity usually means cost overruns and delays.  And, delay or not, the time it takes from planning to operation means that they may well be obsolete by the time they are completed.  Datteln 4 should be a reminder that mega-projects have a knack for coming into the scene as costly white elephants.

Yes, Site C, yes, Kitimat LNG, I am talking about you.

Written by enviropaul

June 19, 2020 at 1:59 pm

Jeff Speck on walkability

leave a comment »











In my class on environmental issues I have shown a Ted Talk by Jeff Speck to generate discussion.  A livable, walkable city is better for the environment, so goes the argument.  Here is the talk:

Jeff Speck is indeed a bit of a guru on urban development.  I recently finished his 2018 book Walkable City Rules.  It is a companion to his 2012 book Walkable City.  But while the earlier book is written as an essay, the more recent one is articulated around a set of 101 simple rules.

The idea of a “how-to” book on urban planning may seem a bit ludicrous – the book is written for the general reader in mind, not someone who can single-handedly change a neighbourhood.  But it is at the same time an expression of democracy: the savvier citizens are about urban planning, the more they can provide input to city hall; and municipal politics are the ones where it is easiest for anyone to have a say and even influence a decision process.

But it is also a way to understand the urban fabric and sometimes to put into words something that otherwise may remain a nagging, un-articulated feeling.  For me a small epiphany was learning the expression “beg button”.  These have always annoyed me, irrationally – or so I thought.  But to read about them in Speck’s earlier book was strangely comforting.  Speck writes (pg 184):

Another reliable bellwether [of walkability] is the visible absence of push-button traffic signals.  In my travels, it is almost always the cities with push-button crossings that need the help most…push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile predominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent.  Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

This is repeated in his new book as rule 75: do not install pedestrian push-buttons (“beg buttons”), nor countdown clocks.  Aside from making pedestrians feel second class, they almost encourage people to jaywalk.  Often, they don’t even work (Speck reports that none of the roughly 3000 push-buttons in NYC work, save for 120 of them (4%), for instance).  Some merely extend the crossing duration, like the one recently re-installed at the corner of Glover Road and Duncan Way in Langley, across from where I teach.  This is hardly a major intersection; it’s one across which I commonly jaywalk.  I feel personally insulted by having to wait a full cycle because I pressed a second too late, while cars just go.  As Speck writes, “people driving are automatically ushered through, while people walking have to beg for passage.”  And countdown clocks don’t help, either; they merely “encourage drivers to gun it to beat the light.” (Toronto’s experience with them bares this out: the record on pedestrian safety hasn’t changed, but the number of rear-enders has shot up.)

The above may give an idea of what’s in the book – and there’s a lot.  I’m not going to list the rules; many are somewhat self-evident, such as “sell walkability on climate change” (rule 3), but it is the wealth of evidence that Speck marshals that makes it a delight.  There’s a lot about good public transit, urban fabric, sidewalk width, and stuff like that.  But the main point is never lost in the wealth of specific details; instead, the reader is always thinking about their home city: “is it true here? How do we rate on this metric?” In other words, it’s a lot of fun.

Breaking rules 81 and 63 at once (Starbucks on Hastings at Kaslo)

Take, for instance, rule 81: disallow curb cuts. “Fast-food and bank drive-throughs have no place in walkable districts”.  These cuts mean that cars may cut across the sidewalk at any time, unpredictably, making pedestrians and especially cyclists unsafe.  The only exception should be for parking structures and for hotels that lack access through a lane access.  The McDonald’s drive-thru 41st and West Boulevard in Kerrisdale (Vancouver) is one local instance: when I was part of a Sunday morning jogging group, I witnessed a number of close calls there (joggers would collide into one another because someone had to stop abruptly for a car pulling out). The line-up to get in the Starbucks drive-thru on East Hastings is at times long enough to affect the new bicycle path at the corner of Kaslo.

Vancouver is actually mentioned a couple of times in the book: it is held as a good example of well-coordinated transit and land use (rule 20 – though denizens of Langley may disagree) and has its own rule, rule 85, “build Vancouver urbanism” – skinny towers on pedestal bases that have good street-level appeal.  We may discuss hits and misses, but still it’s nice to see our city earn a mention for pioneering an approach.  Many other rules find applications here, such as rule 82 (introduce parklets: it’s getting there), rule 57 (build bicycle boulevards: not bad, getting better – but only in Vancouver itself), rule 86 (make interesting lighting: well…), and many others.  It becomes a bit of a game; walking around town gets more interesting.

But for a North American like me, it is the “out-there” rules that may be the most interesting, showcasing case-studies from Europe that open up a whole new field of questions and ideas for ways of co-habiting with motor vehicles that are unknown here, especially when it comes to safety.  I’m not talking about simple things like rule 63 (yes, curb parking actually makes sidewalks feel safer).  No, this is about initiatives like rule 33: adopt vision zero.  Speck points out that “when children die at a crosswalk, it is natural and appropriate to investigate the driver.  Rarely do we investigate the cross-walk.”  Zero Vision, an approach started in Stockholm, addresses that by modifying engineering standards including lowering urban speed limits, but encompassing many other changes.  Since its adoption, fatalities in Stockholm have dropped drastically: 6 in 2013, none in 2016.  Compare that to Phoenix, a city of the same size, that registered 167 pedestrian fatalities in 2013.  More details on Vision Zero can be found here and here.

Even more startling, consider rule 77: build naked streets and shared spaces.  This means no more street lights or other signs, no more painted lines and other markings.  It should result in chaos.  But in the small towns where it has been tried, the opposite has happened: not only are pedestrians and cyclists safer but traffic flows smoothly.  Speck gives the example of Poynton in England and recommends watching the YouTube video about it.  I concur; take a look (but remember that in Britain, pavement means sidewalk).  There are more examples here and here.  Enjoy!

Speck, Jeff 2018. Walkable city rules: 101 steps to making better places.  Washington: Island Press.

Speck, Jeff 2012. Walkable city: how downtown can save America, one step at a time.  New York: North Point Press.

Written by enviropaul

June 18, 2020 at 9:26 am

Between terpen and dikes: room for the river

leave a comment »

God made the Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so goes the saying.  Indeed, much of the country is built on reclaimed and drained land, much of it below sea level.  So it comes as a surprise that the latest Dutch initiative, Room for the River, aims to give some of the land back to flooding.

But there’s flooding and flooding.  Allowing the sea back in, the sea that came in a storm surge in 1953 (when 1836 people drowned) to say nothing of historical floods (over 100,000 people may have died in the 1530 flood), is not at all what is under consideration.  But the Netherlands is also home to the Rhine and the Meuse rivers, and these are the rivers that need extra room if they are not going to overtop dikes and cause calamitous flooding.

The Dutch government has created a few videos explaining what that means.  Here are two of them, to give an idea of the strategy followed by the government.

If this is a new strategy brought on by climate change, rising sea levels and more intense storms, some of its components hark back to another, age-old strategy.  Where farm land is to become flood plain, farm buildings – house, barn, etc – are to be protected.  A river flood is temporary; a crop may suffer, and the farmer compensated for the loss, but the as long as the buildings, the equipment, the livestock, and the farmer’s family remain dry, the flood is an inconvenience, not a disaster.  The barn, house and other buildings are to be elevated or relocated on built-up mounds above the surrounding land.  These mounds are called terpen, and they are a throw-back to a practice that is over 2,000 years old.

A modern terp

Terpen developed all over the North Sea coast from Denmark to Belgium, along what is called the Frisian coast. The Frisian coast is particularly dynamic, constantly changing over time.  But mostly, it is sinking: as Scandinavia slowly rebounds up from under the weight of the glaciers, it is tilting the continental plate, a phenomenon called isotactic rebound.  But because of the tilt, as the Scandinavian coast is receding, anything south of Denmark is, instead, sinking.

Early inhabitants of the Frisian coast were dry land farmers.  But as the sea invaded, especially from 500BCE onwards, these farmers retreated to whatever little hillocks they could find, eventually adding soil to them, building them up, so as to support communal farms or villages, barns, houses and gardens.  These mounds are called terpen (also wurten; singular terp).  The Roman writer Pliny was the first to describe them, and he was not impressed:

There this miserable race inhabits raised pieces of ground or platforms, which they have moored by hand above the level of the highest known tide. Living in huts built on the chosen spots, they seem like sailors in ships if water covers the surrounding country, but like shipwrecked people when the tide has withdrawn itself, and around their huts they catch fish which try to escape with the expiring tide.  They braid ropes of sedges and rushes from the marshes with which they make nets to be able to catch fish, and they dig up mud with their hands and dry it more in wind than in the sun, and with [peat] as fuel they heat their food and their own bodies, frozen in northern wind. Their only drink comes from storing rain water in tanks in front of their houses. And these are the races which, if they were now conquered by the Roman nation, say that they will fall into slavery!

But in fact, this amphibian life was not miserable.  The lands would be flooded, but only temporarily.  When this happened, the terpen would become little islands holding humans and their livestock.  All the manure and other waste would be disposed of on the mound, ensuring that the gardens near the buildings remained exceptionally fertile.  After the flood (or the high tide), the animals, cattle and sheep mostly, would return to pasture on the drying bottomlands. Over generations, terpen grew from the accumulation of rubbish as well as from purposeful addition of clay to the mounds.

Indeed, terpen inhabitants were a bit like sailors, using boats to go anywhere at high tide; but their situation was far from the dismal picture Pliny portrayed.  Michael Pye explains that they had access to fish, yes, but also to meat and dairy from their livestock, something that Pliny seemed to have missed.  Even if the surrounding salt marshes could not grow grain, the terpen dwellers ate better than their counterparts on the mainland.  Medieval peasants ate a gruel from the grain they raised, often suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and they were always under the threat of famine should the crop fail. They also owed work and a portion of their harvest to the lords.

Not so the terpen Frisians, who had the extra advantage of being free, owing no lords a fee for their lands.  Petty nobles had experienced what the Romans had first realized: the wetlands made military conquest very difficult.  The lowland Frisians remained free peasants much longer than their dryland counterparts.  From their terpen the Frisians had meat and cheese, fish and game, as well as turnips, broad beans, rapeseed, and barley from their gardens.  In the early medieval era the terpen supported a higher population density than elsewhere in western Europe, and the Frisians had the luxury of having more than half of their calories coming from animal products.

Nor did they live as hermits; sea-borne commerce developed early on.  The terpen dwellers needed wood for their buildings, metal tools, wheat and millstones to make bread; they also wanted wine.  They sold fish, cattle, cheese, butter, parchment from skins, and, most importantly, wool.  Wool was a mainstay of the medieval economy.  For instance, king Richard the Lionheart of England, captive in Palestine, was ransomed not for coin but for 50,000 sacks of wool.  The Frisians took full advantage of their ability to produce and sell wool.  Archaeologists found an ancient farm near modern Wilhelmshaven that raised two types of sheep, producing distinct grades of wool for the luxury markets.  Eventually the area moved on to weaving as well; with its centre in Flanders, the region became one of the wealthiest of Europe through the later middle-ages and renaissance eras.

By that time the Dutch, the Flemish and the Frisians had built a new set of flooding defenses: the dykes, for which they are justly famous.  But they never forgot the lessons in resilience learned from terpen life: co-operation and community are essential, be it to keep dry or to fend off some haughty lord.  They also learned that a flood need not be the enemy: properly managed, the waters can be a source of wealth and identity.  Room for the River is just the latest incarnation of these lessons.

And the rest of the world, faced with the challenges of climate change, is finally listening to the Dutch: learn how to live with the water.

More info:

Pye, Michael 2014. The edge of the world: how the North Sea made us who we are. London: Penguin.

Meier, Dirk 2008The Historical Geography of the German North-Sea Coast: a Changing Landscape.  Die Küste, 74 ICCE, 18-30.

Hoffmann, Richard 2014. An environmental history of medieval Europe.  Cambridge U Press.

van Alphen, Sander 2019. Room for the River: Innovation, or Tradition? The Case of the Noordwaard.

Other “Room for the River” videos at


Written by enviropaul

June 4, 2020 at 4:53 pm

Chicago, part three: an interesting comment

with one comment

After I wrote this blog post on Chicago’s waters, I posted it on facebook.  That generated some interesting comments – including this one, reproduced below, from landscape architect Domenico D’Alessandro.

Domenico says that my article is pretty generic – of course it is.  I’m happy that he didn’t notice glaring mistakes; it isn’t an article, it is a mere post of things I come across.  I post things for myself (it makes it easier to remember stuff) but also for the benefit of readers who may want to hear that some aspects of the environment are quite resilient, and that not all news about the environment are by definition bad.  Chicago is a case in point: Chicago River used to be dead.  Now it is alive.

Does that mean that it was revived in the best possible way – best for the environment, best for society? Of course not.  Chicago is amazing, Chicago is bewildering, but an exemplar of a fair, serene and enlightened society it is not.  The cruelty of the stockyards, the manipulative exploitation of the immigrants, the redlining of Bronzeville, it’s still all there in Chicago.

But I like the Chicago River.  I like that it is no longer polluted and stinky.  I even like the cafes along its Riverwalk – though I do question whether it is a smart development.  Indeed, as you’ll read in D’Alessandro’s comments, a better and more resilient design would have been a public space, green – and without commercial shops that get flooded.

Because flooding has already happened, and will happen again, even as TARP gets completed.  Climate change is daunting.  Some urban development designs do not face that fact, no question.  This is why I am reproducing D’Alessandro’s comments in full: we get to benefit from the perspective of a designer, and an insider: someone who knows both the place and the subject well. (His comments were quickly jotted down – I took the liberty of correcting a few typos). I have also added part of D’Alessandro’s LinkedIn biography, below, for context.


This article is pretty generic; when I presented my concept for the Chicago River Fish Hotel in Zaragoza, Spain in 2005 at a SER conference, I had an extensive account of the history of the river I thought the international community were not totally aware of. The TARP project is still the hope the city is clinging [to] to calm the waters. Now we know that climate change will bring about heavier and more frequent storms [and] it may not be enough. I also think that the whole river walk was a gift from Mayor Daley to his supporters. In 2003 while beginning to design the fish hotel, I also proposed a way to redevelop the stretch of the downtown river as a publicly owned and operated space where a variety of activities and shops [that] would rotate to allow many businesses, artists and other enterprises to benefit equally from the river walk. However the solution chosen was to privatize certain areas and lo and behold the first to have a permit was an Irish Pub. In fact, the river walk is no different than any street up above. The city fathers preferred to emulate [the] San Antonio river walk rather than truly service what the downtown core needed.

My vision was to have, the length of the river at water level, a connected ecosystem of floating wetlands that would provide [an] uninterrupted corridor for the aquatic life and form a green belt for canoeing and kayaking. The people would [have been] at the medium level with booths that hosted different vendors on a seasonal basis. This would allow [for high fluctuations] in the river to occur without impinging on the activities and not creat[ing] damages. More recent concepts proposed try to turn the river into an entertainment venue, whereas my concepts try to turn it into a cultural and educational venue.

It seems that private interests still run the show and the riverbanks are just an extension of the streets above. I don’t know if this will change in the future but most of the downtown corridor has been developed and only outlying stretches are actually dedicated to aquatic ecosystems. Now with the flooding the restaurant areas are off limits as are the connections at water level. During the recent storms MWRD was forced to release sewage into the river and lake. So the problems still afflict the city and thus far the solutions proposed and built are only marginally successful. Of course, Chicago being the windy city, everything is painted with boast and pride. There is even a macabre pride in describing the rampant corruption ‘”the Chicago way”. I am still hoping that the new administration can somehow free itself of such a past and truly begin a process of transparency and open access to projects and ideas. Thus far though the old ways prevail; and for people such as myself that are not part of the donor class and not politically connected and do not shy away from voicing their opinions and criticism, participation in city projects remains elusive. If you list the projects you will notice a recurrence of the same firms exercising control of city contracts. I am not against everything the city has done, there are some very good projects among the many mediocre questionable ones.


Domenico D’Alessandro is a regenerative design consultant (MLA in landscape Architecture- University of Guelph) and artist (Fine Arts – Accademia di Belle Arti, Firenze, Italy). He is principal of D’Alessandro & Associates, Inc. based in Algonquin, Illinois. His landscape environmental designs have received US Environmental Protection Agency, Chicago Wilderness, the 2007 Mayor Dailey Greenworks Award and an Integrative Habitat Design Competition 2012 (international)award. He has been a member of Chicago Wilderness Sustainability Team for many years.

Specialties: Integrative Habitat Design – originator of the vertical watershedTM concept and the bioshaft design process(R) for water quality and management, and habitat creation in the urban core.

Written by enviropaul

May 26, 2020 at 4:42 pm

Chicago, part two: all cleaned up, almost

with 2 comments

Tourists in Chicago now flock to the Chicago River.  It is rimmed on both sides by famous skyscrapers and the architecture tours on river boats are one of the “must” attractions of the city.  On the south side of the downtown portion of the river is the Chicago Riverwalk, a new amenity designed by the Sasaki group.  It is a continuous walkway that stretches along twelve blocks from the lake to the river fork, linking waterfront cafes and restaurants, kayak and paddleboat rentals, and a small museum along a new landscape of trees and aquatic plants lining the waterfront.  It’s lovely, and very popular.  You see people fishing from it; there are now seventy species of fish who call the river home.  What a change from the dead, stinking industrial river that caught fire every so often (see part one here). How did that happen?

Fishing along the floating gardens of the Chicago riverwalk

The whole story of how Chicago cleaned its waterways is remarkable.  At the mouth of the Chicago River is the Jardine waterworks plant (the biggest in the world!) that treats Lake Michigan water for its drinking water supply, using chlorination, activated charcoal, and flocculation.  Downstream (though away from the mouth, since the direction of the current has been reversed) is the Stickney wastewater treatment plant (the biggest in the world!) that now captures and treats sewage before it reaches the river.

I was lucky enough to be invited to visit Stickney (not all tourists do).  It’s a remarkable plant, and not just for its sheer size.  But it is indeed immense; as far as the eye can see, along the old Ship and Sanitary Canal, rows after rows of rectangular and circular tanks, looking like a never-ending array of swimming pools (with brownish water, mind).  At 1.65 square kilometer, it is the size of a village, and it treats nearly one trillion litres of sewage per year (by comparison, Annacis Island, BC’s largest plant, treats 175 billion litres, still a considerable amount). But the treatment level is in a class of its own: as at Annacis, solids and BOD are removed, but so are the fertilizer elements nitrogen and phosphorus.  This is crucial to prevent the growth of nuisance algae downstream.  Both nitrogen and phosphorus are removed using a clever process that relies on subjecting the bacteria to a sequence of on-again/off-again aeration, which shocks the bacteria into removing the excess nutrients (a process technically called nitrification-denitrification for the nitrogen, and Bio-P luxury uptake for phosphorus).  Unfortunately, concentrated phosphorus has a tendency to precipitate as struvite, clogging the pipes; Stickney is piloting a new process (developed in Vancouver) to prevent the problem and produce valuable fertilizer instead. I love the fact that such a large plant is not afraid to experiment (hey, it’s Chicago; they may be a lot of things, but timid they are not).

But, of course, the Stickney plant can only treat whatever sewage flows to it.  That is most of it; but Chicago, like many other cities, has an issue with combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  During heavy storms, the sewers, tasked with carrying away sanitary sewage and draining storm waters both, cannot keep up.  In this case they overflow into the Chicago River.  So even after Stickney was built, as early as 1930, the waters of Chicago River remained of questionable quality, especially after a downpour.  TARP, the solution that Chicago decided on, measures up to Chicago’s reputation.

It may have started with a rumor: the story that a huge flood in 1885 resulted in 90,000 cholera deaths started in the 1970s.  It is totally false, but maybe it prepared the ground to get the Chicagoans to accept the idea that a giant storm control system is needed. The Tunnel And Reservoir Plan, TARP, started construction in 1980.

The basic idea is simple: create storage space for storm water.  During a downpour, allow the mixed waters to flow into the storage space; then, once the storm is over, pump everything back up to the sewage treatment plant.

Sounds easy.  But Chicago’s storms, like everything else about the city, are enormous, and so is the need for storage.  The system started with four large tunnels (if you dig deep enough, there is good rock under the city); with a diameter between 3 to 10 meters, the tunnels which are 175 km long and as much as 100 meters deep in place can store 8.6 million cubic meters.  This is a huge volume, one that really helps with preventing the polluting CSOs.  But it is still not enough.  The reservoirs, located in former quarries, will supply nearly ten times as much storage when completed in 2026: 69 million cubic meters.  The tunnels, by themselves, have reduced the number of CSO events by half.  And since the Thornton Reservoir, the first of the three in the plan, has come on-line in 2015, CSOs have been nearly eliminated.

How TARP works

Add to that other runoff-control measures such as an aggressive program of green roofs, and it is clear that the city is well on its way to solve the problem. (You can see an impressive number of green roofs from the observatory on top of the Willis Tower, the biggest in the world!  Well, used to be, anyways.)  And there is good public awareness of the CSO problem; whereas in most other cities it is drought that leads to conservation measures, the Friends of Chicago River ask that you shorten your shower, hold off on doing the dishes when it’s stormy out – to minimize the amount of sewage produced.

And even Bubbly Creek is finally getting cleaned-up, another complex and expensive project.  There is an estimated 3 meters of organic muck at the bottom of the creek; the current plan is for capping the sediment with sand and rock in order to isolate the muck from the water above (this is seen as simpler than dredging the sediment; I have to admit to some skepticism; fermentation gas has a knack for making its way through anything).

But a full clean-up of the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers may bring a new set of problems; it seems that it is the pollution still found in these rivers that is preventing the invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.  If the clean-up is complete, all bets are off.

And it’s not as if Chicago has completely solved its flooding issues.  As recently as May 2020, the Riverwalk was completely submerged.  The new storms of the climate change era are becoming more frequent and more intense.  The last one, on May 17, caused the flow of the Chicago River to be reversed, flowing back into Lake Michigan as it naturally did more than a century ago.

The riverwalk, flooded in May 2020

But if any city can tackle this kind of challenge, it’s gotta be Chicago.

Post-Script: This post has generated an interesting comment, from a landscape architect who has a different view of what the Riverwalk should have been (and may well be right given the recent flooding).  This response can be found in part three here.


Written by enviropaul

May 25, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Chicago, part one: descent into environmental hell

with one comment

Why would you create a city there? Chicago started on a swamp – a lowland, with nowhere for water to go. Not a promising place.

But it was a convenient gathering spot for the Pottawatomie who harvested the wild garlic that grew there (the native name of the plant is the origin of the name Chicago). And it’s located where the Mississippi-Missouri watershed meets the Great Lakes; this was a great hub of commerce for the first nations, way before the first French explorers ever set foot there.  Eventually, Chicago grew into a giant hub of commerce: waterways and then railways moved move much of the goods from the west through Chicago to New York and other big Eastern cities.

Colonists started gathering around where Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable built a farm in 1780.  And then the city took off in a runaway growth: from a population of 4000 in 1840, it had reached 90,000 twenty years later, topping 1.7 million by 1900, the fastest growing city ever (Greater Chicago has a population of about 11 million today).  But the city remained a swamp.  The streets were a quagmire, constantly mired in mud. In a swamp, there’s nowhere for water to drain to.  Ditches or storm drain would have had nowhere to flow to.  Hardly a promising situation for a fast-growing city.

The solution was one of the first instances illustrating that Chicago does things differently; the city is now called the City of Big Shoulders (by its boosters) or the Windy City (by its detractors, for being such a braggart).  Sure enough, the city’s next move, Chesbrough’s 1856 sanitation plan, was a mixture of hubris and vision.  If storm drains can’t be buried under the streets, then they will be laid above ground, with new streets built on top of them.  That meant that every building’s front door was now at the basement level; city hall told the owners to either open a door on the second floor, or raise their buildings. Most decided to jack up their building. The most famous may have been Briggs house, a fancy five-story brick hotel that was slowly raised, manually, using an army of workers cranking jacks at a synchronized signal – while its 450 guests continued to stay and sleep.  Raising the whole city took twenty years.

Raising Briggs House

(Building over a swamp created another difficulty: masonry buildings would settle awkwardly.  Deep pilings supporting a steel armature solved the problem; that was the origin of the first skyscrapers, something else Chicago brags about.)

The new sewers, located above ground, could all empty into the small Chicago River.  The streets, now also above the natural ground elevation, drained well and the mud was a thing of the past.  Problem solved.

Except that the Chicago River emptied, sewage and all, into Lake Michigan, which is where Chicago took its drinking water.  Unsurprisingly, water-borne diseases became common.  Cholera had already appeared in 1854, but it came back in 1859, and 1866.  Typhoid and dysentery were a chronic problem well into the twentieth century. The rapidly increasing population (as well as the livestock in the stockyards) increased the epidemic risks.

Chicago’s response was just as gutsy as with its sewers: if the Chicago river flowing into Lake Michigan is the problem, just make it flow elsewhere. Just east of the city is a barely noticeable slope in the flat land, enough that waters west of it flow into the Des Plaines river, which flows into the Mississippi watershed.  City Hall decided to simply punch a canal between the two rivers.  As it happens, the Des Plaines river has an elevation slightly lower than the Chicago river.  There was already a small canal (with locks) between the river; all that was needed was to broaden it and deepen it.

But it’s not just the Chicago River that is higher than the Des Plaines River; Lake Michigan, that the Chicago River lazily flowed into, also is.  When the Ship and Sanitary Canal, as it was called, was completed, in 1900, the lake waters started rushing through the Chicago River backwards, at a rate of 140 cubic meters per second (that is like the flow of the Alouette river when it’s in flood mode).  By the time the new locks and flow control structures were completed, the level of lakes Michigan and Huron had dropped by 6 centimeters.

Typical of Chicago, they acted first, asked for permission later.  They were rushing to complete the work, because permission was indeed denied, in the form of a federal court injunction on behalf of the downstream city of St-Louis, which was none too pleased to be receiving Chicago’s sewage.  But the canal was completed by the time the wheels of justice had slowly turned.    This was far from the only lawsuit; a famous one was a joint action by the governments of both the US and Canada, concerned for the navigation channels (see here for a summary).  Chicago just shrugged its broad shoulders.

That may have solved the drinking water problem, but Chicago River went from bad to worse.  Soon it was biologically dead, with enough oil and grease floating on it that the river often caught fire – often enough that it became a local entertainment.

But if the Chicago River was bad, one of its small tributaries, Bubbly Creek, was even worse.  The small creek drained a wetland that was purchased by a consortium of railway and meat packer interests.  A giant consolidated stockyard was created; the Yards, at became known, turned Chicago into “the hog butcher for the world”.  By 1890, 9,000,000 animals (beef, hog, sheep) were butchered yearly.  Manure, bedding, offal and slaughtering waste was discharged into the small creek, with predictable results.  Upton Sinclair, in his 1906 book The Jungle, wrote about the creek:

all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously.

To this day, the creek still emits bubbles from the decomposition of the animal waste still present in the sediment.  The short video below gives an interesting view of it.

Nowadays Chicago River is clean – it’s a city amenity – and a clean-up program has started on Bubbly Creek.  This remarkable turn-around is told in part two.

Written by enviropaul

May 25, 2020 at 4:22 pm

Flood control strategies: Hamburg as a case study

leave a comment »

I have mentioned before that the city of Hamburg is vulnerable to flooding, and that it has developed some interesting approaches to manage floods.  There is public education. There are initiatives to increase infiltration, turn the city into more of a sponge during downpours, create storage; I have described some of the flood control strategies for the Alster watershed.  But what about the big monster at the door: the Elbe river?

The Elbe is why Hamburg exists (it is, above all, a merchant port) but also why the city is so vulnerable to flooding, as the above map shows.  The river conveys downstream the impacts of storms that may originate in Saxony or even further upstream, past the mountains, in the Czech Republic. It also funnels storm surges from the North Sea downstream.  What is unique about Hamburg’s approach is its acceptance of the idea that floods are unavoidable – that allowing the water in and minimizing the damage is far more sustainable than higher dikes and storm barriers.  Some of this comes from the early work of Erik Pasche (1955-2010).

Pasche developed the concept of cascading flood compartments and adaptive response (yes, a bit of a mouthful).  What this translates into is the development of a hierarchy of where flood waters should go, and in what sequence; identify and protect what is vulnerable within that.  This can be seen in this diagram below:

The idea is that the flood is routed to pre-selected areas, and only to those if the flood waters can be managed this way; a worse flood may cause other areas to be inundated, in sequence, always with the idea that the more vulnerable areas are the last to be flooded.  This way the expected damage resulting from any given flood is minimized, as showed on the right side of the diagram.

But what does that look like in practice?  The concept applies best to the low-lying island of Wilhelmsburg.  This was the part of Hamburg worst hit by the 1962 flood, which killed 315 and left over 60,000 homeless.  The island is now home to a large part of the city’s harbour, heavy industry facilities, but also a sizeable residential sector (including the new development of the 2013 IBA), as well as farm fields.  The diagram of the island below shows the areas that would be flooded with and without compartments; the vulnerable residential areas are indicated with two dotted perimeters.  Without the compartment approach, which prioritizes flooding farm fields, it is clear that much of the flooding (in darker blue, right diagram) would occur in the residential sectors.

There are other innovations – in particular, for asset protection.  If you are going to decree that a particular place is where flood waters will be let in, it will be easier to accept if the various buildings found there can be somehow protected.  At the same time, the strategy needs to expand to areas that are not designed to be flooded; prudent design always assumes system failure.  This is expressed in the diagram below.

But how can one design buildings to withstand a flood?  In rural areas, houses and barns may be built on an artificial mound (these are called terpen, and the Dutch have been building them as well).  But in built up areas, buildings with stilt foundations, floodable ground floors (such as garages), or reinforced doors and windows may work well.  This is actually the strategy followed in HafenCity and the Fishmarket area, and it has been shown to be successful.  For instance, on November 9 2007, urban developer Thorsten Gödtel had taken a seat inside a café in HafenCity just as a North Sea gale had sent a 5- meter high storm surge of water up the river.  He recounts that

as he sipped a cappuccino, the turbid river rose outside, creeping up the establishment’s extra-thick windows, and temporarily turning the cafe into an aquarium. Later, he’d exited the building onto the street through a door one flight up, without even wetting the soles of his feet.

I like to imagine what such as strategy would mean for us.  How would Richmond fare with a flood managed using a Pasche cascade? Where would the inner dikes be installed?  And could the approach of HafenCity be used for False Creek or Coal Harbour?

Written by enviropaul

May 2, 2020 at 8:39 pm

Moving on after Covid

leave a comment »

One of the many memes making the rounds

I’m always looking for a silver lining.  Not easy to do with Covid-19.  But could this pandemic hold lessons on how to help the environment in the long term?

On the environmental front, the record is mixed.  Yes, air pollution emissions have drastically dropped, most notably in China and northern Italy.  This includes not just greenhouse gas emissions, but ordinary air pollutants, which is why the air in these regions is now cleaner than it has been in decades.  This is important, since there is an indication that people that live in areas with poor air quality are more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as Covid-19.

That the air is cleaner is a result of reduced emissions from factories and traffic where economies are in partial or full shutdown.  I expect that hospitalization statistics will also reveal fewer cases due to traffic accidents.  (Mind you, there has been a report of more bicycle accidents in NYC, as commuters are taking to their bikes to avoid crowded subways.)  And the canals in Venice are clearer, if not really cleaner (that would take a miracle) but the increased visibility is a result of fewer boats churning up the waters.

Biking accidents aside, all these things are good.  The fact that they are the result of a tragic epidemic is not, obviously.  Once the pandemic subsides (as it will), can we find ways to keep the air cleaner, the sky bluer, the GHG emissions lower, and the roads safer?

No easy task, obviously.  China is gradually emerging from its shutdown, and emissions are creeping up with the reboot of the manufacturing sector.  And we need that manufacturing activity.  We need it to address this crisis: masks and gloves, respirators, test kits and analytical equipment, all these are badly needed worldwide and few countries besides China have the heft to meet the current needs.  But it is also needed, in the longer term, in the environmental sector.

Take solar panels.  Australians keep surprising us; they were the first to publish about toilet paper hoarding, and they have also started a run on solar panels.  Just like for toilet paper, the rationale is obscure, but installers are starting to fear that they will soon run out of solar panels.  Most are manufactured in China.  We need China back.

Many environmentalists have expressed frustration that the urgency and coordinated response that arose from Covid has been nowhere near in evidence when facing climate change.  There are some good reasons for that. Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto notice four key differences: Covid, a disease, elicits spontaneous, instinctive fear; as opposed to the climate, Covid is a fast-moving threat; there are well established, clear strategies to tackle a pandemic; and individual countries, or even towns, can go it alone, decide on measures to protect themselves independently of what happens elsewhere.

Still, are there some lessons that we can learn – how measures that fight Covid could be adapted to fight climate change?  Maybe.  Climatologist Katharine Hayhoe was recently interviewed on CBC’s Quirks & Quarks:

“What we are seeing are very significant reductions not only in carbon emissions, but in air pollutants,” she told Quirks & Quarks. “In fact one of my colleagues at Stanford, Marshall Burke, has estimated that the reduction in air pollution in China may have saved many more lives than were actually lost in the pandemic.”

To be clear, Hayhoe is not suggesting in any way that this pandemic is a good thing. “Anything that causes human suffering is a tragedy, but it highlights the fact that often we have become accustomed to — and blasé to — issues like air pollution that are responsible for millions of deaths every year.”

Hayhoe thinks there are still lessons to be learned, including the importance of pushing industry towards clean energy sources. “I think that this pandemic really emphasizes the fact that everything is connected,” she said.

We also know that the pandemic will be around for awhile.  If measures such as social isolation are to be effective, they will need to remain in place for months.

My employer, a local university, is still open for business – but classrooms are closed.  All of us have been switching to on-line teaching (with varying degree of success) and of course to on-line meetings.  Many other workplaces that could have resorted to similar approaches. All of a sudden telecommuting seems the safe thing to do.

Of course, it is annoying to remain cooped in, and when the all-clear is sounded, all of us will be hungry for human contact – bring on the meetings, you bet!  They may be almost as welcome as socializing in parties and eating out.

But once the smoke clears, after that initial enthusiasm, I hope we take stock of the situation.  By then we will have developed a lot of on-line resources; I have been impressed by how creative my colleagues are.  I hope that this will not be all for naught; I hope that we continue with some of these resources, the ones that proved to work well.  If half of our classes remain in on-line delivery mode, say, that translates into half the commuting, half the emissions, half the risks from car commuting.

This logic is likely to translate into many other workplaces that have been forced to transition.  Give it enough time, and some of the adaptations will be seen as efficient.  Work place efficiency is usually a dirty expression, one that is synonymous with cutbacks and extra work for the remaining workers. But what if it meant what it always should have meant: the ability to do a better job with whatever resources we have.  I know that every instructor at my school is thinking about core material: what is really essential, as opposed to the merely traditional.  If our courses are less packed with “stuff”, maybe our students can really master what turns out to be essential.  And the environment, too, will benefit.

But some industries need a lot of energy.  Dr Charles Donovan from London’s Imperial College Business School, made the following comments to Forbes:

“I think we’re entering a whole new phase of volatility,” Donovan said. “These are the unfortunate repercussions of a global market that’s exposed to the volatility of the oil markets, and suffers when unforeseeable events like coronavirus arise at the worst time.”

Donovan suggested that such volatility was built into the global economy owing to over-reliance on fossil fuels. “We are now seeing the downsides of the choices we’ve made about the kind of energy economy that we have,” he said.

And then there is the economic stimulus. Part of the federal help package for the oil patch is supposed to go towards the clean-up of abandoned oil wells, which is great.  I hope that it goes beyond that and includes support for other energy sectors: solar, wind and geothermal.  I hope that some of the stimulus money for the manufacturing sector will go towards adaptation and flexibility – the very things we would need now, where a factory equipped with a bank of 3D laser printers can turn on a dime from making air-conditioning units to making hospital ventilators.  I hope that some of the money meant for the hospitality sector goes towards reinforcing links with the local farms.  I hope that the stimulus helps us to become more resilient when global supply chains fall apart – and generates local jobs.  I hope that we learn to devote resources to sectors that look after the helpless, the old, the sick, the homeless.

Or something like that.  You get the picture.  It would just be very sad if we aim for a return to the status-quo ante.  We’d be faced with the same problem as before.  We’d be just licking our wounds, sparing a thought for those health professionals who lost their lives because, as a society, we weren’t prepared.  And repeating the same mistakes, while we know that climate change will be exacerbating the pandemics to come.  But if we’re smart, and that’s the silver lining, we’ll move in the right direction: a society that is environmentally cleaner, but also much more caring and fairer.


Written by enviropaul

March 23, 2020 at 4:37 pm

Smetana and the Vltava River

leave a comment »

Here’s a pretty piece of classical music, played by the Berliner Philarmoniker:

It’s part of a longer piece, which you can listen to at length (it’s about thirteen minutes) here; or, if you prefer a mellower version, here as a harp solo version.

They are both lovely, both worth re-listening to often.  The piece, entitled variously The Vltava or The Moldau, was meant by composer Bedrich Smetana, to describe the river that flows through Prague and is the heart of the Czech Republic.

I discovered that piece while the Wet’suwet’en dispute was raging in northern BC.  While it is ultimately about aboriginal title, it flared first at Unis’tot’en camp on Gosnell Creek, over a natural gas pipeline project.  Those opposed to the project were quick to point out that Gosnell Creek flows into Morice Creek (or Wedzin Kwah), into the Buckley and ultimately the salmon-rich Skeena, with all the risks that it entails.

But the importance of the resources of the river should not obscure the most important fact that a river like this is wrapped into a sense of belonging and identity.  Environmental scientists may be able to quantify threats to a river, but only an artist can access the emotional significance of a river.

Which brings me back to Smetana.  He composed The Vlatva in 1874 as part of a six-part tonal poem called in Czech Ma Vlast (my country), but it is the river part that is best known and most closely associated with the sense of national identity developed around the physical features and history of the country. Smetana describes it as follows:

The composition depicts the course of the river, from its beginning where two brooks, one cold, the other warm, join in a stream, running through forests and meadows and a lovely countryside where merry feasts are celebrated; water-sprites dance in the moonlight; on nearby rocks can be seen the outline of ruined castles, proudly soaring into the sky.  Vltava swirls through the St. John Rapids and flows in a broad stream towards Prague.  It passes Vysehrad and disappears majestically into the distance, where it joins the Elbe.

The key melody is thought to have been adapted from a local folk song.  There is a certain irony here, because what was already a well-known melody throughout the Slavic world was turned into another piece with nationalistic leanings, the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem.

The irony does not stop there: the sixth section of the piece, the swirling part meant to denote the St John’s Rapids, acting a bit as a bridge, depicts a section of the river that no longer exists.  The rapids were submerged under a hydro-electric dam in the 1930s.

Why the nationalism?  Smetana, a Czech, was raised in German and only learned the Czech tongue as an adult.  Frantisek Smetana, his father, was a Czech brewer who had determined that educating his children in German only would be the key to their success in Habsburg-dominated Bohemia, and refused to speak Czech to them.  Bedrich Smetana, who called himself Friedrich at the time, went along – until he moved to Prague to further his musical education.  There he was derided for being a Czech country bumpkin.  This was happening just as what became called the Czech revival was emerging, born of writers such as Jan Neruda who were starting to publish in Czech rather than in German, telling the stories of the local people.  Smetana never forgot; he internalized the humiliation and expressed it through his music.  A further irony, typical of the contradictions of nationalism: Smetana, the father of Czech music, was rejected by many of his contemporaries for being too “Wagnerian”, ie, too German, in his music.

This story resonates with me.  My father, French-Canadian through and through, defied my grand-father and was educated in English.  The oldest son of a traditionally large family, he intended to break out of the ghetto of the unilingual French Quebeckers.  He meant to escape poverty by getting a good job in the English-speaking corporate world of Montreal at the time.  He did, but he did not escape the jeering.  Thankfully, French-Canadians were never oppressed as badly as the Czechs were under the German-speaking Habsburgs.  And fortunately, that story doesn’t share the same ugly ending (three million German speakers, whose families had lived in Bohemia for centuries, were expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1945, many dying along the way).

Be that as it may; music gets tangled into identity politics, but also conjures some of the most beautiful emotions tied to nature and, especially, to water.

I’ll leave you with one last bit of trivia: Smetana, like Beethoven, was stone-deaf when he composed Ma Vlast.

Note: the quote and biographic details are from Brian Large, 1970: Smetana.  New York: Praeger Pub.

Written by enviropaul

March 5, 2020 at 4:01 pm