All things environmental

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

Six months in Germany!

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Paul, the nerdy tourist, looking at "Efficient House Plus, with Electrical Mobility"

Paul, the nerdy tourist, looking at “Efficient House Plus, with Electrical Mobility” in Berlin

I’m going to Germany. With Dinah. For six months. Based in Hamburg. Pretty pumped!

Kwantlen has approved my application for an education leave (thank you). Ed leaves are granted for applicants who want to improve their education, do some research, or investigate alternative education systems.

HafenCity, the opera house (forever under construction, windmills in the distance)

Hamburg’s HafenCity, the opera house (forever under construction), windmills in the distance.

So I’m planning to investigate, but in more detail, some of the things I already wrote about: the Algae House, Jenfelder Au, and other stuff, as well as a bunch more (the EnergieBerg, the energy bunker, HafenCity) that make (or will make) Hamburg a model for green technology.

I’ll be taking a look at their garbage, as well; Hamburg uses a remarkable combination of incinerators, biogas generators, and composting plants that warrant a close look. (I’ve been aching to see these, but there are limits to Dinah’s patience when it comes to holidaying in Europe. Beautiful museum? Walk on the beach? Garbage incinerator? Mmmh, tough choice…)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Germany (or anywhere in Europe for that matter) is paradise on Earth. From rigid social attitudes to questionable policies (towards women, for instance), many things seem wrong to an outsider. Germans have their, hmm, peculiarities: the travel website Matador has a really funny set of posts (here, here and here) that poke fun at cultural contrasts between Germans and North Americans. But still – there is so much there that is inspiring to a North American like me.

I want to do what Chris Turner calls “the new grand tour”. There’s so much to see in Europe that inspires hope for the future; things that we still consider impossible or impractical already exist in Europe, built and running, and their new technologies are things that don’t even register here. For many North Americans, this is a sort of reverse culture shock; but for Turner, growing up as he did as an army brat in Germany in the 80s, the feeling is even more acute, and his description is worth quoting at length, because he nails how it feels. Back then he was the kid from cool Canada, a place all of his friends wanted to escape to.

37, Alfred Doeblin Platz: an ordinary building in Vauban, but energy efficient and festooned with solar PV

37, Alfred Doeblin Platz: an ordinary building in Vauban, but energy efficient and festooned with solar PV

Not twenty years later, I stood in the courtyard of the kindergarten in Vauban and felt something akin to vertigo at the dramatic inversion of roles. I also felt something I’d never experienced in Germany: naked envy. Worse than that—I felt deprived. Underprivileged. Needy. If only my kids could look forward to attending a school this lavish in its amenities, this thoughtful in its design, this enlightened and new. I felt a little bit like some miserable wretch on the deck of an old immigrant steamer, wrapped in a tattered blanket against the maritime chill, gazing in wonder at the New York skyline.

This is also how it feels for me. I do like old castles and stuff, but it’s the new Europe that fascinates me. I keep looking around, gazing at the windmills and solar farms, walking around pedestrian streets, whizzing around on amazing public transit, admiring tidy community gardens along the train tracks, wondering: why don’t we have this at home?

Why, indeed? Especially considering that Germany’s cities were flattened rubble at the end of the war, and could have been rebuilt in a car-dependant, sprawling model; they chose not to. And what a result! Turner, again, this time in Copenhagen:

Livability, it turns out, is a broad, car-free plaza in front of city hall, crowded on this day, serendipitously, by singing, dancing Chilean soccer fans. (My daughter was reasonably sure this was a show being staged for her benefit.) Livability is the movable feast of the Strøget, central Copenhagen’s high street, which first cleared its cobblestones of automobiles in 1962, in time becoming the backbone of a network of pedestrian-only avenues and lanes billed as Europe’s most extensive. Livability is a passing parade of street performers and ice cream vendors, tidy squares every few hundred metres with a fountain to climb on or a broad expanse to chase pigeons across. Livability is the temporary exhibition (yet more serendipity) set up in one of those squares, an assortment of multicoloured shipping containers retrofitted as miniature performance spaces. Livability is your four-year-old sitting for fifteen minutes in preternaturally still concentration inside one of these spaces, listening to a Danish guitar virtuoso play some enchanting baroque composition…Livability is a jet-lagged parent in the heart of a busy foreign city, able to relax entirely even as the preschooler darts deliriously ahead, because it is a gentle, sunny afternoon, and there are no fast-moving, thousand-pound steel boxes to watch out for. Livability, yes, is the space to effortlessly create a yawning afternoon’s worth of serendipity.

So, yes, I want to be there, I want to experience it all. I want to visit the ecological neighbourhoods (Vauban, of course, but also Kronsberg in Hannover, Nieuw Sloten in Amsterdam, Hammersby-Sjöstad in Stockholm) and the German “energy villages” such as Jühnde and Wildpoldsried, self-sufficient in energy. I want to see what makes them tick, get numbers and document their performance in greenhouse gas emissions, create teachable modules for my students at Kwantlen – but mostly, just absorb it all: feel the future.

The EnergieBerg: the old landfill now produces solar, wind, and biomass energy

The EnergieBerg: the old landfill now produces solar, wind, and biomass energy

But how did it get to be that way? I also want to take a look at the education system. For all its perceived rigid structure, Germany is full of nimble, flexible programs that focus on experiential learning and seem to easily span academic silos, something that seems almost impossible at home. For instance, here’s a link to a video that describes how students at HafenCity University, in Hamburg, were challenged to explore why the city was lagging in green roofs (compared to other German cities, not to here!) and created a set of documentation and a how-to manual, working closely with Hamburg planners (warning: the video is an hour long, but well worth it). There are many instances like that; I found several with simple computer searches, and I’m sure I’ll learn of others while there.

And it’s not just university level programs; environment, energy management, and sustainability are integrated throughout the curriculum. I want to check out the curriculum and talk with the instructors of the Alexander-von-Humbolt school, in Hamburg, that won the eco-school of the year award; I want to see how the EnergieWende topics are integrated to high school currics; I want to check out the alternative DO-school.

I want to do all that, and more. I’m pretty excited about it. And then it’s gonna be: Watch out BC, here I come. whenever I come back from Europe, I always get kinda restless, like I want to shake things up. But this time around, I’ll know more what I’m talking about. And maybe, just maybe, contribute to shaking things up back home.


PS: don’t take my word for it.  Click on some of the links.  You’ll see what I mean when I say “the future is there!”  Also dann, aufwiedersehen – I better go brush up on my German.


Written by enviropaul

March 3, 2015 at 5:33 pm

One Response

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  1. Congrats Paul …. sounds like a productive time ahead for you.

    Bob Perkins

    March 3, 2015 at 5:43 pm

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