Welcome to green Berlin
Wednesday morning in the Berlin neighbourhood of Gleisdreieck. Joggers and dog walkers are out in force, cyclists are on their way to work but the half pipe in the skate park is still quiet. The view over the railway lines here stretches through to the high rise buildings in the square, Potsdamer Platz, and the centre of the city. The park here at Gleisdreieck is one of the city’s newest ones. Many of Berlin’s parks experiment with innovative concepts. These include wilder, more natural areas, playgrounds with rubberized floors, terraces with seating, small forests and smaller lakes. Sometimes the parks are flanked by ancient railway tracks, as in the park Südgelände in the neighbourhood of Schöneberg, sometimes they seem to stretch for miles over open ground, as at Tempelhofer Feld. The latter, a disused airport, boasts over 300 hectares, making it one of the largest inner city parks in the world. Once US airplanes, nicknamed the “raisin bombers”, delivered supplies to a city under siege here, after the Second World War. Now locals meet to garden, barbecue, skate or kitesurf. Berlin is one of the greenest cities in Europe. It has around 440,000 trees on its streets and over 2,500 public parks.
European environmental and climate ministers in town
Right next to the park at Gleisdreieck, is the events centre, Station - this former train station was previously one of the most important junctions for the shipping of goods and postage in 19th century Germany. Today it has become an events and exhibition centre, home to contemporary art, fashion shows and the biggest digital conference in Europe, Re:publica. Today Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Svenja Schulze, has invited her European counterparts to an informal meeting here to discuss the future of European environmental policy. The rusty-red brickwork glows in the morning sun and the commuter trains rustle past. Instead of a red carpet being rolled out, there is brown sisal carpeting and tables made out of recycled freight palettes, which invite participants to stop for a coffee. Flowerboxes in the colours of participating European countries line the path, like flowers seesawing on their long stems. Black limousines drive through the entrance, past a group of Greenpeace activists holding a yellow sign aloft: “1.5 degrees Celsius is the limit,” it says.
For a climate-neutral Europe and the protection of biodiversity
German Environmental Minister Svenja Schulze knows just how high expectations are. She wants to get things moving, to bring Europe together for the sake of the environment. “We all have one goal in sight,” she said, making a statement upon arrival at the meeting this week. “Europe should be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.” During Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, Schulze wants to bring about a consensus on further advancing Europe’s 2030 climate goals. There are two central topics on the agenda at the Informal Meeting: firstly, how can Europe get closer to this goal? Secondly, how can the EU better protect biodiversity, something that would also minimise the risks of another global pandemic like the one caused by the Covid-19 virus. The worldwide extinction of valuable species and of wilderness areas is dramatic. COVID-19 will also be a topic at the meeting. Participants may only attend if they have tested negative for the virus. Wearing a mask and social distancing should be strictly adhered to. The ceilings are high and the rooms are large at the Berlin event centre, which was part of the reason it was chosen. The city with its many green initiatives, innovations and start-ups provides an optimal background for discussions on environmental policy.
Berlin, where green start-ups bloom
Berlin is a maze of creative initiatives, young companies and social enterprises. Many of them share a common goal: to make the city, and the world, more eco-friendly. In 2009, Christian Kroll founded Ecosia, a sustainable alternative to Google. Income from those using the green search engine is invested in reforestation projects in Africa, Asia and South America, among others. Up until now, Ecosia users have financed the planting of 100 million trees worldwide. At the supermarket Original Unverpackt – the name means “original and unpackaged” - in the Kreuzberg area, pasta, nuts and rice tumble noisily out of plastic dispensers into customers’ own bags and containers. This store is one of two Original Unverpackt in Berlin that sell groceries without any packaging. The goal is zero waste. In SirPlus’ six locations around Berlin, locals have been able to buy groceries whose “use by” date is just about up. The business was founded in 2017 and the founders call the concept “rescue markets”. They want to fight the wastage of groceries. Every year an estimated 18 million tonnes of still-edible groceries end up in the garbage in Germany. Since 2017, SirPlus has rescued 2,500 tonnes. Anyone who wants to rescue more than groceries will find some good advice at the city’s so-called repair cafes, where you can fix, or find help to fix, watches, bicycles and even vacuum cleaners.
Urban farming: where fishes fertilize the food
On the premises of the old malt factory in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighbourhood lies one of the largest urban fish and vegetable farms in Europe: the ECF Farm Berlin. Christian Echternacht, one of the co-founders, stands relaxed between basil plants and fish tanks and explains the origin of an idea by three young people who love good food, nature and entrepreneurship. They asked, “why not use a circulatory system to combine fish farming and vegetable cultivation in a resource-efficient way?” and experimented with a small greenhouse and tubs of fish. Within five years, they developed into a modern aquaponics company with branches in Brussels and Switzerland. To the left, next to the greenhouse, stand the fish tanks containing hundreds of tilapia, filled by rainwater from the roof. The fishes’ excrement enriches the water with important nutrients that the basil in the neighbouring hall needs to thrive. The water is cleaned by solid sediments, filtered organically, and pumped via ground tanks over to the basil in the greenhouse, watering and fertilizing the plants there. The ECF Farm operates with several circulatory systems and thereby saves CO2. The farm sells thousands of tilapia each year, and it covers a large part of Berlin’s basil needs too. It’s getting even more eco-friendly. “Since 2018 we have avoided synthetic transportable palettes and package the basil only in paper, saving 11 tons of plastic every year,” says Echternacht.
Berlin universities: using AI to get around the city in a sustainable way
According to the city’s Mobility Study from 2017, Berliners spend an estimated 80 minutes per day travelling around the city: to work, to shop, to restaurants and theatres or to see friends and family. They are all travelling around 20 kilometres on average. How could one best make all this travel more sustainable? With fewer traffic jams, less emissions and noise? Philipp Staab, a sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, has an answer to that question. “We have to make alternatives to cars more attractive, with the help of artificial intelligence,” he argues. Digital platforms on your phone or tablet already show users how they can more efficiently combine the use of their bicycles, scooters, buses, trains and various ride sharing services, to get from A to B in the city. This is known as “mobility as a service”. “But usually, the most important criteria for the comapnies is that the method is fast and cheap,” Staab explains. Environmental impact is usually not part of the considerations. Staab is convinced: “We cannot let mobility scouting be privatised”. Together with colleagues at Berlin’s Technical University and software engineers at SAP, Staab has developed a concept for algorithms that would make the app, Jelbi – run by Berlin's public transport service and combines, buses, trains and ride sharing in one app – more eco-friendly. The name of the concept is Aisum, short for AI Empowered Sustainable Urban Mobility Platform. Using artificial intelligence, or AI, the environmental impact of different transport options are calculated in real time. Then personalised routes are offered as options while transport needs in different parts of the city are also calculated. Aisum has been prepared, now it just needs to be implemented; the project is part of the AI lighthouse projects for sustainability supported by the Federal Environment Ministry. the topic of sustainable digitalisation is one of the Ministry's focuses during the German presidency of the Council of the EU. For the first time, Germany has put a discussion about digitalisation and the environment on the agenda. Germany will try to reach a consensus on this topic with the other EU environment ministers.
Berlin’s Natural History Museum
The nightly torchlit tour of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s collection – otherwise inaccessible – is one of the highlights at Berlin’s Natural History Museum. When Johannes Vogel took over the leadership of the museum in 2012 after being chief curator of the Natural History Museum in London, he made the museum – with its own collection of more than 30 million objects - into a space for debate about the destruction of natural environments. Innovative, critical and emotional, “there is nothing more political than nature today,” Vogel says, confronting visitors with provocative exhibits, controversial discussions and excursions with the museum’s experts and scientists. Sometimes there is a mini-opera in one of the exhibition halls. Sometimes Berlin club DJs mix electronic music with birdsong and city sounds. Sometimes a soprano sings lyrics about the city’s natural environment. Vogel also sends Berlin residents on a journey of discovery: the “Naturblick” (A Look at Nature) app allows them to document the biodiversity of their own city. One result of ordinary citizens’ research: it turns out that Berlin is Europe’s nightingale capital. Nowhere else has as many of these small brown birds. The museum’s scientists hypothesize that this comes from the many small, disorderly corners of Berlin’s parks, construction sites and small industries. Nightingales love to nest in these.
Diversity at the waterworks
“Well, at the beginning, the new configuration of our plant’s premises was an acquired taste,” says Andreas Mewes, a technician at the surface water purification plant in Berlin’s Tegel district. Instead of a nicely mowed lawn, there is a wild meadow full of indigenous plants: viper’s bugloss, hoary alyssum, longleaf, cow vetch and bellflowers. “But in the spring, our water purification basin suddenly transformed into a sea of flowers,” Mewes continues. “There were more butterflies than I have ever seen, even in my garden in the countryside.” Mewes’ work is to make Lake Tegel the cleanest swimming water in the city. He drives around the grounds, with its round basins, with Petra Kalettka, who works on environmental protection at the Berliner Wasserbetriebe, the city’s water supply company. About 7,000 square meters at the Tegel site were remodelled with support from the Heinz Sielmann Foundation, the Lake Constance Foundation and the Global Nature Fund. The name of the project, which encourages biodiversity on business’ sites, is Biodiversity Premises and it is part of the Federal Ministry for the Environment’s national Biodiversity Programme. “We have about 270 premises in Berlin and want to do something for biodiversity,” says Kalettka, drawing a circle in the air – it goes from the sage meadow on the left, through the crocus and sea thrift lawn above the embankment, to the isle of oregano in the car park behind the administrative building. About 25,000 bulbs were planted here, a dune was made and wooden poles were drilled with holes so wild bees could lay their eggs. Behind the dune, paving stones are piled atop one another: lizards can find refuge here. Birds make nests between old concrete paving and dead wood. Do they really need a gardener here? “Oh yes. He mows once a year but never everything at once, so that the insects have food.” Kalettka indicates a plant with high yellow flowers waving in a midday breeze. “And the locusts must still be cleared away from here. They come from North America and push out local species.” A sky-blue butterfly lands on an alyssum twig – a common blue. This species was not found here previously.
Trees instead of a jungle gym: Berlin’s wilderness playgrounds
Alan swings up high in the plum tree while Jerome stomps through the undergrowth to the blackberry hedge. The path is by turns rough and smooth, it passes by plum and walnut trees and a small clearing where the children spent a night last summer, sleeping in a hut they had built out of twigs and branches. Aylin and Joanna disappear into a knee-high tunnel through the thicket next to the blackberry bush. “We built this ourselves,” Aylin calls out.
The Wilde Welt – in English, the “wild world” – in the district of Spandau is one of five so-called “nature experience” areas in Berlin. These are areas where urban children can get a feeling for natural wilderness. Three of these were supported by the Federal Office for Nature Conservation working with funding from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, the Senate Department for the Environment , the district of Pankow and the District Agency for Nature Conservation and Landscape Management, as part of a project by the Foundation for Environmental Protection Berlin. Around one hectare of nature, where children can climb whatever they want, dig in the mud or run up and down the hills. A former wasteland that was once a garden centre and a paddock for ponies, this area was turned into a nature reserve in 2016. Robert Welzel (pictured) is the project’s caretaker. In the morning he checks the woods and the nature reserve: Are the stick huts in order? Have any large branches fallen? “At the beginning parents were very resistant,” Welzel says. What were the children supposed to do there? There’s nothing there, they said. It’s far too dangerous, others were concerned. “Today they are running in our doors,” Welzel adds. The idea for the wilderness playgrounds originates from the 1990s and the concept is currently being further developed in Berlin, as well as being the subject of scientific study. A new study by the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development indicates that children play more creatively and concentrate better in the wilderness playgrounds. They also move with more security, develop a relaxed attitude toward nature and are more balanced in everyday life. Welzel agrees: “At the start, some kids were afraid of wolves or dragons. Now they are more curious to see wild pigs and foxes.”