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Berlin 24/7: A green state of emergency

Gero Schließ ad
April 14, 2017

While Berlin is hosting this year's International Garden Exhibition, the city's numerous parks suffer from neglect, says DW's Gero Schliess. Could New York serve as a green model for Berlin?

Park in Berlin
Image: DW/G. Schließ

The poor Easter Bunny! Hopping around Berlin used to be a lot more fun. But many of the city's parks that were once lush, green and inviting for bunnies leisure-seekers are now gray and dull.

They now feature demolished lawns, trash scattered here and there, and trees and bushes suffering from drought. And blossoming flowers? It seems that cemeteries have become their last refuge. They can hardly be found anymore in Berlin's numerous public parks like Tiergarten, Volkspark Friedrichshain, Viktoriapark, Mauerpark, and the rest of them.

Green areas within reach

International Garden Exhibition in Berlin
This year, the International Garden Exhibition takes place in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

There are 2,500 public green spaces in Berlin, including quite a few huge parks in almost every district. There are another 161 square kilometers (62 square miles) of forest areas within the city limits, an extensive water network and lots more empty space that has been left to nature. Under normal circumstances, it doesn't take residents more than five minutes to reach the closest green area.

Doesn't that sound great? Only at first glance. Some politicians are hailing Berlin as Germany's greenest metropolitan area - but given that the International Garden Exhibition (IGA) opened in the district of Marzahn on Thursday, such comments in that direction are to be expected.

Meanwhile, journalists from the daily "Berliner Morgenpost" have come to a different conclusion based on satellite images: Not Berlin, but Hamburg, is actually Germany's greenest city. Berlin is, once again, rather average.

Park in Berlin
On sunny days, Berliners flock to their beloved parksImage: DW/G. Schließ

Not everything that looks green really is green. At present, there are approximately 400,000 trees in Berlin. But while its population is growing rapidly, the number of street trees is declining. Last year alone, more than 5,000 trees were felled. In this light, the International Garden Exhibtion seems to be nothing more than a high-end product while daily life in the city is becoming increasingly gray.

The flower beds in the prestigious Charlottenburg Palace park have certainly seen better days. Will the Easter Bunny really manage to hop across dusty roads to these paltry flower beds? And once there, can a little pansy here and a daffodil there really motivate him to hide his eggs? Actually, the Charlottenburg Palace park is still relatively well off. There are quite a few other Berlin parks that are much closer to desertification.

Destroying flower beds with love

Trash at Mobijou Park in Berlin
Looks like some barbecuers have forgotten their trashImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

So why is Berlin becoming less green? There are many reasons for that sad development. Environmental authorities are suffering from a lack of personnel. And sometimes, their job includes destroying flower beds that cannot be taken care of anymore.

The remains are being flooded by sun-and-meat-hungry Berliners who love to barbecue there on the weekends. That doesn't really come as a surprise given that many people live in small apartments without balconies. With so many people hanging around in the parks, the lawns are hardly visible anymore. More visible are the mountains of smelly trash left behind.

Another factor is the construction boom that is turning many green spaces into a mass of gray concrete. There are numerous large-scale projects underway, including the so-called Europacity at the main train station. Young trees have been planted there, but it looks as though it will take decades for them to grow.

Gero Schliess
Gero Schliess' Berlinb 24/7 column appears every Sunday

Who profits from climate change?

As if all that weren't enough, climate change poses yet another threat to Berlin's greenery. Warm and dry seasons seem to be getting longer and longer, which has a devastating effect on trees and plants.

But there are also some living beings that actually profit from climate change. Among them is a particular fungus called "pseudonomas," which damages Berlin's chestnut trees, and an unusual moth called an oak processionary. They attacks trees and even people, which can cause skin rashes and even asthma.

Easter Bunny
Will the Easter Bunny return to Berlin?Image: picture alliance/dpa/Antonius

So I came up with a bold idea. What if Berlin learned to appreciate the value of a green environment? Or is that too obvious? How about learning from the New York experience? Not too long ago, Manhattan resembled a stone desert until the city administration started an initiative to plant new trees and other plants in districts bordering the Hudson and East River. And a citizens' intiative followed suit by turning deserted railway tracks into green areas.

In other words: Everybody is called upon to participate in efforts to make Berlin green once again - citizens, the construction industry, the administration and the mayor. Otherwise, the Easter Bunny might decide to avoid Berlin next year.