Urban Sustainability in Germany

With the generous support of the San Francisco Eric M. Warburg Chapter of the American Council on Germany, Max Gruenig, President of the Ecologic Institute US, came to IES to present on his organization’s work relating to the construction post-carbon cities worldwide. Throughout the lecture, he provided an overview to the historical background of this transatlantic project as well as to some the current areas – in particular urban mobility, water management, and energy-efficient buildings – in which it primarily focuses.

Following the 1933 Athens Charter on the Functional City, cities toyed with the idea of allocating land based on functional zones, resulting in what became a problematic separation of living, working, and social spaces. As Gruenig noted, however, such a vision for urban infrastructure proved dysfunctional; this was especially the case in the area of mobility, as the increased use of transportation methods resulted in increased pollution and accident rates. Resultantly, city planners called for the ecological transformation of urban systems, as manifested through the conceptualization of the “post-carbon city” in the 1970s. From here, Gruenig transitioned to a discussion of the “post-carbon city of tomorrow” (POCACITO), its goals, and its current legacy in cities across Germany. The POCACITO initiative, Gruenig explained, seeks to increase the resilience of cities and surrounding regions, applying a holistic, process-oriented approach that considers the environmental, social, and economic effects of change on urban centers while recognizing that the sustainable future of the city is very much rooted in its citizens. Using the five German showcase cities of tomorrow – Bottrop, Essen, Hamburg, Leipzig, and Munich – and their various innovations as examples, Gruenig then explained how, while the building of new, more efficient buildings is relatively easy, the transformation of old structures is much harder.  To show that such transformation is not impossible, though, he discussed examples such as the Hamburg Energy Bunker, which has been outfitted with solar panels and other sustainable forms of technology to transform the space into something more friendly towards the environment. Other examples he cited were Hamburg’s Energy Hill (a former hazardous waste landfill converted into a recreational center) and Mont Cenis (a former coal mine), using such sites to show that, however destructive such places may have been in the past, their future legacies can be altered to be more in-keeping with the goal of creating a more sustainable future.

To conclude his talk, Gruenig discussed the future of POCACITOs both in Germany and abroad, emphasizing the Ecologic Institute’s goal to continue to foster connections and exchange between cities across the globe as well as to expand to include new cities, such as Nashville. Ultimately, the lecture provided a fantastic overview for the fifteen people in attendance to the innovations being made at the intersection between sustainability, environmentalism, and urban planning.