Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Merk, head of urban planning for the City of Munich, hails the eco-aware city of the future.


OLIVER HERWIG: If you were going to hug a tree in gratitude in the city, which tree would you choose, and where?

PROF. DR. ELISABETH MERK: It would be a chestnut tree, probably standing where a beer garden meets an open space.


OH: So recreation would be your ­focus?

EM: Yes, and not somewhere in the forest or along the river, but on the edge of a residential area, where people congregate – hence the beer garden. A classic open space, a little green oasis of a kind that is everywhere in Munich; points of encounter, with a dash of urbanity and some infrastructure. A piece of nature in the city.


OH: There is a public desire for nature in the city, and demands for more green spaces. How has that changed urban planning in recent years?

EM: It’s a very old desire and has always come up as a reaction to urban growth. The issue was always where to locate such a “green lung” in a constantly developing city. Now we realize that we have to create “green corridors” in order to link up larger green areas, and pocket parks connecting two different open spaces that perhaps already do a good job of fulfilling their function. A vital task for the future involves linking the microclimates in the individual city districts with our urban development plan, Stadtentwicklungsplan 2040. It’s one thing to plan a park or a green belt, but quite another to align processes to new requirements.


OH: Der Stadtentwicklungsplan 2040 ...

EM: … is digital, and therefore able to depict dynamic elements in urban development, connect them and enable scenarios to be explored. Real estate, even when it undergoes change, isn’t dynamic in and of itself. This is the first time that climate, energy landscape and open space have not been treated solely as professional capital. Alongside the status quo, they also identify areas of potential and risks. You could say that our urban development plan is a barometer of transformation. Siting buildings and developments to improve air circulation and reduce soil sealing is simply better.


OH: What does this involve in practice?

EM: My favorite example is the industrial belt in Steinhausen, the continuation of Prinzregentenstrasse up to Messestadt Riem. It’s shown in purple, indicating that it’s relatively hot and dry and has a lot of sealed surfaces. But it’s also an important ventilation corridor. We can take this master plan for Steinhausen as a starting-point for engaging in a dialogue with project developers and property owners as well as with the inhabitants of the neighboring districts. The planning competition for Frankfurter Ring involved a similar situation. We look at it in very practical terms: what can we do? We probably can’t save the world at a stroke, but we can certainly introduce major improvements at these specific locations.


OH: How can buildings be connected with nature and sustainability in practical terms?

EM: We already have a pretty good idea of how we can develop something along those lines, as our pilot projects have shown. But there is a need for a project we can implement across the board, in large-scale districts and small municipalities alike. A pilot project for everyday practice, you could say. In addition, we have to make the distinction between existing buildings and new builds. A new build lets me do almost anything, and some very interesting concepts for existing buildings have now been developed. But is greening a façade enough to warrant placing the tag of “ecological” on a building? And how can we start to reverse the upward carbon and temperature curve? These are no mere perceived truths – they are vital for microclimates. A big chestnut tree provides shade. It has an evaporation rate and water take-up that are easy to calculate. But the wellbeing aspect must also be factored in. A greened façade, a small green space or a new tree in an urban district may not have an immediate impact on our carbon footprint, but they all enhance wellbeing. One more is always better than one fewer.


OH: Why is this so hard to put into practice?

EM: Because it’s not so much the costs that are the clincher for investment – it’s the aftercare. To be brutally honest, city-dwellers are not exactly model citizens in that regard. Think of all those graveled gardens, which make people wonder what kind of cold-hearted designer would create such a thing. The issue is not only how we can integrate greening into our master plans and properties, or where we can genuinely force action through by means of development plans and statutes. People who are convinced of the importance of green spaces also need to step up.



OH: There’s been a lot of progress in that respect.

EM:Absolutely. All the flowers we now see on balconies or in road verges would never have been possible ten years ago. I’m not too pessimistic in that respect. For me, the prime example is the renaturing of the River Isar, in partnership with nature itself, for nature and for people. We’d like to repeat it in a similar form, as a demonstration of the compatibility between nature conservation, renaturation with leisure and recreational elements, and flood protection.


OH: Big green buildings …

EM: … are vital at both city and regional level. Agriculture has a big role to play, as do infrastructure requirements. We don’t want to build any more underground car parks simply so that courtyards can be greener. But we’ve already done a lot. The big picture is far more about infrastructure issues – such as energy infrastructure, which is going to be a major concern. You can’t plant trees under power lines. Is it better to address these central questions in a centralized or localized way? I think that will have as great an impact on the future as renaturation did in the 1980s and 1990s.