Tuesday, 25 September 2012


So I was going to call this missive ‘Deutschland uber alles’, in doing so combining the title of the seminal Dead Kennedys song, ‘California uber alles’, with my location.  My partner Susi, who is German and travelling with me for the rest of the journey, learnedly pointed out that maybe the Kennedys weren’t the first to use such a phrase and, given it was the anthem of a group of chaps responsible for a few global fracas’s last century, it may not be appropriate as a title.

A fair point, but my time here highlighted how much of a leader Germany is in terms of sustainability, and in an unofficial theme that’s organically developed through my travels, a night, or several, on the town. It’s also hard to escape the leadership role of Germany in holding the European Union together, with The Guardian coining the phrase ‘The Accidental Empire’ in recognition of this.
Tharandter Wald
I spent most of my time in Germany staying with Susi’s sister in Tharandt, a small town of about 5,500 souls near Dresden, before catching up with friends in Berlin for the weekend. It’s fair to say you don’t come to Tharandt for the nightlife, it’s quiet nature is why people reside here and Susi’s sister lives in the penultimate house on the edge of town, surrounded by the Forest Botanical Garden of Tharandt that leads onto the magnificent Tharandter Wald, the oldest forest in Saxony. Sitting around an open fire one evening with the stars in the sky the silence of the surrounds was at times quite stunning, only broken by the crackling of the fire.
Tharandt isn’t a place I’d have expected to come across interesting sustainability examples but walking home from the station one day we came upon Dresden local Ralph, recharging the bemusingly named Kangoo (a cross between a kangaroo and an Obama speech) electric vehicle he had on trial. 

Ralph is definitely on the leading edge of the uptake curve and was prepared to overlook the current six charging stations in the Dresden region, a range of 180km and a recharge time of 6 hours for the free electricity he’d receive if he purchased the vehicle from the sponsored charging station. In conversation it’s apparent that Ralph is both interested in sustainability issues and looking to the future when charging times are predicted to come down to 30 minutes next year. This improvement is part of an overall German government strategy that seeks to have a million electric vehicle users on the road by 2020.
A walk through the afore mentioned Forest Botanical Garden of Tharandt also surprisingly revealed a highly professional information trail focused on sustainability in general (including a peculiar table contrasting the number of Google hits associated with ‘sustainability’ and its German counterpart 'Nachhaltigkeit' ), and the interaction of climate change on the forests of Germany, and the ability of various species to adapt.

With all these positives you’d not quite expect games of nude twister to be spontaneously breaking out on the streets, but if my journeys between Dresden and Berlin were any indication a simple smile, impulsive ‘hallo’ or even simple nod in your general direction wouldn’t go astray. 

Having been travelling for a while I booked a seat from a car sharing website to save money, and potentially meet a few locals for the ride from Dresden to Berlin. I unfortunately missed a seat in a one Marvin Sontag’s Golf 6, and instead found myself on a Friday afternoon stood in a McDonalds car park by the side of the motorway outside of Dresden waiting for Michael and his 2 door Saxo. Michael arrived dead on time and I soon met the other passenger for the journey.  Crammed into the back seat I played the role of the overtly friendly Aussie for the first 10 minutes, asking questions about the trip and the lives of my companions before giving up on the strained responses and travelling the rest of the trip with my headphones in. Booking into a cabin on the way back to Dresden a few days later I had a similar joyful experience with the other two travellers who were fiercely competing with each other for the world title of longest time spent mimicking a face like a bucket of bolts.

In terms of my time in Berlin I spent many long hours with an old friend, and one met travelling in Belize testing the theory as to whether the city has the best nightlife in Europe, and potentially the world at the moment. As it was the start of Berlin Art week we interspersed our nocturnal activities visiting the highly engaging Art Berlin Contemporary Exhibition.

I stayed in Friedrichshain, an area, like many in the former eastern part of Berlin that, due to the readily available cheap housing post the fall of the Berlin wall, saw an influx of artists and creative types. Now it’s a hub of the Berlin nightlife and I was amazed how much English I heard as we moved from bar to bar. 

I’m not the only one who has noticed and this article sums up the backlash against tourists from the rest of Europe that have been flocking to the area. Fortunately for the Berlin locals I know of just the person who will gladly bring the edge back into their neighbourhood, if politely requested.

Monday, 17 September 2012

An estranged homecoming

For four years I called London home, but that was eight years ago, and while I won’t go all Gotye, each time I visit we’ve grown a little further apart.  Our estrangement was highlighted when a friend quipped, ‘welcome home’ on meeting for a drink in a London pub the Sunday afternoon after arriving and it struck me how little London feels like home, in stark contrast to when I lived there and Australia felt like a distinctly foreign land.

As with many Australians my time in London was marked by a decidedly indifferent start, where I shared a cramped ex Council flat in a dodgy neighbourhood with a group of South Africans, lived on 8p tins of ALDI mushy peas (mmm, mushy peas) and forsook any alcoholic beverage for several months.  After a while however I found my feet, was able to trade in my South African housemates and enjoy the vibrant lifestyle London offers, such as I experienced during this visit when belting a little bit of LMFAO and other such classics with good friends till the wee hours of a Monday night in a Soho karaoke bar.

Our changed relationship was also highlighted during my visit by the time, or rather lack of it, I spent in London, for the vast majority of those I knew when living in London have either moved overseas or retreated to the countryside with their new borns.  So over the course of a week I became a doyen of British Rail and in lovely late summer sunshine (apparently I was very fortunate) took in relatives and two 2 year old birthdays through Bristol, Malvern and a classic English weekender in Brighton, where in addition to children’s birthdays and early morning swims in the sea, I was able to unsuccessfully stalk, from a respectable distance, Nick Cave’s balcony in the hope of a sighting in the unofficial Australian celeb quarter of Sussex Sq.

On my way back from Brighton I changed trains and had the pleasure of a truly English experience as I heard drunken soccer chanting coming from a platform of a recently arrived train, which struck me as odd considering there were no games that day.  As the crowd came into view and moved past me I realized from their emblazoned attire it was a very drunk group of David Weir supporters, the multi gold winning English Paralympic.  Being in London during the Paralympics I couldn’t help but be impressed with the level of support and genuine excitement from the English for the sold out event and their ingenuity in finding a reason to get tanked.

Emma, Susannah and I
From a sustainability perspective I was fortunate to spend my final day in the UK at the Olympic site in Stratford with a former colleague, Emma, who is manager of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, an independent body established to monitor the sustainability performance of the various Olympic and Paralympic bodies and Susannah, a sustainability adviser with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).

Not sure either
There’s a pleasant video of Olympic and Paralympic sustainability examples by the thinking woman’s bit of crumpet, Kevin McCloud, on the LOCOG website, but from the interviews with Emma and Susannah the key insights I gained were the success of the Commission as an independent body proactively influencing and ensuring the sustainability targets were taken seriously, the commitment and resources available to LOCOG to address the targets, the no-white elephant approach to stadia and venues and the tension between corporate sponsorship and the sustainability vision for an event such as the Olympics. 

The corporate sponsorship issue is of particular interest as invariably events such as the Olympics and the World Cup require large multinationals to provide sponsorship to cover costs and supply products on the necessary scale.  From the discussions these organisations are often more than willing to consider alternative approaches for their activities at the events themselves, but how far the event is able, or should then influence how the company performs in the lead up to, or during, or after an event is a different conversation. As Emma and I discussed, even loved companies such as Apple have been enveloped in media storms around their international operations.
Leaving London two words, newly learnt during my time there, stuck in my mind, ‘strim’ (the Olympic wrapping surrounding everything in sight to signify you're at the Olympics), because it is quite clearly a made up and ridiculous word, and more seriously, ‘incession’ – an incessant recession, a challenge the London and the UK will need to address in the post Olympics come down.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Ice landing

I was enjoying an afternoon coffee and reading a local paper in Reykajvik when I came across a remarkable stat that on average there are 2 murders a year in Iceland.  This seems a remarkably small number in the context of where I’d been recently, Guatemala for example averages 70 per week, with just over 40 a week in Guatemala City alone, while Honduras, with the current highest murder rate in the world averages a violent crime every 74 minutes.

I was also thinking at the time that I had more chance of being murdered that gloomy afternoon as I did of seeing the sun, or it stopping raining in Reykajvik during my short 36 hour stop over from New York to London. Luckily however I drew on my savy travelling experience and contrived an elaborate approach to ensuring that I did see glimpses of sunshine during my time in Iceland. 

After an afternoon trudging around the city in the cold wind and rain and discovering that the sole of left foot is no longer water proof I made my way back to the hostel. As the bus for my flight to London was due to pick me up at 4:30am I was keen to wring enjoyment out of Iceland and sample the famed nightlife of Reykjavik before departing.

The beauty of the hostel is that invariably you will find accomplices for such endeavours and so with a fellow Australian, a French and a German we had a few beers at the hostel bar before heading into town.  Around 2am I made the enlightened decision that by now there was no point in trying grab an hours sleep and that’d push through to when the bus arrived.  After the obligatory late night feed I made my way back to the hostel around 4:15am, allowing myself enough time to grab my gear and meet the bus. 

Checking my pockets however I found I somehow lost the key to my locker.  No problem I’ll just grab the spare….unfortunately however the night clerk didn’t have one and suggested I look harder for my key.  I thought about where I may have lost it and through the haze remembered spilling money on the ground when counting change for the food. 

Giving up on catching the bus and resigning myself to an expensive taxi fare to the airport I retraced my steps on the post rain slick and shiny streets.  I searched in vain but found no trace of my locker key.  Returning to the hostel the night clerk then decided the best course of action was to break open the locker.  So at 5am, with me holding his phone for light we tried with a set of plyers and a file to jimmy the lock open….which only succeeded in him breaking the file off in the lock.  Unfortunately I was in a 6 bed dorm and all around formless shapes were rising and peering with squinting eyes at the light and the banging and screeching noises coming from my locker in the centre of the room. After the clerk and I had both had a crack at the non-budging lock we retired to the hallway to converse on our next move, which was to admit defeat and waiting until 9am when the day manager arrived.  Unfortunately my flight was at 7:40am and I had to kiss goodbye my ticket.

Struggling to sleep due to annoyance at myself I wandered out to reception where the newly arrived manager calmly followed me back to my room and unlocked the stubborn locker door to reveal my belongings.

By this stage I was well and truly over Reykajvik and spent a small fortune on a new flight leaving that afternoon.  As luck would have it I was able to glimpse the sun a few times on the 50km or so bus ride out to the airport. I eventually lobbed into London around 10pm, having had minimal sleep over the past 48hours during a rather expensive time in Iceland.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


Arriving into New York has been a bit of, not really a shock, more a jolt back into the familiarity of the western world.  No longer do I have to look round for the bin to dispose of the toilet paper, or lie there in morning with a parched mouth wishing I'd remembered to buy water on the late night wander back to the hostel.  For the first few days I probably also held the unofficial title of the Slowest Man in New York as I put into practice my well developed Caribbean lollop.

High Line
New York has seen a significant upgrade in accommodation as for the first time since I started my trip I’m staying with friends in an apartment on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brookyln, effectively wedged between hipster central and Poland, an interesting combination, walk one way and it’s kielbasa and borscht city, cross the street and it’s hidden bars, obscure providores, startling beards and cute little restaurants where you find yourself sat across from the dorky guy from Friends.

Being here I’ve refocused on seeking out interesting sustainability examples. One of the most well known on the west side of Manhattan, is the High Line, a former freight rail line that’s been converted to a 16 block stretch of urban parkway floating above the streets below, combining numerous plantings within the in situ rail, green spaces, public art and viewing platforms.  It is wildly popular as I evidenced visiting one sunny afternoon and then a second time much later in the evening following a show. To me it’s a great example of reuse of an underutilized existing asset for wider community benefit. The success of the High Line has lead to the development of the Low Line concept, using an abandoned underground rail terminal as the proposed location for a new park.

High Line
Another evident trend is urban farming and one sunny afternoon I paid a visit to Brooklyn Grange, a significant urban farm based on the roof of a factory in Queens that grows a diverse range of produce.  When I visited there was everything from tomatoes to lettuces and eggplants. The Queens based farm is one of many planned and is part of a broader movement that’s prevalent in many cities around urban farming. This has been taken a step further in New York through the handy development of the 596 acres website that identifies….596 acres of disused public land available for farming purposes. 

Brooklyn Grange
I also was able to have lunch with one of the chief drivers behind the ‘+ Pool’ concept. The idea behind this innovative project is to have a plus shaped pool that utilizes the river water floating off the banks of the Hudson River, with just south of the Brooklyn Bridge as the preferred location.  Like the High Line the project is being driven by those with the creative idea and as appears to be common in America, private, as opposed to public financing is sought to further develop the concept.

To me these are all practical examples of the integration of sustainability thinking, however it is apparent this view is not shared by all, as per this article last week on the High Line and a recently released book on the death of bohemia in Brooklyn, and in particular around the Williamsburg area.

Put plainly the authors see the insidious tendrils of gentrification changing their city from how they like it.  It made me think that many of the aspects looked for in a successful sustainability project, i.e. bike lanes, mixed use development, urban agriculture, integrated transport, densification etc, are often also hallmarks of gentrification and can be indicators of what locals feel they've lost.

To a degree I can understand this perspective and a visit to 5Pointz in Long Island City, a freight forwarding factory adjoining rail yards that’s become a hub for street artists for several decades highlights these concerns.  5Pointz appears to be something of an institution for street artists both in New York and internationally, however with the continued expansion of apartment living into Queens it's now slated for residential development. Obviously once it's developed a significant proportion of what's makes the current site will be lost. 

I feel however there is a danger in criticising gentrification of overly romanticising how these areas were, and feel the trick, if possible, is to try and integrate the former features, or feeling into the area, as per the redevelopment of 5Pointz which is seeking to incorporate existing and provide spaces for new street art.