Breaking Down Walls by Ms. Kayla Gabehart

Breaking Down Walls

“Ich bin ein Berliner.”

(I am a Berliner)

-John F. Kennedy

Berlin, June 26th, 1963.

In fewer than two weeks, the inaugural semester of the Sustainability in Berlin program will end, and the nine of us will part ways, board planes, and return to America. The thought of leaving our Prenzlauer Berg flats and bidding farewell to Berlin, the city that we have made home, is truly bittersweet. And it’s bittersweet, I think, because it has been eye opening in so many ways. So, as we wonder how exactly we will transport all of our souvenirs and purchases home (you only get one free checked bag), we are also in the midst of planning our Thanksgiving in Berlin, as well as reflecting on what our adventures have taught us and how they have changed us.

Striking a pose with our bikes in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Striking a pose with our bikes in Copenhagen, Denmark.

A few weeks ago, we embarked on an excursion across the Baltic Sea to Copenhagen, Denmark, named the European Green Capital in 2014. While we were there, we did as the locals do, and we rode bicycles everywhere. In Copenhagen, where they are well on their way to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, more than half the population utilizes bicycles as their mode of transportation, in rain, shine, and even in several inches of snow. With one of the most progressive cycling infrastructure systems in the world, Copenhageners find it to be the most convenient, efficient, and healthy way to get around, and many have attached trollies to their bikes in order to transport groceries, children, and elderly relatives. I have never seen so many bicycles in my life.

Riding our bicycles along “the Snake,” a bike-only route in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Riding our bicycles along “the Snake,” a bike-only route in Copenhagen, Denmark.

A Green Infrastructure project under construction in Copenhagen, Denmark. The finished product will provide communal space and divert potential flood waters.

A Green Infrastructure project under construction in Copenhagen, Denmark. The finished product will provide communal space and divert potential flood waters.

In the past five years, Copenhagen has also been plagued by flash floods, which they refer to as “cloud bursts,” a result of climate change. In response, they have began building green areas all over the city that drain to large, underground grids of pipes and storage areas designed to transport the excess water into the harbor. Under normal circumstances, these green areas are utilized as parks and communal spaces. Copenhagen also engages in the extensive use of wind turbines and district heating fueled by excess energy from the waste disposal plant to help reach their carbon neutrality goal. Copenhagen believes very strongly in sharing their ideas and infrastructure with other cities, as they are determined to help break down political, financial, and ideological barriers regarding renewable energy.

Balloons illuminate the path where the Berlin Wall once stood

Balloons illuminate the path where the Berlin Wall once stood

Our return journey from Copenhagen took twelve long hours due to the Deutsche Bahn strike, but we arrived home to one of the most inspiring sights I have ever witnessed. Illuminated balloons lined the site where the Berlin Wall once stood.

On November 9th, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berliner Mauer, I stood with one of my feet in West Berlin and one in East Berlin, something Berliners could not do in their own city for nearly thirty years without a “shoot to kill” order being issued by Soviet soldiers.

On Nov. 9th, I stood with one foot in the East and one foot in the West. An action that seems insignificant now was impossible in Berlin just a quarter century ago

On Nov. 9th, I stood with one foot in the East and one foot in the West. An action that seems insignificant now was impossible in Berlin just a quarter century ago

I was deeply moved in that moment, and I felt solidarity with the Berliners. For decades they sought unity, a single city rather than one divided by a wall, a physical barrier. And when it finally, happened, it happened peacefully.

We hosted our own festivities on the 25th Anniversary, and were joined by Dr. Christoph Stefes and his family, as well as Mr. Klaus Dittmer. They told stories of the GDR and of a divided Berlin, and translated the television broadcasts of the various ceremonies throughout the city. It was truly an honor to share such a special occasion with Germans that have known both a separated and united Berlin.

It was both somber and inspiring to know that on the night of November 9th twenty-five years ago, the first East Berliners crossed the bridge on Bornholmer Straße into West Berlin. On the night of November 9th, just a couple of weeks ago, the nine of us watched the memorial balloons released into the air at that exact same spot.

Imagine what other walls we could break down…

A piece of the Berlin Wall in Potsdamer Platz commemorating both the Wall that once was and the peaceful protest that brought it down

A piece of the Berlin Wall in Potsdamer Platz commemorating both the Wall that once was and the peaceful protest that brought it down.

Author: Ms. Kayla Gabehart

Author: Ms. Kayla Gabehart

About the Author:  Kayla Gabehart is an undergraduate student in her final semester at the University of Colorado Denver. She is double majoring in history and psychology, and minoring in political science. She will begin her MA in history at CU Denver in the spring of 2015. At her core, Kayla is a writer and hopes to somehow incorporate that into her future career.

Living the Sustainable Alternative by Ms. Kayla Gabehart

Six weeks in Berlin have come and gone, and as time seems to go by more quickly with each passing day, the nine of us begin to think about how we will go back to our lives in America.

Six weeks in Berlin have come and gone, and as time seems to go by more quickly with each passing day, the nine of us begin to think about how we will go back to our lives in America. We live an entirely different lifestyle here by virtue of our surroundings; we separate and recycle our trash, we take reusable totes to the grocery store, we dry our clothes on racks rather than wasting energy by putting them in the dryer, and we haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in more than 60 days thanks to Berlin’s extensive and efficient public transportation system. These are small lifestyle changes that seem negligible, but when the results of which are taken collectively, they can actually make for both qualitative and quantitative change.

Inside the Umweltbundesamt, the architecture of which emphasizes natural air circulation and light, as well as incorporating nature inside the confines of the building itself.

Inside the Umweltbundesamt, the architecture of which emphasizes natural air circulation and light, as well as incorporating nature inside the confines of the building itself.

Coming from America (unfortunately a global laggard in sustainability) we are now living the alternative. And outside of our microcosmic experience in Berlin, we have seen that sustainability is possible on the macro level. We visited the Umweltbundesamt in Dessau, essentially the German equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. With a fraction of the employees and budget, they have a much larger influence on policy compared to the EPA.

We also toured the Bauhaus, an architectural school in Dessau that built in the postmodern style as early as the 1920s, before its activities were disrupted by the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. An architectural school that built in the postmodern style as early as the 1920s.

The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. An architectural school that built in the postmodern style as early as the 1920s.

The Bauhaus also experimented with natural air circulation, energy conservation, and simplicity in terms of furniture and interior designs serving a functional purpose.

During our time in Dessau, we also toured a biosphere along the Elbe River via bicycle. The nature preserve is a protected area dedicated to preserving biodiversity.

Bike tour in Dessau, Germany through a biosphere along the Elbe River.

Bike tour in Dessau, Germany through a biosphere along the Elbe River.

In our classes and experiences, we have also felt a sense of urgency and the need for substantial change in the immediate future.

In our classes and experiences, we have also felt a sense of urgency and the need for substantial change in the immediate future. Various fellows at Ecologic Institute have impressed upon us the importance and complexity of achieving sustainability on a global scale. Katharina Umpfenbach stressed the importance of individuals’ attitudes and subsequent behaviors in terms of instating change; Doris Knoblauch explained that while think tanks have real influence, it can be severely limited by political systems; and Benjamin Görlach stressed the importance of creating a green economy, rather than greening a few sectors to achieve short-term change. Perhaps most resonating in his message was Dr. Ralph Bodle, an international lawyer who experienced the failures of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of the Parties firsthand. He said that in an attempts to negotiate binding international climate change policy, he woke up in a hotel and sincerely did not know what country he was in. When the negotiations in Copenhagen ended without any tangible results, he returned home weighing less than his wife, as he had lost so much weight due to stress. He has dedicated his life to this, and yet he is skeptical as to whether real change is possible. To those who still believe that global warming is not real or that mitigating climate change is not a priority, he left us with this message: Consider that more than 70% of the world’s GDP is localized in port cities, and consider the implications if the sea level rises two meters.

Truly food for thought…

Dr. Christoph Stefes giving us a lesson about the history of Berlin.

Dr. Christoph Stefes giving us a lesson about the history of Berlin.

A Sustainable and Historic Berlin by Ms. Kayla Gabehart

“Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin.”

“You are crazy my child, you must go to Berlin.”

-Franz von Suppe

Berlin, an absolutely massive city, abounds with opportunities for exploration, and so, the nine of us on the inaugural semester of the “Sustainabilty in Berlin” program, set out to conquer it. Jet lagged and probably more than a little overwhelmed, we muddled through what little German we knew to buy groceries, order at restaurants, send mail, and navigate the public transportation system. At first it was scary… but that was almost the best part; comfort zones are no place for personal growth.

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Where the Berlin Wall once stood on the corner of Bernauer Straße and Ackerstraße, one of the first locations the Wall was erected.

The only word I can think of to describe this experience is: surreal. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to live and study in another place. Berlin, a historic locale and one of the most sustainable cities in the world, has so much to offer.

The Berlin Cathedral in Lustgarten, during WWII and today.

The Berlin Cathedral in Lustgarten, during WWII and today.

Our first week has been filled with walks along the bridge that East Berliners crossed over into West Berlin after the Wall fell, views of the Berlin Cathedral where Nazis once marched, strolls underneath Oberbaumbrücke along the Spree River, walking the floors of Charlottenburg Palace once frequented by royalty,“family” dinners in our Prenzlauer-Berg apartments, and restaurants lit solely by candlelight. A sustainability scavenger hunt through the Kreuzberg District; a captivating talk by Robert Swan, the first and probably the last man to walk across both the North and South Poles; and orientations to spectacular internships introduced us to sustainability in a way absolutely unknown in the United States. On this issue of sustainability, Robert Swan asserted that whether we are causing it or not, climate change is happening and we have to do something about. The difference between Germany and the United States is that they are implementing measures to stop and reverse that change.

Sustainable practices abound in Berlin. The grocery stores provide refunds that can be put towards purchases for recycling plastic bottles, their public transportation system is extensive and impressive and many fewer people drive, and plastic bags in supermarkets are only available upon purchase. In Kreuzberg the Prinzessinnengarten, an urban community garden grows fruits and vegetables sustainability, and the streets boast organic clothing shops, cafes that purchase produce that would otherwise be thrown away en masse, and a small store that encourages the purchase of reusable containers to reduce plastic waste. These small things, coupled with the work of NGOs, activist organizations, and the German and EU governments make sustainability an efficient and cost-effective reality.

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Prinzessinengarten, a sustainable community garder in Kreuzberg.

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Culinary Misfits, a sustainable café in Kreuzberg that purchases deformed fruits that would otherwise be thrown away en masse.

It’s an eye-opening place, really. The entire city is dripping with incredible history, much of which took place hundreds of years before the United States ever existed. And in terms of sustainability, Berlin is proof that it is viable on a large scale, and that whether or not we are causing global climate change (which we are), we can actually DO something about it. We can have a hand in reversing it in a local, grassroots way, effectively implementing change from the bottom up until substantive policy and funding in the United States instates top-down change.

And that is only in the first week…

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Our first “family” dinner in Berlin in one of the apartments in Prenzlauer Berg.