Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Finishing in Erlangen

I took an InterCity Express (ICE) train from Munich to Nuremberg and then a regional train to Erlangen.  Former Mayor Dietmar Hahlweg met me in front of the train station with his bicycle.  He was a tall older gentlemen and his English was pretty good.  We walked towards my hotel and he began to show me a few things along the way.  He explained that Erlangen had an influx of French immigrants, known as the Huguenots (Hugonauts), who were driven out of France in the 17th century because they were protestants.  This was important because they dramatically increased the size of Erlangen and built a grid-system of streets and blocks when most towns had a more Medieval layout.  This probably contributed to making it easy to form bike routes throughout the city.  Erlangen has a 30% bicycle ridership rate.  People are on bicycles everywhere and it doesn't take long to get around town.  Dietmar always gives tours of Erlangen on bicycle because it is the best way to see the city.  In fact, the underlying planning principles over the last thirty years were to create a city where bicycles could go anywhere while cars were being discouraged.  The philosophy was that a city is to be designed for people, not for cars.  It actually takes longer to get somewhere by car than by bicycle.  Much like Boulder, you don't need a car to easily get around town.

I dropped off my bags at the hotel, Hotel Villa Soy, and then we went over to the City Hall so that we could pick up a city-owned bike for me to use during my stay.  The building was built in the 1960s but they recently refaced it so it looks like new.

First, we went to the City Council chambers and that is Dietmar waving hello.  Their counsel has around 50 members!

Next we got on our bikes and road down one of the main commercial streets in the city.  Only bicyclists, pedestrians, taxis and buses were allowed on this road and there were tons of people out in the middle of a weekday when we moved on from this spot.

We made our way towards a place for lunch and biked down some smaller streets on our way to a restaurant that looks out over a park.  This street is what is known as a "woonerf" (pronounced vonerf), a Dutch creation where a street can have pedestrians, bicyclists, children playing but cars can come through slowly and carefully.  Basically, cars are secondary and must drive very slowly.  I had learned about these from a Dutch professor that I had ten years ago in college but this was my first time seeing one in person.

On the right side of the photo you will see a plant growing up the wall.  Throughout Erlangen, Dietmar and the city decided to work with residents to plant rose bushes that the residents would care for.  Along many of these streets, there are roses growing up to the base of the second story.  I'm sure it looks beautiful when they are all in bloom.  This woonerf lead to a small plaza.  The building in the background in the right half of the picture was a former local brewery that was converted into senior housing.

We rode on to the restaurant and had fettucine alfredo with wild mushrooms in it.  It was incredibly good.  We talked about planning, our backgrounds, and the plans for the rest of the trip.  Dietmar had been busy and made a lot of arrangements to meet with a couple of local officials, a professor, and an urban geography student.  We took our time eating and then got back on our bikes for a tour of the city.  There are a lot of green spaces in and around Erlangen.  They created green spaces within the city by eliminating parking lots and conversion of other hardscapes.

Pathways and some sidewalks were not paved but made of hard-packed sand or crusher fines giving an urban environment a more informal feel.  In this plaza below, students at Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg park their bicycles in front of the building without using bicycle racks.  Because there is intense bicycle activity during the day, Dietmar didn't want an empty plaza covered in bicycle racks when school is not in session.  Here's what it looked like during classes:

Here is the same plaza later in the day once class wasn't in session:

Now, I'm sure people are asking "but if they don't have bicycle racks, don't their bicycles get stolen?"  The quick answer is no.  The way people usually lock up their bikes is by chaining the wheels to the frame.  This means that usually when someone is carrying a bicycle instead of riding it, there is a pretty good chance that someone is stealing a bicycle.  Apparently, bicycles are being stolen but it is not that big of a problem. Crime rates are pretty low in Germany and it certainly feels safe everywhere you go.

We passed through the center of the city and went onto one of the trails that follows a brook on the north side of the city.  Here is some virtual trail riding (you'll notice that the guy who passes me almost runs into someone ahead of us:

As soon as you got onto the trail system and into the open space areas, it was hard to tell that the city was right around you.  With very little car traffic in the city, it seemed quiet and peaceful almost everywhere we went.  Dietmar described how in some places they had reconfigured their bridges to save costs, eliminated extra traffic lanes to increase space for bicycles and pedestrians, and acquired open space to add to their trails system.

We followed the trail until we came to a north-south street that we south towards a former military complex that was used for a long time by the Germans up through WWII and then by the Americans.  Part of the former base has been turned into a technical school for high-school-age students.  Barracks were turned into housing and other buildings have yet to be reused.

The open training grounds have been redeveloped into mixed-density housing a a large facility for Siemens.  Siemens has been in Erlangen for a long time and employs 25,000 doing everything from research and development to actual manufacturing.  Dietmar and I didn't like the way that this new plaza turned out in the development but as we found out later from the Cheif City Planner, the original design was much worse and this was the best that they were able to get.

Looking south from the plaza is a very large open green space with a bicycle path that connects the neighborhoods.

Siemens workers ride their bicycles a lot too.  This is one of the many many bicycle shelters (fahrrad stenden) that I saw.

We rode back towards my hotel and I got into my room and cleaned up a bit.  Dietmar picked me up around 6pm for a trip into the "Frankenschwiez" or "Franconian Switzerland."  The countryside was wonderful.  On our way out we started to come upon the actress Elke Sommer's house in Erlangen.  For those who don't know who she was, she was in a lot of movies from the 1950s into the 1970s and was in one of the Pink Panther movies, "A Shot in the Dark."  Dietmar has known her for decades of course and so when we saw her talking to someone in her driveway, we got out to say hello.  She spends her time between her house in Erlangen and her house in Hollywood.  It was another one of those bizarre moments that happen when you are getting a tour from someone who is very well connected locally.

Bavaria is very unique in how much they value the freedom to wander.  There is a very old law still in effect that anyone has the right to hike across any public or privately held land and even can camp for one night while passing through, as long as it the land does not have a crop that is about to be harvested.  Dietmar said that he would frequently hike across the countryside in his younger days and enjoy the vast forest that surrounds Erlangen.  We drove through a few small villages and commented on the need to keep land natural and how there has been a large boom in growing corn in Germany.  He said that over the last ten years, many farmers have started growing corn, which seems really strange since its not native.  When I think of German farms I usually think of livestock or fields of grain like wheat or oats.  With the corn, I felt like we were driving through rural Wisconsin or Iowa, which I have done a lot of.

We pulled over in a village that had a 600 year old tree in the town square and a very old church that was a castle church.  Since many small villages didn't have much protection from invaders during Medieval times, frequently, churches would be built so that they could also be used for defense.  This village has a church like that but the interior of the grounds are now a well maintained cemetery.

Here you can see the old walkways that have fallen apart over the centuries.

We got back in the car and headed to another village to have dinner.  I asked about what was a local specialty so we ordered Knockla Blau (literally means blue knuckle) which was a portion of boiled beef foot with out the hoof on it, of course.  You can see that it came with a pile of sauerkraut and a mound of horseradish, German black bread, and mustard.  We also had some of the beer that was brewed by the restaurant's owner.

The food was good and inexpensive.  However, I did not eat the much of thick layer of fat around the meat.  Dietmar did but I could only eat so much of the fat before it was just too much for me.  It was a good meal but I couldn't finish it.  It was a nice little family run tavern.  We drove back to Erlangen and discussed the big issues in Germany at the time.  For a long time, Germany has wrestled with the question of whether to expand nuclear power or get rid of it.  Parts of Germany were drastically affected by the Chernobyl disaster back in the 80s.  Some German communities had a lot of radioactive fallout and since then many Germans have pressed for alternatives to nuclear.  The German government had laid out a plan for extending existing plants and then eight months later, the Tokushima nuclear disaster created such public pressure that the German government is going to work towards phasing out the existing nuclear plants.

The following day, i ate breakfast at my hotel and then Dietmar and I met with a few people.  The first meeting was with Reiner Lennemann, Director for the Department of Environment and Energy Strategies for the City of Erlangen.  We talked about energy conservation, noise pollution, and recent flooding issues in the area.  His English was okay and I could understand what he was saying in German so all of us were able to communicate.  It was a 30 minute meeting so next we went to meet with the Chief Planner for Erlangen, Egbert Bruse, who was retiring the following day.

He only spoke German so this discussion was a little more challenging for me.  He talked about some of the challenges with redeveloping the former military base in Erlangen and how Berlin and other northern and eastern German cities had a lot of vacant buildings much like Detroit.  After the collapse of the Berlin wall and German reunification, there was an expectation that the economically stagnant cities of former East Germany would see a surge of development.  Instead, they have slowly redeveloped or stayed at the same population.  East Germany was like a place that time forgot.  During the Communist rule, very little had changed since the end of WWII.  Buildings were still the same and some had remained vacant since the war ended.  From the top floor of the building, you could get somewhat of a view of the city.  This building wasn't very tall and you can probably tell that most of the buildings are about the same height.

Afterwards, Dietmar and I headed off on our bikes to West Erlangen on the other side of the Regnitz River. It was a nice ride:

Around the river and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is a large expanse of green space.

To keep the grass short, the city has a shepherd who lets the sheep graze the area.

Again, the bike trail went through some nice forest:

I saw this modified stop sign and had to take a picture of it.  Dietmar thought is was funny too.

We rode around the West side for awhile and then headed back towards Erlangen.  Here's the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

The next meeting was with Prof. Fred Krueger (...no, not the guy from "Nightmare on Elm Street"), head of the Geography Dept. and Vice Dean of the School of Sciences.  One of his students, Fabian was there as well. Dr. Krueger talked about some of the projects he was working on and we talked about city planning and the challenges in Detroit.  After that, I said good bye to Dietmar and I went off with Fabian to Nuremberg. Since he was from there, he gave me a tour of the city.  This was a redevelopment project with a green roof, apartments, and a movie theater.

Fabian spoke very good English since that was his major and he had spent a semester studying at the University of Minnesota-Mankato.  I think we covered everything from urban geography, German and American culture, city planning, urban agriculture, German history and how it shaped Nuremberg, and his experiences in Minnesota. Nuremberg is the smallest city in Germany to have a subway system and was also one of the first.  It's completely automated so there are no drivers.  Here is a ride on the subway:

After dinner at a Greek restaurant, Fabian took me back to Erlangen and I started to work on screwing up my sleep schedule so that I would be able to sleep on the plane ride back to the US.  I packed and watched TV until about 3am, slept, and then woke up at 7am to catch a train back to Munich.  I didn't sleep much on the flight back so I was very tired when I arrived in San Diego.

This trip to Germany was way beyond what I could have expected.  I feel like I packed a lot into 9 days yet i never felt overwhelmed.  I couldn't believe my luck in the people I met and the fact that two former mayor's were showing me around their cities.  Now I feel more of a connection with Germany than I did before.  I already felt a connection since I had spent time as a baby there and grew up with German children's books and my dad keeping elements of German food and culture in my childhood.  Now I feel like I know the German people better.  While they have a different manner of dealing with people, they were incredibly friendly, hospitable, and insightful.  I plan to keep in contact with these people and I can hardly wait to visit again.

Travel, whether its to Germany or Burning Man or Maine, takes us out of our comfort zone.  We escape and let go of the lives we are used to and learn something new.  When we return to our normal lives, we come back with new perspectives and new ideas that we can apply and possible improve the way we do things.  Get out there and travel.  Test the boundaries of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to do things that expand your world view.  It helps us grow as people.

I hope that you have enjoyed my account of my trip to Germany.  Now many of you will be asking "what is next?"  I will not be doing any major trips for a little while as I need a break from travelling.  Some have asked me to go back and post some material on the trips I did this summer on the Green and Colorado Rivers, and my road trip out to Maine and back through Canada.  I may do this but might also talk about other city planning issues that I have come across but I'll make sure that it is actually "interesting" material since sometime city planning is not.  Stay tuned and I'll keep you all up to date.  Thanks for reading!

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