Gliding through Berlin
June 17, 2030
Alex came to visit today! It was so exciting…the last time she came must have been 10 years ago, when I got married. How much has changed. Her daughter is off to college; my son is in Gymnasium, and we’ve both been up to so much in the meantime. Anyway, when we talked about her visit, she insisted that I show her what makes Berlin so “sustainable.” We’ve had a long-running discussion about this, what it is we’re aiming for when we talk about making the world a better place. My term of choice is “sustainability;” hers, “resilience.” Both can mean similar things, and I think we’ve both come to agree that more important than the word is all the meaning you put into it. And she wanted me to show her that meaning through a tour of the city.
First stop, Autofreies Sonnenallee! We left my apartment and I urged her to point out the different types of transportation she saw as we headed southwest. Lots of people out on foot, but also every type of family constellation on bicycles: mama with a toddler in a front seat and a baby in the back, papa on an adult bike with a six-year-old riding separately alongside him, and the spiky-haired punk dad I see sometimes with his baby-cycle: three kids packed into a wheelbarrow-like construction on the front of his homemade bike. Could you tell we were out at peak “take your kids to Kita” time? Carson was with us, so I gave him a hug before he skipped across the street to his school.
“Okay,” I said, “we’ve got feet and bikes down. What else?”
Alex kept looking; she saw some skateboards and scooters—of both the privately-owned and hourly-rental, electric and foot-operated varieties. Diversity was all around us in how people were getting to work and school. But Alex hadn’t yet noticed what I was trying to get at. Which was what wasn’t there. Then it hit her all at once—I could practically see the LED light bulb go off over her head.
“Lisa, I haven’t seen a single car yet!”
“That’s right! The whole neighborhood has gone car-free.”
“Wow. Don’t people miss it?”
Miss it? Time for a detour, I thought. So we headed down Reuterstraße, and I motioned for her to step into what looked like an enchanted fairy forest growing up between the sidewalks. There were a gaggle of tables past some tomato and basil plants; I told her to sit down. We were at my favorite street café, which two years ago had worked with the neighborhood greens club to take over the middle of the street. Where asphalt had been on her last visit, raised beds held organic greens free for passersby and precise incisions into the tarmac made room for trees to stretch up into the sky. On both sides of this green oasis were five-story apartment buildings, with high windows. A few late risers stood on their balconies, reading a book or nursing a cup of coffee.
“Look at that guy,” I said, pointing to a man in a bath towel inhaling the warm summer air. “I bet he’s out here just to smell all this fresh life. Can you imagine, Berlin is now a carbon sink? These street forests soak in more carbon dioxide in a month than the cars still allowed inside the Ring emit in a year. And the city looks and smells better, too.”
“Hard sell,” Alex replied. I could tell she was taken in by the scene, but also that she was trying to keep her social scientist’s eye.
“It isn’t perfect, but it’s such a no-brainer to give streets back to the people. Then we all benefit.”
“But how many car owners were there when this was passed?”
“Fewer than in New Orleans, but still, enough. It was a big change. The way we convinced people was by starting small: taking over streets only on weekends, and then a month in the summer. The benefits were so tangible, and it costs less to build a forest than to maintain a street. So the city government has put the savings into building out the bike infrastructure here. And what I’m really excited about is—they’re talking with Leipzig and Hamburg about expanding the bike highways between the cities.”
Alex’s eyes lit up. “Bike highways?”
“I can show you if you want. The route to Leipzig is open; it takes about a week if you’re leisurely. Are you in? We can start tomorrow!”
We still have to ask the kids, but I know I’m in!! But we didn’t even make it to Sonnenallee!