There must be a German word for “having just enough to complain about to be truly content.”

It has been exactly two weeks since we moved to Bonn and life is good. We study, we get to know the other Humboldt fellows (Mitstipendiaten/innen being the incredibly precise German term), and we continue the search for the perfect Biergarten. In many ways it is university 2.0, except without all the awkwardness of the late teenage years or the unnecessary stress of finals. It’s the way university should always have been, just enough intellectual stimulation and work through the week so that you really feel that you’ve earned that Kölsch beer.

Of course, no university would be complete without dorms, ours being the acora [sic] Hotel20130623_102445 und Wohnen, a long term stay hotel which is a right of passage in itself. I jokingly sang “O Tannenbusch, O Tannenbusch” as we pulled into Bonn, as I saw a funny exit sign that reminded me of an X-Mas jingle. But that’s where we are, right in the middle of Tannenbusch, a grey bricked suburb that could be anywhere in Northern Europe. Fortunately a bicycle can put you in idyllic fields in 5 minutes, on a trail by the Rhine in 10 minutes, and in downtown Bonn in 30 minutes.

The acora lifestyle is characterized by many little quirks. An automatic door in front of the reception with a remarkably acute sensor that makes it impossible to pass within a hundred feet of it without setting it off. It’s impossible to avoid turning to see the ghosts exiting the hotel lobby. There is also an inconsistently priced laundry room in which 6 hours of usage have been free and yet a single load cost me 6 euros. And the infamous Baustelle (building site) that works from 7am to 7pm six days a week and has driven the poor residents of building 4 to distraction.

But the truly unique fixture of our acora life is the closet kitchen. Equipped with two hot P6200018.JPGplates, two pots and a pan, two egg cups, two fish forks, a spatula OR a serving spoon, what may or may not be a cutting board, and no preparation space, the aspiring chef will find more challenges than a ship’s galley (which at least has an oven). The acoravore, must truly be a flexible and resilient beast. So far I’ve been able to keep calorie intake with an abundant use of pre-chopped bacon and new potatoes (as they don’t need to be peeled).

So it appears that Eeva and I are set to survive, as many before us, a Summer at the acora. But please send no-chop, no-bake, versions of your favorite recipes, just to be safe. Otherwise we might be forced to increase our intake of incredibly delicious and competitively priced meat, wine, cheese, and bread. The equivalent of living off ramen noodles out here.

The Emscher Region and Berlin: Lessons in Stormwater Management

In its efforts to promote green infrastructure, EPA has funded papers to promote international dialogue and learning on the issue. Two of them have been recently published and I’m going to provide summaries on both of them to give a quick overview for the benefit of my own understanding and hopefully to spur some interest from ridiculously busy professionals in the field.

The papers start by recognizing the wide promulgation of low impact practices Germany has achieved in the last 40 years for stormwater management. The series of papers then studies similar cases there and in the U.S., and builds a framework to allow lessons from Germany to be adapted to the specific conditions present in the U.S.

The first paper of the series, The German Experience in Managing Stormwater with Green Infrastructure by Nickel et. al., is based around the cases of the Emscher Region in Western Germany and Berlin. Both cases share similarities to areas in the upper Midwestern United States that have experienced loss of population and industrial base and are trying to transition to a post-industrial economy while tackling water quality problems with seriously constrained budgets. The below is a very rough sketch of the cases laid out by the authors.

The Emscher Region has serious water quality problems due to legacy pollution from the regions heavy industrial base and coal mining as well as flooding problems from unmanaged stormwater from development. Public leaders have begun an effort to cope with these problems by restoring natural surface hydrology. The effort began with pilot and grant programs to build support for green practices which were then followed by a comprehensive strategy to link up small projects with regional goals. Public leaders had a financial incentive to make the strategy work as an analysis showed that a 15% reduction of impervious cover would allow for the dimensions of the sewer system to be reduced, resulting in a savings of €270 million (approximately $350 million). The estimated costs in green infrastructure investments to achieve these savings are €250 million.

Regional stakeholders were able to agree to reductions of 1% in impervious cover per year in order to achieve the 15% reduction by 2020. As of 2010, stakeholders were slightly behind the goal but have plans to achieve a 7.5% reduction of impervious cover by 2013.

Berlin, my home come September, has had a rather unique relationship with its water resources. For a good portion of the last century Western Berlin was an island and had to depend on groundwater from within its city limits. The political situation also created a demand for green recreational spaces within the city, placing a further emphasis on self sufficiency, an emphasis that was maintained even when it was no longer necessary.

Berlin’s municipal resources were strained with the fall of the Wall as predicted population growth did not materialize and revenues dropped from the loss of water intensive industries. Under these conditions the city looked for cost effective green infrastructure practices to meet its goals. Where the city could afford to, it provided direct subsidies to reduce impervious cover and increase green space and compulsory guidelines were introduced for public buildings. On top of the highest stormwater fees in Germany, Berlin has also introduced the Green Area Ratio, a planning requirement for private developers which afforded them significant flexibility in meeting municipal environmental goals by awarding them points for various practices. For example, a fully impervious surface will be awarded 0 points while vegetation connected to the soil will be awarded 1 point and a green roof will be awarded .7 points. The flexibility embodied in the practice has received positive feedback from architects and the practice has now been incorporated in Washington, D.C. and Seattle.

The authors believe both Berlin and the Emscher region demonstrate the importance of integrated environmental planning. They do a good job laying out all the different components that need to be in place for this to happen effectively. Stakeholder groups need a chance to iron out competing priorities so that benefits can be optimized and costs minimized. Usually this process has to be guided by determined public leadership. Strong and clear communication between stakeholders is also particularly crucial so that implementation of decentralized practices is effectively coordinated and extensive guidelines on best management practices is crucial. Framework policies that allow decentralized stakeholders to adjust to local conditions while still advancing common goals are also important and the authors emphasize the Emscher regions goal of 15% reduction in impervious cover in 15 years as exemplary. I would like to add that the Green Area Ratio is also a good example of such a policy even though it does not provide as clear a vision of overarching management goals. Finally proper incentives and fees are all necessary to signal various groups of the direction they should move in.

China and International Norms

The contrast between how this article in the Sunday New York Times discussed international political economy and how we discussed it in grad school really struck me. The article discusses the distinct advantages Chinese firms enjoy due to the country’s immense liquidity, the state’s willingness to bolster them with subsidies, and the ailing condition of Western economies. The just of the article is that we are in the midst of an immense economic power grab from China and that this grab has political consequences as Western countries mute their criticism of China’s record on human rights and fair trade.

The theoretical meat of my grad program was good old Ricardian canon of yesteryear with comparative advantage and gains from trade and all that. Needless to say, anyone who impedes trade pays the consequences themselves. Mercantilism was reduced to rubble. (And yes there were area study classes, but let’s be honest, they don’t have the “moral” heft that pure economic theory carries.)

No doubt a smug student of above average intellect raised in this school would tell you the West has nothing to worry about. Chinese subsidies are no doubt inefficient as they are state run, and at any rate, even if they are efficient, we all benefit from gains from trade. China only hurts itself by keeping Western firms out of many of its markets.

And our smug student is likely partly right. And I also would agree that there is something fragile about the Chinese regime’s lack of human rights and state run capitalism with its endemic corruption. But the Chinese are buying economic and political power in the short run, and with those, the ability to alter international norms and set the rules of the game. And they may change the norms and rules before they have to deal with their own fragility. The West, partly because many young minds are trained to fight against the mercantilists of yesteryear, instead of coping with rapidly ascendant state capitalism may acquiesce to playing on a field that is not of its liking.