StadtGrün Heidelberg Speaks for the Trees

Werderplatz in late spring, looking north.

by Maya Moritz

Featured Photo: Werderplatz in late spring, looking north, featured on StadtGrün-Heidelberg

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees,” says the titular character in Dr. Suess’s 1971 children’s book. “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”

Among the environmentalist movements of today, Lorax’s abound. Extinction Rebellion and Anonymous for the Voiceless focus on the plight of animals while Mannheim’s student groups organize diverse green initiatives. On September 25, thousands in the area marched for a Global Day of Climate Action.

Over in Heidelberg, Dr. Petra Fochler has been waging her own defense of foliage. A local of over twenty years, she works in publishing and as a ghost writer following her doctorate in German Studies.

She is also the author of the project StadtGrün-Heidelberg, shortened to StadtGrün-HD, a pamphlet-cum-blog with posts about initiatives and environmental concerns as well as a register of the edible, exotic, invasive, and notable flora of Heidelberg.

The Lorax book cover
The Lorax, Source

The Trigger

 “I became active in environmental politics literally overnight,” says Dr. Fochler, referring to the 2014 incident that began her crusade.

In that year, builders sought a location for a planned congress center in Heidelberg. They zeroed in on Römerbad-Park, a green area home to thick, aged trees at the northern edge of the Ernst-Walz- Brücke.

“The prospect that the popular, small park could simply fall victim to such a massive development made me very angry.” Her fury resulted in sleepless nights, which soon inspired action.

Thereafter, Dr. Fochler and her husband banded together to prevent the development. They distributed leaflets, erected posters, and collected over 800 signatures against the project. Their efforts were rewarded when the proposed build site was abandoned. Construction is currently ongoing in Bahnstadt.

Still, Dr. Fochler remains on guard against future attacks targeting the park, which is not officially considered a green space. “It is too early to sit back and relax… For this area, there is still an old municipal building permit for a building with up to 8 floors.”

Since then, Dr. Fochler has been active and engaged in local environmental policy.

Flügelnussbaum featured on StadtGrün-Heidelberg

A Family Affair

The website itself was not established until the start of 2021, which is surprising given the scope of its contents. At the time, Dr. Fochler was approached by the former chairman of Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V. (NABU), the region’s largest nature conservation association.

The chairman commissioned Dr. Fochler to write a brochure on the „living and dying of green spaces in Heidelberg.“ By the March 2020 lockdown, Dr. Fochler began her research, including writing and photography. “From the very beginning, I was captivated by the topic, simply because it is so diverse and multi-layered.”

Her passion translated into a glut of content far exceeding the initial assignment, prompting her children to suggest a website instead. Though Dr. Fochler feared “the practical implementation” which was “completely new territory,” their arguments swayed her. With technical support from her husband, she was able to launch the site, which she describes as “an absolute project of the heart.”

In June of this year, her son advertised the site on r/de, a German subreddit. Though Dr. Fochler eschews social media, she did notice the effects of this outreach on her readership. “In a very short time, I had almost 6,000 hits… and only positive comments, which made me totally happy and strengthened [my resolve for] my work.”

Gleditschie in Bismarckplatz featured on StadtGrün-Heidelberg
Gleditschie in Bismarckplatz featured on StadtGrün-Heidelberg

The Not-so-Green City

In February, Jack Ewing writing in the New York Times singled out Heidelberg as an up-and-coming green city, spurred by the planned reforms of Mayor Eckart Würzner. The article did cite dissenters, such as an American who bemoaned the perilous position of some bike lanes and the dominance of cars.

One fellow critic is Dr. Fochler. While she agrees that Heidelberg appears green at first glance, she attributes this to its location among the forest and moutains. Inside the city, she points out that parks and green spaces take up less than 5% of Heidelberg’s populated area.

“With  this  meager  portion of  inner-city greenery, Heidelberg ranks last among the eight major cities in Baden-Württemberg. In addition, the scant greenery is often threatened by development,” she says.

She agrees that Bahnstadt stands out in terms of green initiatives but opposes the lack of natural spaces one can see, singling out Gadamerplatz as “a stone desert with scattered trees.” The Pfaffengrunder Terrace, which she cites as the largest open space in the Bahnstadt, is another concrete-heavy area with one rectangle of lawn.

“With so much planning freedom, why couldn’t you just create a beautiful park in a completely new district?” she asks.

Newtonstraße serves as an example of the lack of green planning in Heidelberg, Dr. Fochler adds. She opposes the use of solely potted plants there, limiting the space for roots to spread. This new construction is symptomatic of a city-wide issue for Dr. Fochler. “What really worries me is that in many places in the city, there is no more room at all for large trees due to a lack of space in the ground.”

Culprits for this limitation include underground pipes and sealing by extensive underground car parks, a growing problem. “Then all that remains is the possibility of planting small trees in raised beds or just setting up planters.”

Neighboring cities receive higher praise, with Mannheim and Karlsruhe offering extensive parks. Heidelberg can compete only with the Neuenheimer Neckarwiese, though Dr. Fochler understands the constraints. “It is partly due to its cramped location in the Neckar Valley. Settlement space is still a rare commodity here… the building pressure is enormously high.”

Der Wolfsbrunnen in 1830, from Wikimedia
Der Wolfsbrunnen in 1830, from Wikimedia

Urban Exploration

Alongside plenty of preservation opportunities for the city, Dr. Fochler also suggests many currently available spots for city dwellers seeking foliage.

“My favorite place in the city is the Botanical Garden. There are some big, old trees, plus benches where you can read and relax surrounded by greenery.” She especially loves the Mammutbäume (Sequoias) in the arboretum along Gaiberger Weg and the Rhododendronanlage (Rhododendon) which flowers in May and June.

Along Neckarwiese, she recommends seeking out the “remarkable and indispensable… mighty old Pappel (Poplars)” that can be found between Theodor-Heuss-Brücke and Wasserspielplatz and the Flügelnussbaum (Walnut tree) that stands opposite the DLRG station.

For conventionally lovely trees, she walks along the Steubenstraße and spotlights the “mighty specimen” to be found in front of the Gaisberg pharmacy in Rohrbacher Straße. But among these common varieties is an “enormous variety of exotic trees… for example, in the middle of the city on Bismarckplatz directly in front of the Kaufhof stands a large American Gleditschie (honey locust) with impressive thorns, but no one seems to notice this.”

For a full itinerary, Dr. Fochler proposes a day beginning at the Botanical Gardens, followed by “a nice walk along the banks of the Neckar” ending at the top the Theodor-Heuss-Brücke. From there, head up to Eichendorffanlage on Philosophenweg. Extra-energetic explorers should also wander through the mountain cemetary and the Wolfsbrunnen.

The Mammutbäume featured on StadtGrün-Heidelberg

Reap What you Sow

The future of Heidelberg’s green spaces remains uncertain in Dr. Fochler’s eyes. “As long as urban greenery continues to  be often seen only as a ‘nice to have,’ as a pretty but expensive ingredient in the urban environment, there will not be significantly more green in the city.”

She has faith in the continuity of local parks as long as “there are voices in a city that are committed to the preservation and multiplication of urban greenery. Green within walking distance is not just a pretty accessory but means pure quality of life and is necessary in times of climate change.”

Dr. Fochler continues to update her site, with upcoming blog entries covering unsealing, Bahnstadt water management, and initiatives such as the Stockholm tree planting model. She will also be adding more trees to her already ample catalogue of plant life.