Contested Ecologies: Munich

By: Clemens Hufeld

Munich is a beautiful city that has much to offer. It has the Oktoberfest, one of the world’s largest urban fairs, surfers in the middle of the city, beautiful landscapes in its vicinity, and a long tradition of urban life. The city is shrouded in such a wonderful air of beauty that it can only make you wonder: what is missing? Where are the problems any large city faces? Where is the conflict? Of course, as with any other city, there is plenty. These range from serious issues, such as close affiliations with the Third Reich, to interesting tidbits such as the Therme Erding’s—a water park and spa—origin as a Texaco borehole. Unfortunately, many people have neither the time nor the desire to dig into the unknown. This is where “Contested Ecologies: Munich” comes in.

The Rachel Carson Center (RCC) in Munich is a temporary academic home to many interesting and interested people, mainly international scholars who come to the city for fellowships at the university. Prof. Robert Gioielli of the University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College, is one such person. As a visiting fellow specialized in urban environments, social movements, and politics, he found Munich’s lack of open environmental and social conflicts to be a missing piece of the puzzle in the environmental history of Munich and its surroundings. His project to find out more is just a taster for the many other stories waiting to be told. As a student in the RCC’s MA Environmental Studies Certificate Program, I was looking for a final project to fulfill the requirements of the program. After consulting with RCC Director Christof Mauch, I learned about Rob’s project and arranged a meeting with him. Talking to Rob was so interesting, I abandoned my previous ideas for final project topics: after six peaceful years in Munich, I was literally looking for trouble.

To start the project, Rob organized several meetings to come up with ideas and discuss our proposed list of possible sites. These took place at the RCC with other fellows interested in the project. Over a period of several months, we narrowed the sites of interest down to around ten. Another question we discussed in the meeting was the audience. The initial thought was to open this up to other RCC fellows who come to Munich with little or no knowledge about the city. But this limitation to RCC insiders was quickly abandoned. We wanted to show everyone who was interested that Munich has more sides to it than the official narrative. Thus, the decision was made to create a publicly accessible website in order to reach as many people as possible.

Due to our collective lack of know-how, designing a website ourselves represented a challenge. Unfortunately, many website platforms require costly additional payments to include maps on the page. Since the map is essential to the project, Rob decided on ArcGIS (architecture geographic information system), a tool for geographers and urban planners to combine geographical information with maps. Their storymap feature suited the project well. It allowed for a map, it allowed for individual sliders for each story, and has an appealing layout for storytelling.

sound map of the Franz-Joseph-Strauss Airport in Munich (MUC). Airports are often associated with conflict. MUC, too, has been home to ongoing protests about a third runway. This story and many others can be discovered in the “Contested Ecologies: Munich” map.

In the following months, we researched the chosen sites and produced short stories for each site. The map at the top of the storyboard is an overview of the locations in the city, followed by an individual story for each location. The map (which can be viewed here) can be used as a way to experience the sites from anywhere in the world. For the sites in the inner city, you can even plan a walking tour, getting a feeling for the neighborhoods and seeing how your knowledge about the individual sites might change your perception of what you are seeing.

For example, one might not think of the Isar River in the city center as anything but a beacon of nature, a stream of freshwater through the heart of the city. Yet the face of the river in the city has been changing since the city was founded. It is a never-ending civil and water engineering project. The latest renaturalization is but the most recent instance of a change in strategy of how the city goes about taming or using the river for its population. Is there such a thing as a natural River Isar, or a natural city landscape in general?

The “renaturalized” Isar in the city center was finished in 2011 after 11 years of construction work. Photo: Burkhard Mücke via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another example is Ebersberger Forst, just east of the city. It has been the site of almost uninterrupted protests since the city wanted to build the particle accelerator CERN right in the forest in the 1960s. After the plans were dropped, the new Munich Airport was supposed to be built there. These plans were also canceled and were replaced by a proposition to build several Autobahn motorways cutting through the woods, all of which were also abandoned. One might wonder why a small piece of forest such as this one gives rise to so much conflict. Why would the people not want one of the world’s most prestigious research facilities in their state? A bird’s eye view of the area around Munich shows that the forest is a small remainder of forest in an otherwise agriculturally intensive region. Are the area’s residents standing in the way of progress or protecting a precious natural gem?

Are we condemning the way things are done? By no means. Things are neither black nor white, even though the roar of the Bavarian lion might sometimes have you believe so. The purpose of this project is to provide insights into conflicts past and present as well as to show their multi-faceted nature. There are no clear-cut or easy solutions to many of the issues displayed. There are opinions as to what is right and there are ways to influence the outcome.

Pests such as bark beetles or black arches can cause the downfall of large areas of forest, especially in monocultures such as Ebersberger Forst. Photo: Kurt Seebauer via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

What is great about this project is that it is a collection of short stories, each providing a piece of the puzzle concerning the city’s environmental history. We have gathered but a small fraction of the stories that exist. Taking a trip to any of the sites would yield multiple stories just on the journey there. Each U-Bahn station, city street, even each building along the way has an interesting story that is waiting to be told. This is where you, the reader, come in. You can help complete the puzzle. If there are stories that you think should be told and fit onto the map, send Rob an email with more information, or send us the story with some pictures. Help expand the map with us!

Personally, this project has been satisfying to me in many ways. I gained a much deeper connection to Munich as a place in which to live during the research process. The research provided me with an insight into how many processes are simultaneous and how many institutions are working together to create what seem on the surface to be simple parts of the city’s culture and life. Next to knowing numerous facts about sites in the city, many of which did not make it onto the map, I can now walk the streets of Munich with a new awareness of hot spots throughout the city where things may have gone wrong, continue to pose problems or might become problematic in the future. As a law student with a background in English studies, I am trained to think in systems that are more or less prescriptive. This type of conflict research was as enriching as it was new to me.

Overall, the city has more to offer than mere Brauhäuser and Schweinshaxn. “Contested Ecologies: Munich” sheds a small light on some of the rich conflicts that exist—even in Munich.


*Featured image: A rare sight—a gloomy picture of Munich’s city center. The Hackerbrücke station is heavily frequented during Oktoberfest and the depicted railroad control center coordinates every train at the main station. Photo: Stefan Pflaum via Unsplash.

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