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Conversation with Dirk and Ariana Steinsmeyer

Conversation with Dirk and Ariana Steinsmeyer, Rummelsburg July 10 2012
Peter Cusack

One of the Rummelsburg’s most notable features is its biotope (nature reserve) – a strip of mature woodland alongside part of the water’s edge of Rummelsburger Bay. It has been there at least a century with some trees 200 years old. It is particularly biodiverse for a city area attracting many woodland and water birds, frogs and a good variety of insects. There are also signs of beaver visits. Its rich bird song and insect life contribute noticeably to the Rummelsburg soundscape, especially in spring and summer, as do the varied leaf and tree sounds throughout the year.

The biotope has been controversial. During planning it was under threat of destruction to make way for housing up to the river’s edge and later, when saved, people asked why a fence had been erected to restrict access to it.

Dirk and Ariana Steinsmeyer are Rummelsburg residents, who have long been active in environmental and wildlife issues. After moving there Dirk set up the Rummelsburg branch of NABU – Naturschutzbund Deutschland (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union – the largest environment association in Germany) – that now takes responsibility for the biotope.


PC –What attracted you to come and live in Rummelsburg?

AS – We’ve lived here since November 2008. In Berlin there seemed to be two options – either have a flat close to the city centre or move out a little further and have a house with a garden and nature around. For me the main reason to come was to have a garden. I like to grow things and also there’s peace and quiet. I also really liked its closeness to the river and the biotope that still gives a little bit of nature here.

I also liked that the area was not so developed yet. The part called the Mole is quite unique and has a character of its own plus is another potential biotope. So it is not developed with straight lines and planted trees. It’s more natural. There are some alternative touches here from cultural groups. It’s also close to Stralau where there are more. This is now disappearing, which is a little sad. But these were the main reasons to come here.

PC – You both have had a long interest in nature and its conservation. Let me ask about the biotope. It’s been here a long time. When the houses were built was there a discussion about preserving it or cutting it down?

DS – Actually we had several meeting with the local environmental government here and there were big fights because of this. You can imagine that the area next to the bay is the most desirable and valuable. So there was a really big fight to push the buildings back. Every tree in this area was fought for and also the biodiversity. A good example is the dry area close to the biotope. They actually moved this dry area from another place. It was an experiment and it works. It is still a good area of dry grass specific for various animals.

AS – The reason why this biotope survived was that by law if an area of nature is to be destroyed it must be compensated elsewhere. So the choice for a developer is to leave the natural area where it stands or to provide enough money for it to be replaced to the same standard somewhere else. In this case they eventually decided to keep what was there. That was a winning situation not only for nature but also for the people living here. Many of the people moved here because of the higher quality of life through nature.

PC – So you think that the people who live here generally appreciate the nature in the area?

DS – Yes, they really appreciate it. There’s a good example – you were at the opening of the nature information path. We invited the whole neighbourhood and some of the area’s politicians but we never expected so many to come. There were over 150 people. So they are definitely interested in this.

AS – But they are seeking information. They would like to understand more about what they have in front of them. Some neighbours who live close to the river say they would love to have a view to the bay but the trees are actually hindering this. So they appreciate nature but also need to have more information to understand why it is like this and why some of the trees are not cut down for a better view.

PC – So there are always conflicting wishes?

AS – Yes exactly. So we have to balance this here and as Dirk said information is the right way forward.

PC – Tell me about NABU. What does NABU stand for?

DS – It’s the German Conservation Union and is the oldest nature organisation in Germany. It was founded 110 years ago by a woman – Lina Hähnle – who tried to save birds of paradise by campaigning against the use of their feathers in hats. That was the first campaign in southern Germany near Stuttgart. Then the system spread over all Germany quite fast, but focussed on this main topic of saving birds. But as birds are part of nature all the other things were included. What’s really nice about NABU’s idea is to get people involved in their own local areas. So they become involved in the biotope 100 meters away, or with fruit trees next to the house. This is the big thing. We have 2000 groups in Germany and over 30 thousand people working like me.

PC – So you have a local group in Rummelsburg?

DS – Yes, we founded the local group in Rummelsburg 3 years ago. When we moved here I asked the regional NABU if there was a group, or anyone else, responsible for this biotope. They said no so we founded this group. A new group with new people.

PC – One of the things you’ve done is to create information boards besides the biotope, how did that come about? Was it your idea?

DS – This is quite interesting. After it was founded I presented our local NABU group to other community associations in the area. And there were people asking me why the local government fenced everything and why there are so many signs saying no entry. The people complained. So we discussed it and the idea was born to make small information boards for the people living here and for those engaged in water sport. This was the beginning of the information campaign. Our answer wasn’t new fences but information for the people.

AS – And interestingly enough at first you only had little fliers but then the idea came to create an information path to tell a story. This needed money to make a series of noticeboards but the local government had none, so you approached the Kietz-fund – it’s a financial mechanism through which the local people can decide how some money is spent in the area.

DS – Yes, it took one year (3 presentations) and a lot of questions, critical questions. Then we got the money.

AS – This was first time that the residents said yes to such a project. Kind of like a break through.

DS – For me the opening of this information path and the fact that so many people attended was really good. I was very happy. The future is to continue the information path on the other side of the bay. We are planning 4 or 5 other signboards. The work will be done this winter. And this time the government is funding it.

PC – Can you tell me a little about the sounds that you like in this area?

AS – When we first moved here 4 years ago we couldn’t hear any birds. But now they are here and I love to wake up in the morning with an open window and hear them. That was for me the point when I said yes I’m at home now. I really missed that before. Birds for me represent nature. You can hear bees buzzing but quieter surroundings are needed to appreciate them. However the surroundings here are not quiet enough so birds are the main sound that I really like.

DS – Yes, for me it’s the birds and the frogs here. But the bees can sound nice especially on the dry grass area, which is protected from traffic noise by the surrounding houses. The houses also give a layer of noise protection to the biotope and you can hear a lot of things there.

PC – It’s protected on this side but not against traffic noise from across the river. If the wind is blowing from that direction it can be quite loud.

AS – Yes I was always wondering where the noise came from when close to the biotope but I couldn’t place it. It is from across the river. Mostly it bothers me to hear traffic sounds around here, but on the other hand we are in a city and to be in an area where you can hear birds is a bonus.

But apart from nature sounds I actually like the music we sometimes hear from parties around. It shows the area is not only for residents but also for people who create this space and use it for their cultural expression and for enjoying life. For me that is also important because I sometimes feel that this is a very quiet area in the sense that people only live here. There is no real life here.

PC – Doesn’t that take time to develop. This is actually a very young community.

AS – Yes. We now have a café here, which opened a year ago. That has created some new sounds. But yes definitely it would be nice to have more life around here. There are sounds of children playing but things like music making or people creating something these sounds are still missing. So when I hear these music festivals I really like them.

DS – The water carries a lot of sounds into this area.

PC – That’s for me one of the interesting things about the area. Water carries sound very well sometimes from a long distance. You can hear distant sounds from the power station and of heavy barges on the river. They can really vibrate.
One of my criteria for an interesting soundscape is that it has a lot of variety. And compared to other city areas Rummelsburg has. There are unusual bird species here.

AS – I think it’s also an unusual mixture. You would find these sounds else where but never in this mixture.

PC – Can we talk about the Mole area. I’ve heard that a second biotope has been discussed there. How is that progressing?

DS – It’s a pity that the Mole is not part of the existing biotope. We are trying to improve its quality and make it an official biotope. In terms of the variety of the species it certainly should be. It has species not found in the existing biotope, e.g. recently a red throated diver fished there for several weeks. Many people came to see it. This is why the Mole is included as part of the biotope monitoring.

PC – So you are monitoring the Mole’s wildlife?

DS – Yes. The report is being finalised. I hope we have some facts in the next weeks.

PC –The Mole is still threatened with development. Are you taking part in that discussion? How do you get your ideas and observations into the planning process?

DS – Well initially there was a plan for a tourist boats landing stage at the Mole and a café. This would have increased the boat traffic in the bay and harmed the biotope there through more waves, noise and disturbance. So we argued against this and our arguments were successful.

AS – It also seemed that the local government (the Berlin district of Lichtenberg) environment department was supportive of your arguments, so it wasn’t just the NGOs.

DS – Yes. But this leads to another problem because the Mole lies on the border of Lichtenberg and the neighbouring district of Kreuzberg. They even don’t know where the exact border is. The two authorities were not so well in contact with each other, so we tried to develop a communication between these two environmental offices. Happily this was also successful.

PC – I’ve seen a number of plans for the Mole area some of which have housing that goes right up to the water’s edge and others that leave quite a big space between the bay and the housing. How much space does the biotope really need to be biologically viable? Could any of that area be used for housing or is it your argument that none of it should be.

DS – It’s quite hard to answer. I think we need all the space we can get. If the housing is close to the biotope the noise and pressure from people would itself create disturbance. We really try to push the building far away from the biotope. But I don’t know if we will be successful in this.

PC – The chances are quite high that there will be some building. So it may be an argument about how much building rather than no building. If an architect or planner was to ask well how many meters away from the water is good for the biotope how would you answer?

DS – I don’t know. Perhaps it also depends on the possibilities of nesting for birds close to the houses or on bird proofed windows (some birds cannot see the windows and fly into them). Perhaps we cannot push them back, but we have some ideas on how to make the building wildlife friendly.

AS – Which by the way has not been done here. There were so many possibilities to integrate nesting possibilities in the houses here. It was not forbidden but the architects didn’t want it. We tried to have nesting for sparrows – it would be just small holes.

DS – Or bats. You can integrate their needs into buildings. You don’t really see it. It is just a small opening.

PC – So the architects weren’t interested in building for species other than humans.

DS – I mentioned the wildlife monitoring. If bats or birds are found living in the trees we can argue that if this tree is chopped down the bat will need another possibility to live, so please think about providing this in the new building.

PC – Do the sounds of nature play a role in these arguments. Are bird or insect sounds or the sounds of different tree leaves in wind ever used within your arguments with planners, architects, government departments or with local people.

DS – Not yet. It’s really simple. Only written submissions are accepted and we all should be lawyers to do that properly. Actually we have a lawyer at NABU Berlin to help us to formulate the arguments. But if we have the chance to present the monitoring information we would certainly use photos and maps showing the locations of species. If sound could be implemented that would be really nice.

AS – It’s not only a question if sound samples would be accepted as evidence. You could also describe what difference sounds make. My experience of working in nature conservation is that sound is not yet accepted. I mean it’s not talked of as an argument. I think one reason is that it’s not really regarded as essential. It’s like a luxury. Noise pollution is accepted and there are categories of what is acceptable or not. But you don’t really have definite criteria…

DS – The beauty of the sound.

AS – Well I don’t know. The variety of the sound does enhance your life quality and you have a right to this quality.

PC – You said earlier that one of the reasons you like to be in Rummelsburg is that quality.

AS – Yes exactly. But I think there are no categories yet that express the positive impact of sound on someone’s life quality. There’s only the negative one of noise pollution or not. We don’t have a system to actually categorise it and say this is what I need in order to feel comfortable.

DS – This is really a problem.

PC – Yes that’s been recognised in the sound world for sometime but moving on from there is proving very difficult.

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