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“As a society, we are all responsible”

Theresa Ramisch
Runge has been building furniture for public outdoor spaces for 116 years. Oliver Runge is the managing owner of the family business. Photo: Runge GmbH & Co. KG




As a society, we are all responsible for dealing with the consequences of summer heat, drought and heavy rainfall, says Oliver Runge, managing owner of Runge GmbH & Co. KG. In the interview, he explains what measures Runge took as a company several years ago, what we can gain by reducing the space for cars in cities and the results of an idea development project in collaboration with students from two universities, which focussed on the contribution of street furniture to coping with heat or heavy rainfall events.

Diverse solutions from students

How can street furniture respond to increasing heat, solar radiation, heavy rainfall/flooding events and rising sea levels? – You initiated this question two years ago as part of an idea development project with Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences and the German University in Cairo. The results have now been published. What new insights did you gain at Runge in this project?

We found it very encouraging to see how young people from different cultural backgrounds worked together. They come from very different climate zones and have incorporated different climate experiences into the product development. Each team always consisted of students from both universities, so that the broad and very different wealth of personal experience could be utilised.

The requirements resulting from climate change are very diverse – and the students’ proposed solutions were correspondingly colourful: One group developed pure shading solutions for public spaces, while another designed seating furniture that combines shading and water collection. Another team looked at floating solutions. There were also ideas for floor coverings that drain away rainwater and at the same time offer decorative ornamentation.

More trees and green spaces in the city

What happens now with the research results? Will they be incorporated into Runge’s productions?

The students’ designs have further fuelled the ideas that have been on our minds for some time. We are now investigating whether one or two of the students’ ideas could be further developed into a marketable product. Shading solutions and approaches to (rain) water management can certainly be part of furniture solutions for which there is a larger market. However, we must not fool ourselves: More trees and green spaces in the city are still most effective against summer heat and local flooding.

Faster measures are necessary

You are working intensively on sustainable production and sustainable materials. Climate adaptation and climate protection have become political buzzwords worldwide. In your opinion, how important are heat management measures and climate adaptation in politics and city administration (also in an international comparison)? What is your impression?

First of all, we have a problem with the term sustainability: very often, sustainability is referred to because it is expected in public debate and customer communication – so the concept of sustainability degenerates into a pure marketing tool. However, we should fundamentally consider the consequences of human activity on the environment instead of carrying the buzzword around like a monstrance without reflection. Of course, we can and must demand that politicians do more. However, it is also the responsibility of each individual citizen and company to behave in a way that minimises their own ecological footprint.

On principle, owner-managed family businesses think in terms of future generations

As an owner-managed family business, we are not concerned with short-term profits and quarterly targets. As a principle, we think in terms of generations. That is why we are committed to exemplary products and climate-friendly production. We want to do the best we can to leave behind a world that will be a good place to live in for future generations. Europe is generally a long way from achieving this. Fossil-free steel, i.e. steel that has been produced without fossil fuels but still requires massive amounts of energy, won’t help. Not that it wouldn’t be good to switch steel production to clean energy sources. There are certainly product categories that really rely on the properties of steel. However, products that can also be made from renewable raw materials, such as street furniture, should utilise these low-energy alternatives. Wherever possible, we should avoid energy-intensive products and design all products for a long life, reparability, reusability and renewable materials. We have been doing this for decades – long before it became a necessary ‘marketing trend’ for climate change.

More regrowing wood – street furniture as a CO₂ storage medium

We therefore expect that the use of steel in public furniture will decrease further and that the regrowing raw material wood will again be given more weight. Our fortunately increasingly climate-sensitive society is also developing a more positive attitude towards wood characteristics that were still viewed negatively in previous decades. Rougher surfaces and small cracks as well as developing discolouration are now an accepted expression of naturalness. If you consciously choose wood that regrows and binds CO2 faster than it needs to be replaced in the product, then it even becomes a true CO2 storage medium and makes a particularly positive contribution to climate protection.

Only demand for FSC-certified wood creates positive change

For us, it was a natural step to be one of the pioneers in using FSC-certified wood. Without demand for FSC-certified wood, including from the tropics, we will lose the battle to protect the forests there. The uncritical demand on the tropics from other parts of the world, especially Asia, and for products in which the wood base is not directly recognisable, is far too great. A blanket renunciation of tropical timber will not be able to protect them. What many people ignore: When rainforests are cut down, it is not to obtain large quantities of wood for the furniture industry or even for the production of street furniture, but to create palm oil plantations, which even ruin the soil on a large scale. Or to grow soya, which in turn is used as feed for pigs and cattle, i.e. to ultimately satisfy our hunger for meat. Tropical timber is also used on a massive scale for the production of pulp, i.e. paper.

Natural acetic acid makes pine wood a durable alternative

However, if you don’t want to make a positive contribution by demanding FSC tropical wood, Accoya is an alternative that enables very durable wood products based on fast-growing pine wood. The pine wood is impregnated with natural acetic acid. This allows it to last for up to 50 years without contact with the ground and up to 25 years when in contact with the ground. The method has been around for a very long time and has proven itself in many cases. The wood is in principle protected against wood-destroying organisms, even if – as usual with naturally grown products – it nevertheless degrades earlier than expected in individual cases. Wood is not a homogeneous steel, but it grows back quickly and binds CO2 instead of wasting a lot of energy. One point of criticism regarding acetylated pine wood so far has been its greying behaviour: Due to its softwood base, it tends to form blue stains on the surface during the greying process; this can lead to an unexpected dark discolouration in the first few months, which contrasts with the light wood, but is harmless. After two years at the latest, a more even greying occurs, which can hardly be distinguished from other types of wood. We are convinced that people will not see such characteristics as a problem in future, but rather as an expression of naturalness and that they will be delighted with the ecological benefits of the material.

Politicians and administrations can do more – but we all have to get involved

How far along are politicians and administrations on the issue of heat protection? We can also see from the current frequent and severe flooding that faster measures are needed. Success requires broad support and acceptance among the population. Green roofs are often already mandatory for new buildings and conversions, unsealing of traffic areas is being promoted and tree planting is planned. Technical cooling aids such as spray jets for summer cooling are being tested, for example in our project at Neuer Markt in Vienna.

The details and hidden challenges of such lighthouse examples should be communicated more widely so that they set an example for other decision-makers and show citizens clear examples of solutions. The Neuer Markt in Vienna has relocated car parks underground, creating a green recreational area with biological and technical evaporative cooling on the roof.

Gain a lot by rededicating roads and car parks

Between 2030 and 2050, around 250,000 people worldwide are expected to die every year as a result of climate change, including extreme heat. What systems, innovations and strategies would you like to see more of in international cities?

If there was one system that would work, many cities would use it. We believe that the key to climate-resilient cities is the car. Or rather, the space we make available to the car that must be reduced. Huge gains can be made by rededicating streets and car parks: Pocket parks instead of individual parking spaces and micro-forests instead of larger car parks, trees wherever possible, cycle paths instead of car lanes, traffic-calmed zones instead of through roads, inviting bicycle parking ‘everywhere’ – also and especially for cargo bikes. Copenhagen has shown the way, Paris is following suit on a massive scale and there are superblocks in Barcelona. Of course, these concepts cannot always be transferred one-to-one everywhere. The political will to change is crucial, even if experiments are being carried out.

However, we believe that experimenting with parklets in the way they have been implemented until now is outdated. They are regularly built of solid steel and are therefore not only visual but also climatic ‘CO2 monsters’. Temporary solutions should be low-energy and made from regrowing raw materials. In Munich, for example, we were able to support the MCubes project on Landlstraße, Kolumbusstraße and Entenbachplatz with our furniture. Streets were transformed into meeting spaces with sand, grass and plants. More of this! And then, as quickly as possible, extensive, permanent unsealing, infiltration areas, inner-city polders that may not be recognisable as such. And as many tall plants as possible: large street trees for 2050 – we need to plant them already! What are we waiting for?

Owner-managed family businesses think in terms of generations on principle

Where do we need to go in terms of heat management? And who is responsible for this? What is your responsibility as a company?

As a society, we are all responsible for dealing with the consequences of summer heat, drought and heavy rainfall. In many major German cities, city centres are heavily sealed and the transport infrastructure is geared towards cars, which leads to heat problems. Politics, administration, business and civil society must act together: Reduce the number of car parks and lanes. Plant trees in the space that is freed up to provide shade and seating for a longer breather in the cooling shade when the top floor flat turns into a summer sauna once again. Fog jets in selected locations can also help to reduce heat stress and avoid health risks for the ageing population.

Some cities have already taken measures, but the fear of losing revenue due to fewer parking spaces or concerns about personal parking spaces often prevail. Individual measures such as shade-providing benches can support cities that have set out to make their city centres climate-resilient.

As a company, we already implemented sustainable and effective measures in our new building planning ten years ago: In Goldbeck, we have found a partner who knows how to push the structural limits through system construction and thus save resources (especially steel and concrete) in a climate-friendly way. We planned all the lighting at the time using only LEDs and, where it made sense, also implemented motion and daylight-controlled lighting. To significantly reduce energy consumption, we use clean wood chips for our own production, and PV systems for electricity as well as insulation close to passive house level, night ventilation, special glazing and shading to eliminate the need for air conditioning.

Due to the choice of location close to the motorway and on the open industrial field, no trees have fallen – on the contrary, we have even planted additional trees. We have joined Europe’s largest insect conservation belt, which consists of flowering meadows and allows insects to move around to enrich the gene pool. Our flowering meadows are one of the largest single areas with typical local Osnabrück mixtures from Rieger Hofmann. Some of these grow waist-high in summer and provide a habitat for insects and small animals. The tall vegetation completely shades the ground, prevents rapid drying out and provides moisture, evaporation and cooling. During summer storms, these areas store precipitation, seep away and store water. We buffer surface water from the buildings and sealed surfaces in a retention basin and thus prevent flooding. We believe that more and more companies will make a voluntary contribution, especially owner-managed family businesses – they think in terms of generations on principle.

Short vita

Oliver Runge has been managing owner of Runge GmbH & Co. KG since 2001. He previously worked as a management consultant at Roland Berger and as an assistant to the management board at Pixelpark AG. He studied international business administration at the European Business School, with stages in Spain, the USA and Namibia. Runge has enjoyed developing new solutions for outdoor public spaces since childhood.

About Runge

Runge has been building furniture for outdoor public spaces for 116 years. The benches, often complemented by matching litter bins and bicycle stands, can be found in parks and gardens, along streets and paths and in squares; some have now become classics of street furniture. They can be found wherever people want to sit down and take a break. With its large planters, Runge helps to make public spaces greener and the urban climate more pleasant. As a ‘real’ manufacturer, Runge adapts products to the wishes of planners or realises free designs as individual customised constructions. At its headquarters in the district of Osnabrück, Runge offers all production steps from on-site customer consultation, design and construction to wood and metal processing and surface coating.

This interview is part of the Beat the Heat initiative, which Runge is supporting. Find out more about Beat the Heat here.

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