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US borrows European solutions to urban problems

Indianapolis can be grateful that Bruce Brown came back from Europe with water on his mind.

''One of the things we saw all over Europe was how people are always involved with water -- places where kids can get wet,'' says Mr. Brown, executive director of the White River Park Commission. So plans for the new urban park in Indiana's capital city include a giant fountain, water amusement rides, and landscaped river levees.

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Brown's European trip, which covered waterfront cities in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, is one example of how Old World solutions can solve New World problems. The organization involved in this idea transfer is the Council for International Urban Liaison (CIUL), based in Washington, D.C.

Most of the ideas that CIUL digs up never get used. ''We cast a lot of bread upon the water,'' says George Wynne, CIUL director of communications. ''Most of it sinks.''

But the ideas that do make it in the United States are a potpourri that ranges from the sublime to the slightly bizarre.

For more than 40 years, West German cities have been meshing new urban projects with the environment. Strategically placed vegetation absorbs pollutants, provides shading, and masks sound; water is retained on roofs to cool the air through evaporation; and natural air channels, such as rivers and wide streets, have been improved to allow cleaner, cooler air from the country to flow through.

Last year, Dayton, Ohio, became the first US city to test one of the German innovations -- grass pavers -- in a downtown area. In a 25,000-square-foot city lot, specially configured concrete blocks were laid down, the gaps filled, and grass planted in them. This not only enhanced the area's appearance, it reduced storm water runoff by approximately 50 percent and air temperature in the lot by up to 5.5 degrees. The significant heat reduction ''blew us away,'' says Fred Bartenstein, assistant to Dayton's city manager.

The idea has also been picked up by Alexandria, Va., which plans to build a grass-paved lot this summer. ''We didn't want to see any more paving,'' says city landscape architect James Chasnovitz. ''The area is very hot.''

CIUL finds out about other countries' innovations mostly through personal contacts and foreign journals. ''I'm kind of like an urban CIA -- but entirely overtly,'' Mr. Wynne explains. To get the word out in the US, the organization publishes three periodicals and several books.

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The council's advertising helped sales of a West German junk oil burner in the US. The North American distributor, Heating Alternatives, in Great Neck, N.Y., reports that the burner is being used in every state.

The system, which takes waste oil and burns it to create heat, is used primarily by customers who have junk oil available -- such as transmission shops and gasoline stations that do oil changes. The system doesn't pollute the air because contaminants settle in an ash receptacle.

Capitol Heights, Md., was one of the first customers, replacing a conventional oil furnace with the burner in a senior citizens center. The system uses free waste oil the city has been accumulating for years, CIUL reports.

Among the latest innovations advertised by CIUL: the Austrian wildlife reflector (that reflects car headlights in such a way that animals perceive it as a barrier) and the English antivandal paint (that stays sticky and discourages youths from climbing on buildings).

Not all CIUL ideas tried in the US are successful.

Bloomington, Minn., for example, installed 300 Swedish manhole covers several years ago. Whenever the street level changes -- because of settling pavement or resurfacing -- cities sometimes have to dig out and reposition each manhole cover. The product, which can be raised or lowered by up to 4 inches, was supposed to save the city money.

But Bloomington had problems with the support ears breaking off and has since gone back to the conventional manhole covers.

CIUL, created in 1976, has a $350,000 to $400,000 annual budget. About $50, 000 is generated from the sale of its periodicals, Wynne says, and the rest comes from private contributions or contracts. Major support comes from the Ford Foundation and the German Marshall Fund.

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