by Markus Kather
Despite (or because of) the grey Berlin winter, I was thinking about green spaces lately. Urban gardening and urban gardens became one of the top issues in urbanism: as a (planner’s) strategy to deal with transformations in society and texture of the city and as an emancipatory movement of citizens. In a mini-series I want to shed light on some of the phenomena by having a closer look at different types of urban gardens and urban nature. From subsistence farming in Asian and Latin American Megacities to guerrilla gardening and green rooftops in European and American cities: urban gardens are a worldwide movement. In this first part, I want to focus on community gardening projects. What is their impact on urban society? I take example from Berlin and Detroit to see how the gardens are building community and how they are used as a means to deal with changing cities.
Berlin’s favourite urban garden at the moment probably is Prinzessinnengarten. The community garden opened in 2009 on a piece of land in Kreuzberg that was vacated for about 60 years. Robert Shaw, one of the initiators, brought along the idea from a trip to Cuba. The idea of a place in the city where people grow their own food and exchange ideas: a productive place as well as a meeting place. Mayor Klaus Wowereit once called it “das schöne und wilde Berlin” (the beautiful and wild Berlin). Meanwhile nearly 500 patches are growing between the blocks of the multicultural neighbourhood; there is a garden kitchen and a café. Prinzessinnengärten attracts 50,000 visitors every year and crated 13 jobs, the project was even presented at the EXPO in Shanghai. But the most interesting fact about the garden is the discussion that comes along with the question whether it is a temporary project or has the possibility to stabilize (check out the video, sorry it’s only in German). When the city announced the intention of selling the property, the gardeners set up a petition for the preservation of the green utopia that was signed by 30.000 until December. The idea of sustaining something that the community created goes beyond the garden project: it’s the question how our city is going to look in the future and who decides that. People recognize the need to create and preserve spaces for meeting, for exchange and for integration in a society that is more and more characterized by its diversity. And it seems they are successful: the city and the residents are now discussing together about the future of the plot.
Community impact 1: raising awareness for your city, encouraging people to question urban development and to get involved in the public discourse.
Another garden that likes to raise the “big” questions is Ton, Steine, Gärten, a neighbourhood/community garden in Berlin. Located right at Mariannenplatz, that has been a place of left wing political activism and a nucleus of the Berlin squatter scene since the 1970s, the political approach of the garden seems obvious. Intercultural community building and self-subsistence are its main goals. But gardening together is not enough for Ton, Steine, Gärten either. The network organized around the garden and the place itself serves as a platform for organizing protest, e.g. against the privatization of the Berlin’s water supply, actions of “La Via Campesina” (a global movement for small scale agriculture), or environmental sustainability.
Community impact 2: Urban gardens as nodes in a global dialogue: creating local fields for experimenting alternative solutions to larger problems.
How this kind of experimenting can look like shows example my last example, the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit, Michigan. Now the former Motor City is a place dealing with real issues: deindustrialization, unemployment, blight and crime to name just a few. Community groups are trying to fill the gap that corporations and administration left as the city shrinks, some of them by gardening on abandoned lots throughout Detroit. Earthworks is one these projects. Initiated by a soup kitchen organization, it seeks to achieve a greener city by transforming the food system and promoting sustainable agriculture. By using the empty lots, urban decline is turned into something productive. Despite growing food and reviving practices such as beekeeping the project runs several youth programs, teaching the basics of gardening, cultural and environmental awareness and healthy nutrition.
Community impact 3: Gardens can be a platform for self-organizing community services and help citizens to take over responsibility.
All three aspects (and all the ones I forgot) are only possible with the citizens sharing something. The projects are much different from e.g. traditional allotment gardens (that have a much more private approach) – gardening is understood here in the real sense of a commons: a common land that the people share. This commons serves as a platform for citizens to get in contact and get involved. In that way urban gardens can be the basis for community building and interacting within the city. The new community gardens have to be considered in the context of global challenges and the changing structure of our cities (social and physical) resulting from these. Gardens that form a community can be a laboratory to deal with those changes.