By Markus Kather
After blogging about today’s meaning of community gardenig from a broad perspective in my last post on Gardens in the City, I want to look at a rather specific type of community garden: the allotment. There are more than 74.500 allotment gardens in Berlin, occupying 3,000 hectares of land – that’s about 3.5% of the city’s area. This special kind of community gardening is highly popular in Germany. Once crucial for the city dweller’s supply with fresh food, the allotment gardens became a preserve for retired people – and for many, a quintessential image of petty bourgeoisie and philistine. But within the context of recent urban trends – sustainability, community gardening or the right to the city – do they have future? And what’s their contribution to solving today’s urban problems?
The German allotment gardens are defined by three pillars:
1) Allotment use (Recreation plus a strong focus growing fruits and vegetables, to be precise it’s necessary to dedicate a 1/3 of the area of the allotment to farming)
2) Ban of commercial farming
3) The integration into an association of allotment holders who jointly take care of the shared areas. The gardens are usually consist of family size plots, each cultivated individually (contrasting community or intercultural gardens)
The allotment gardens developed in the beginning of the 19th century against the backdrop of rapid urbanization and population growth. Berlin was a burgeoning metropolis at that time, so the gardens would be built wherever there was a little space: right near the railways, under bridges or between construction sites of large housing blocks – sometimes only as a temporary use, many of them stabilized. They allowed poor people to grow some fresh food on their own and provided access to nature for themselves and their children. So the gardens initially had an emancipatory aspect.
After World War II, again the allotment gardens became a major source for food. In times of major shortage they granted a certain amount of independence to the city’s population. Apart from that they also provided shelter for many people who lost their homes; many gardens kept their residential function. In this context the allotments gardens are a source of resilience in times of crisis.
Today their role has shifted: leisure and recreation are the primary uses. And so have the users: half of the German Laubenpieper (the gardeners) are pensioners. The image of today’s allotment gardens ranges between sunburn and grey hair, gossiping across the garden fence and jealous looks at the neighbour’s roses, barbecue and potbelly. Not to mention garden gnomes.
But within the context of sustainability, new community gardens, do-it-yourself urbanism and the discussion about the right to the city – couldn’t there be a new kind of allotment garden?
What about a social function? Kids experiencing nature, retirees socializing with families and migrants, growing healthy food together. Or their ecological impact? As green spaces in the city, reducing the need to travel to the countryside, mitigating air pollution, improving hydrology and biodiversity.
To serve as a catalyst for sustainable/social/innovative urban development the German allotment gardens need to meet two main challenges, one external and one internal.
1) The gardens have to compete with other uses. As rewards from the allotments are low for cities and land owners, they are often endangered to be destroyed for competing urban development. See the video for the case of a Neukölln allotment that was vacated for a highway development. Against the backdrop of gentrification, rising rents and increasing economic development in many parts of today’s inner cities, owners of allotment gardens will increasingly face the need to organize themselves, work together and join other initiatives, to maintain their “little paradises”.
2) But their competitiveness against other uses is essentially determined by their success to adapt to current changes and attract new user groups. The users of the German allotment gardens are aging rapidly: half of them are retirees; the medium age is almost 60. Yet there seems to be some hope: the demographics of the allotments are changing. In recent years younger people are drawn to Berlin’s allotments. With community gardens like Tempelhofer Feld or Prinzessinengarten having long waiting lists, wild and vacated allotment gardens seem to offer some freedom.
Another crucial factor to future success of the gardens is their community’s ability to integrate minority ethnic groups. As the allotments for a long time were a retreat for traditionalists, the gardeners sometimes struggled with this. Headlines like the implementation of quotas for foreigners in an allotment garden near Lübeck fuel the notion of the reactionary environment. But like younger people, also migrants are more and more present (sorry, link in German only) in the traditional allotment gardens. Learning from intercultural gardens can be a key process here. Putting emphasis on the common can lead to mutual learning processes and increase understanding.
Another challenge for the allotment gardens is to redefine their position within the urban fabric. Many of the Berlin gardens have a rather closed character. Especially allotment gardens at the edge of the inner city and in the peripheries are much needed spaces for exchange and can connect different party of the city – but in reality they often create barriers. Instead of wandering through the vast garden areas you are often stopped by fences and locked gates. The reason for those “closed” policies is often vandalism and fear of crime – here, innovative management concepts are needed. So how can the allotment gardens be more open? Ideas range from opening the passageways to the public and integrating them into the public network of foot- and bike paths, the creation of “common” spaces (playgrounds, addition of seating accommodation etc.), to cooperation with other initiatives. Working together with kindergartens, schools or environmental groups can help coping with the demographic challenges. An increased cooperation with other initiatives can also facilitate lobbying for urban green spaces in urban development.
 BMVBS (Ed.) (2008): Städtebauliche, ökologische und soziale Bedeutung des Kleingartenwesens. Forschungen Heft 133.