Gardens in the City (III): Political guiding principles in green planning

Bild Strategie

Strategie Stadtlandschaft: Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung Berlin

by Markus Kather

The city of Berlin created a Strategie Stadtlandschaft (strategy for urban green spaces) to secure and qualify open spaces within the city. Its three main principles are beautiful, productive and urban nature. Keeping our focus on participation and community-building in urban gardening (see blog posts on community gardening and allotments), I want to have a closer look at productive and urban nature and see, how these political guiding principles impact the actual city.

The Strategie Stadtlandschaft is, like many development concepts, a guideline for the development of green spaces. It’s not an actual plan that sets a legal framework for green conservation but rather creates an image and of the green city Berlin up to 2050 and showing a path to go there. The interesting thing is that the Strategie is not a sectoral green planning concept but links nature to other city politics. It also aims to be an instrument of social, cultural and economic development. Green becomes political. At the same time it involves major trends like climate change, demographic change, increasing DIY culture and changing mobility patterns.

Let’s have a look at two of the main guiding principles, the political ideas they stand for and how they are represented within the actual city.

  1. Productive landscape

This term is linked to the idea that green spaces in the city are more than sources of recreation. They can be productive in a social, ecological and economic way. Plus they are not only consumed in a passive way but are actively shaped by the people. So it has an implicit aspect of participation to it. Productive landscape in this sense embraces urban farming, allotment gardens, and subsistence but also links that to DIY-culture of entrepreneurs, temporary users, and urban pioneers (beach bars, open-air clubs and movie screenings etc.).

  1. Urban nature

Urban nature takes into account that Berlin is mainly characterized by its “urban” qualities – diversity, density, cultural life etc. but at the same time offers the possibility to get in touch with nature even in the very heart of the city. The presence of both at the same time and on a small territory is seen here as a factor for quality of life. Under this guiding principle the redevelopment of the river Spree as a bathing spot is an important project, but it also includes the embracing of urban “wilderness”.

Both topics have a clearly social and economic aspect: participation, involving new stakeholders, people getting active. This of course fits Berlin’s brand of a young creative city very well. The DIY culture of the creative class is addressed here to develop the city’s open spaces.

There are two problematic points to this idea:

A)     The main driving force behind these guiding principles may not be the emancipatory thinking of the city government but a shortage of public funding. The idea of urban wilderness is fascinating to me, too. But to maintain the usability and accessibility of green spaces (in order to keep them public, especially if you think of groups like older people), there needs to be some investment. The involvement of urban farming to maintain green spaces (e.g. with grazing sheep) is not that easy too – in fact at the moment it’s a constant struggle for funding and for permissions. Here, a much more flexible legal framework is needed to really make maintenance more efficient.

B)      The DIY character of the guiding principles (esp. the productive landscape) also reflects the general shift of responsibility and duties from public sector to the private sector. The active development of green spaces by the citizens can be part of an emancipatory movement, like in the case of intercultural gardens (see the example of Prinzessinnengarten and others here)and catalyze political involvement (via raising awareness for one’s city) but it also shifts the boundaries of public and private space. Who takes care that the spaces are in the sense of a common good – and who decides what a common good looks like? If a group of people grows their own vegetables in a corner of a former publicly maintained park who decides about accessibility, opening hours, property rights? Is a commercially operated beach bar really a public open space – does it serve the same needs for the same people like a public park or an urban wilderness? Liberties and rules of the use and occupancy of space between public and private actors have to be negotiated. Trust and social cohesion will be a key factor to the success of these projects.

I think that the second guiding principle “urban nature” has the power to create a vision of what urban nature as a real public good can look like. It directly transports the message of density and diversity and the notion of the city and its green areas as a space of exchange for citizens. This especially becomes clear in the idea of swimming in the Spree[1]. The idea is that people are taking back their long neglected rivers, expressing their growing awareness for the rivers as well as for the urban environment. Here the public character becomes obvious: the river is used by different groups but still usable for all and an important source of identification for the whole city.

If you like that idea as much as I do, join the European river swimming day Big Jump on July 14th 2013 and jump into your local river!

[1] The project proposed in Strategie Stadtlandschaft guided by the Badeschiff, so it’s a separate pool within the river where the water is filtered – so that’s actually not really the idea if swimming in the spree but it’s a starting point!

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