Parks and gardens in Berlin as community spaces – Part 3 (end)

BarBQby Ares Kalandides and Markus Kather

After an introduction into the German and Berlin green planning instruments (Part 1)  and two examples of gardens from Berlin ( Part 2), here is the 3rd and last part of the blog entry. 

c) Prinzessinengärten

Prinzessinnengärten started as a temporary gardening project in 2009, in an empty plot in the midst of a multicultural neighbourhood at Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg. The idea, which one of the initiators brought from Cuba, was to create a place in the city where people would grow their own food and exchange ideas: a production as well as a meeting place. Vegetables and herbs are mostly grown in crates to permit transportation, in case the 6000 square metre garden needs to move; there is a garden kitchen and a café. Prinzessinnengärten attracts huge attention, with several thousand visitors a year and was even presented at the world EXPO in Shanghai. The state of Berlin leases the plot to the initiative, which pays a rent.

Prinzessinengärten from above

Prinzessinengärten from above © Nathalie Wachotsch

There is a core group that works on it in a regular basis, while everybody who wishes is welcome to participate. In return, they are allowed to buy vegetables at a special price. The garden functions as a meeting point, a playing ground and a place to have a coffee or a beer. The shared interest brings together gardening enthusiasts, hobby cooks, urban interventionists and creative industry hipsters. Although belonging to the association is not a prerequisite to be able to work in the garden, Prinzessinengärten has not managed to attract many of the migrants living in the neighbourhood. It is mostly the project of young people without families, students or free-lancers, who create their own community around the practice of gardening.

At Prinzessinengärten

At Prinzessinengärten © Nathalie Wachotsch

When the Berlin state, as the owner of the plot, announced the intention to sell the property in order to allow for future building investment, the gardeners set up a petition for the preservation of the green utopia that was signed by 30.000 people until December 2012. The idea of sustaining something that the community created, goes beyond the garden project: it’s the question of how the city is going to look in the future and who makes decisions. The pressure motivated the municipality (Bezirk) of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg to claim the plot back from the state. Moreover, the practice of selling public land to the highest bidder has been radically challenged. Future sales will not only depend on the price, but also on the quality of the concept for future use.

d) Ton, Steine, Gärten

Ton, Steine, Gärten is a 1000 square metre neighbourhood garden in Berlin-Kreuzberg, not far from Prinzessinengärten.  It is located at Mariannenplatz a place of left-wing political activism and a nucleus of the Berlin squatter scene since the 1970s, and is thus integrated in a political programme of self-organization. Intercultural community building and self-subsistence are its main goals. The network around the garden and the place itself serve as a platform for organizing protest, e.g. against the privatization of the Berlin’s water supply or for opening up the former Tempelhof airport to everybody (“Tempelhof für Alle”) or actions such as “La Via Campesina” (a global movement for small scale agriculture) and environmental sustainability.

A couple cultivating their plot at Ton Steine Gärten

A couple cultivating their plot at Ton Steine Gärten

The project started around 2009 and is organized around an association, which is also the signatory of the contract with the Berlin state that offers land and water for free. Nonetheless, participation in the association is not mandatory to cultivate a bed here: Turkish and African families, squatters and activists each work the tiny piece land assigned to them. It is symptomatic of the multicultural character of the project, that there are several entries in Turkish on its website.

The project name refers to a well-known German left-wind rock band of the 1970s and 1980s, “Ton Steine Scherben” which emphasises its political nature. There appears to be ongoing tension between the municipality (Bezirk) of Friedichshain-Kreuzerg and the project initiators, which shows the ambiguous relationship between administrations and projects.

e) Mauerpark



This linear park, designed by the landscape architect Gustav Lange, is located in the inner city ring, in the district of Prenzlauer Berg, between Eberswalderstrasse and Gleimstrasse and has an area of ca. 5,7 hectares. It is equipped with walking trails, playgrounds and lawns, swing benches, a birch grove, an amphitheatre, a children’s farm, a fenced dog run, climbing rocks and a sunken garden. The park becomes a suitable area for culture, music or a flea market among other recreational activities, transforming a public place in a vivid public centre. Its development started in 1993 with implementation taking place in several phases, and the only one of our examples here that was centrally landscaped. Mauerpark is an example of implementing objectives of the Landscape Programme (LaPro). This piece of land that was formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall was developed as a compensation strategy for the high-speed Berlin-Hanover rail link.

What can be found today is, among other things, commercial use – the Mauersegler Café and the flee market every Sunday – and organized cultural use – karaoke every Sunday, folk dance every Friday, boules game championships etc. The majority of people though use the park as a place to sit, lie down, meet friends or play games while barbeque is allowed in especially dedicated areas under strict rules (e.g. using the available ash containers).

Migrant_FamilyThe association that has formed to manage the use and represent the users of the Mauerpark has developed into an important political player in the area. While claiming the park for themselves, the users present organized resistance against luxury real estate development in the direct vicinity, e.g. the construction of a new gated community.

D. Discussion: Gardens in the city

Gardens and parks serve very different functions and it is difficult to sum them up without oversimplifying their complexity. Nonetheless looking at the Berlin cases presented here there are mainly three functions that appear more pronounced: Gardens as spaces of nature; gardens as spaces of production; and gardens as spaces of integration.

Hula_hoopNature plays an extremely important role in German culture. Almost deified by the romantic movement of the 19th century, it is a value in itself – and is contrasted with culture.  This way, nature in the city appears as the opposite of urbanity: gardens and parks as spaces of exception in the dense urban fabric. Their value is reduced, rather than enhanced by human use. They are important elements of a national heritage and several of them are listed. They are to be enjoyed in their purity, as sanctuaries of  biodiversity or as remains of an imaginary pre-industrial past.  Nonetheless, in reality gardens and parks are used, mostly for recreational uses. They are used for walks (if they are large enough), for cultural events (with the necessary infrastructure), for pick-nicks and barbeques (often damaging them), for romance and love (including cruising and anonymous sex) and a lot more.

The 19th century allotments (“Schrebergärten”) are the original gardens of agricultural subsistence production. Although most of them have turned into informal (and illegal) weekend-homes today, they were initially planned to offer a small state-owned piece of land to the vast Berliner working classes. Urban farming is an upcoming trend, generally accepted and protected by the administration – though soil and air pollution in the city remain serious obstacles to a more extensive agricultural use.

BarBQ2This article has dealt mostly with the gardens as spaces of integration. And by this we do not mean solely integration for migrants or an abstract apolitical concept of community building. Communal gardens have become spaces, some more and some less inclusive, where different groups or people meet and interact. Although they are in themselves caught up in power relations, they manage to question the way that “traditional” planning functions. Some of these gardens have triggered social urban movements of political protest and resistance, spaces of political deliberation and participation. Often enough, official rhetoric and city marketing either choose to highlight the most mild projects or take the political edge off the others by presenting them as spaces of voluntary community work and benevolent cohesion.

Critics of the increasing interest in community gardening regard it as symptom of neoliberal urban policies:  The main driving force behind its guiding principles may not be the emancipatory thinking of the city government, but a shortage in public funding and an outsourcing of its responsibilities. The DIY character of the guiding principles (especially the productive landscape) also reflects the general shift of responsibility and duties from the public 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 and catalyze political involvement, but it also shifts the boundaries of public and private space. Who ensures that the spaces remain common goods – and who decides what a common good is supposed to look like? There are issues of maintenance, accessibility, opening hours and property rights – even of aesthetics. 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? Who guarantees safety? Liberties and rules of the use and occupancy of space between public and private actors have to be negotiated. Trust and social cohesion as the key success factors are taken for granted, though there are enough examples where exactly the opposite, i.e. mistrust and conflicts, were the case.

Emphemeral Gardens in Tempelhof

Emphemeral Gardens in Tempelhof

Gardens in Berlin are also often part of a broader phenomenon, the so-called “interim uses” (“Zwischennutzungen”). It would not be exaggerated to call the latter a “social movement”, born in the past decade and seeing to make temporary use of empty urban spaces. Yet, a lot of the interim uses are either commercial (often along the river) or become so permanent as to question what is left of their original “rebellious” potential. This is in a sense what happened with Prinzessinengärten, when the initiators started a petition to stop their displacement from the site: the paradox of claiming permanence for the ephemeral.

Independent of the above criticism there is no doubt that urban gardening in Berlin has been an important social movement of the past decade. This is linked to the “institutional elasticity” that was shown by the Berlin administration, i.e. on the one hand the capacity to find flexible solutions inside the existing institutional framework, but on the other to adapt it (up to a certain point) to social changes or to demands by citizen activism. We need to stress though that in the past decade or so pressure from the real estate sector has been weak enough to allow such elasticity. It is possible that we will see a much more rigid state if, or rather when, things change – in whatever direction.

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