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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Berlin's super-sized community gardens (and why they should be exported to the U.S.)

When I’m in a city, I am drawn to the places in-between. Spaces, I mean, that somehow avoided being paved over, or built upon, or that once held buildings that have now collapsed, the rubble mostly hauled away, leaving only the structure’s ghost all filled up with spindly weeds. Sometimes these spaces are just surprising: When vacant lots are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars just a short walk away, how has this space remained empty and undesired? Sometimes these spaces are surprisingly wild. When I visit Los Angeles, my wife always drives (thanks to urban-automobile-neurosis on my part), leaving me to wonder at the remarkably green strip of land that separates many lanes of interstate asphalt. The vegetation is so dense here, I think, these slivers of wildness so unnoticed by the harried passersby, that I can’t help but wonder why the homeless don’t carve out little abodes here, rather than in concrete doorways. Perhaps they do.

My proclivity for seeking out the spaces-in-between did not perish on the plane trip to Europe. I automatically started noticing them on our first S-Bahn trip through the city (the S-Bahn rides above-ground, and affords a view of the backside of Berlin, while the U-Bahn is the underground train). There are many such spaces here: vine-infested hillsides; buildings that look to have been bombed out in the war and never resuscitated; random grafitti-covered walls sticking out of the dirt here and there; and an enigmatic, hulking metal skeleton called a gasometer, whose purpose I still cannot divine. On that first trip, I noticed something else, too: Little settlements huddled into the spaces-in-between.

The first one I saw reminded me of those L.A. freeway strips. It was nestled between the S-Bahn tracks and some sort of factory, on a piece of land no more than 30 feet wide. A low fence surrounded it, and it was divided into several different plots. Each plot had a small structure, along with a lush garden. The gardens were immaculately groomed, yet densely populated with vegetables, flowers and often a fruit tree or two. I began noticing these complexes all over the city; some were tiny, some were as big as city blocks, with dozens of plots and the tiny little houses that made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included Elves. Finally, I saw a sign on the entrance to one of these spaces. It read, Kleingartencolonie.

Turns out I was wrong about the Elves. In fact, these colonies are Germany’s allotment gardens, which are something like U.S. community gardens, super-sized. In these days of so much talk about urban agriculture and local foods, it’s an idea that U.S. cities might try to emulate.

The concept originated in the 19th Century, when the German government, instead of handing out welfare, granted land to poor folks to garden so that they could provide for themselves. The gardens were also intended to reconnect kids with nature, which was certainly an idea before its time. Over the decades, the number of allotment gardens grew; when the city ran out of empty land, it bought more, with help from the federal government. After World War II, people actually lived on their plots, which may explain why so many of the current structures look more like little houses than potting sheds.

Today, there are more than 800 Gartenkolonies in Berlin, alone. Within those colonies are a total of more than 75,000 garden plots, each measuring about 250 square meters. Apartment-dwelling Berliners pay between 300 and 400 Euros per year to tend to and enjoy the plots. They must follow strict rules; at least 30 percent of the plot must be devoted to food production, hedges can be only so big, they are supposedly not allowed to live on the plot, but some of the so-called garden cottages appear to be big enough, and adequately equipped, for full-on habitation. Traditionally, the allottees have been older folks, but in recent years the back-to-the-land movement has brought younger people, along with a new wave of immigrants, to the gardens. Thousands of people are on the waiting list for the gardens.

View Berlin Allotment Gardens in a larger map

In addition to getting people out of the concrete landscape so they can get their hands in the dirt and produce fresh fruit and vegetables, Berlin’s allotment gardens also add to the city’s already abundant green spaces*. The Gartenkolonies appear in even the most downtrodden neighborhoods, providing oases of tidy vegetation amidst the grafitti-stained concrete and dog poop-piled pavement. They appear to go mostly unmolested by the graffiti artists, who have covered nearly every other surface in this city with their work.

My first thought after finding out what these things were was that the concept needs to be exported to the United States, pronto. Then the caffeine wore off, and reality set in: U.S. cities with a true need for these things – New York, Boston, San Francisco – probably don’t have the land base to accommodate much in the way of these super-sized community gardens within the urban area; and the cities that do have a lot of land are mostly inhabited by people with big yards, and plenty of space for their own gardens. At least for now.

But then, we are in the midst of a major financial crisis. The housing bubble burst a long time ago, and it is showing no sign of re-inflating. The growth machine has screeched to a gear-grinding halt, especially in places like Phoenix, which had fed the machine with sunny skies combined with rampant air conditioning, favorable growth policies (read: a lack of planning and regulation), seemingly endless expanses of developable desert and farmland, mass-production homebuilding companies and lots of cheap credit and equity refugees. Because the greater Phoenix megalopolis didn’t just sprawl, but leapt into the desert, passing up perfectly usable land for cheaper plots further out, hundreds of acres lie vacant within the greater metro area. With thousands of homes already foreclosed upon in the area, I suspect that land is not selling at a premium. Which makes this a perfect time for the city to go for a bit of that stimulus money to buy up the land and convert it into it’s own garden colonies. Perhaps the banks, who I assume now own a lot of that land, would even consider donating it to the cause (not out of any sort of charitable urge, of course, but to get a tax deduction so that they can siphon more profits to CEO compensation, and also to unload some worthless assets).

Meanwhile, the financial crisis has forced Americans to curb their appetite for giant new homes, with giant green lawns, in giant new cookie-cutter developments far out from the city center. In fact, recent reports say that apartment rental rates are increasing thanks to all the foreclosures. And at least a few of those McMansions that surround the West’s cities are being divided up into multi-family rental units. I also believe that sprawling cities do evolve to become more densely populated, from the city’s core outward; old industrial buildings become loft apartments, and the creative class flocks not to suburban sameness but to downtown flats. That creates a whole new group of people who might feel a bit cooped up in those gardenless apartments; people who could save a bit of money and get their hands in the dirt in one of these garden colonies.

And for those of you who worry about polluting America's Jell-O-fed purity with some commie Euro idea, check out the great essay by Grist's Tom Philpott on the history of urban ag in the U.S. Turns out Berlin's allotment gardens look a bit like American urban gardening efforts of old (the German gardens merely persevered, rather than getting paved over by strip malls).

With bio-intensive gardening, these plots could feed a family for a summer, or offer an ambitious farmer enough produce to make some cash at the neighborhood farmers’ market. They’d add diversity to the concrete landscape, turn a few of those spaces-in-between into places of horticultural creativity (not to mention creepy lawn ornaments) and keep the Starbucks and strip malls at bay.

*Which truly are abundant, making Berlin one of the greenest (in the literal sense) cities in the world. There are the huge parks, such as Tiergarten (essentially Berlin’s Central Park), which is in turn dwarfed by the Grunewald (which is a forest, not a park), and many in-between. The waterways that wind their way through the city are all lined with green spaces and trails. In most parts of town, one can't walk little more than a couple of blocks without running into a public playground or park of some sort. We are currently staying in Wedding, which many Berliners consider the "bad" part of town. Yet within a two-minute walk of our flat, we are in a park replete with a vegetation-shrouded walking/bike path that stretches for many a kilometer in either direction. Huge parks are within an easy bike ride. And our neighborhood is flanked by Gartenkolonies of various shapes and sizes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting story, with some great history and context. love it. A lot of the German community gardens are also along railroad rights-of-way. Good timing, too, as a community garden movement has (ugh,sorry, can't resist the pun) sprouted here in Summit County, Colorado: and:

My grandma in Austria gardened one of those small community plots in fertile land just a few yards from the banks of the Danube. the gardens were in the floodplain, as a greenspace buffer.I can STILL smell and taste the earth, carrots and tomatoes! She also had a pear tree with small, super-soft, sweet fruit that was incredibly appealing to fruit wasps. It took me a while to realize they wouldn't sting me, but once I did, I started sitting up in that tree for hours at a time, eating one pear after another.