Sunday, July 1, 2007

Berlin #4: Hundred years of community gardening

You see them approaching any big German city by train - along the tracks are rows and rows of community gardens. It’s a unique landscape for those unfamiliar with the concept of urban gardening. For me it’s really exciting to see potentially unusable land next to the train tracks can be utilized so efficiently. Called allotment gardens in Germany, also Kleingärten (small gardens), or Schrebergärten, after physician and social reformer Daniel Schreber – some of these gardens have been in existence since the late 1800’s. Berlin’s history with allotment gardens is a rich and evolving story, it was one of the first cities in Germany to adopt allotment gardening more than a hundred years ago. At first allotment gardens met the needs of urban migrants, then provided food during wars. Today, Berlin’s rich traditions of community gardens is a foundation for new opportunities for immigrants as well as young families relocating to Berlin. I learn that Einstein had an allotment garden in Berlin in the 1920’s – the story goes that he was served notice by the gardening group for poor maintenance and required to clean up if he did not want to forfeit the plot!

I meet with with Jurgen Hurt, director of Berlin Association of Gardeners. He has led the organzation for more than thirty years now and is an avid gardener himself. He takes me to see a garden colony where his own plot is located. The gardens are beautiful – paradise retreats for urban dweller, with very little of the former production oriented look and feel. Jurgen's new addition is this collapsible greenhouse. These allotments have been handed down for generations, and while the gardeners do not own the land, they hand the lease over to family members over generations. These spaces are well manicured, and about 30% of the land has to be dedicated to vegetables. I notice a postman going by, and find out that the gardeners can get mail delivered to their gardens in the summer! Jurgen explains that there are about 540 such colonies of allotment gardens with about 80,000 gardeners in Berlin. Back in the day, as the gardeners developed their gardens some ended up living in them year round. Today, the rules are that you have to have another place of residence to qualify for an allotment garden.

The story at the other end of the spectrum unfolds when I meet with Dr. Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, a professor and avid community gardener. She takes me to see her ‘Intrakultural Garden’ – through a semi-secret entrance to an abandoned railway yard, where she works a small part of the rail yard with a group of Yugoslavian women, young families and North African immigrants. The vegetable garden is a small oasis of claimed space within acres of abandoned land. Local students have also discovered this place as a respite. The gardeners are delightful to meet – an eclectic group. This is my first experience communicating without a common language, and in a garden there is much common ground. I spend many an hour there, and return over the weekend for their summer garden party. There is great food and wonderful music. I’m reminded of many a garden celebration at Las Parcelas in Norris Square!I get to see a number of the newer gardens that are emerging, particularly along land previousl occupied by the wall. One of them, is already being looked at as a development site, and there are signs calling for saving the garden.A familiar story.

Elisabeth has spent many years involved in community gardening issues and has written a book about the New York City community gardens. She will be in Philadelphia in August and it’ll give me a chance to show off some of our treasured assets!

Jurgen explains that in the last 10 years, the average age of the gardeners has gone from 55 to 45. Quite an accomplishment! Its impressive to see how gardening is promoted to new families as a wonderful opportunity that they can access in Berlin.

The city plays this up as well - in its own campaign and in its strategic plan. The supports that the city provides to gardeners is quite impressive – permissions, infrastructure – access to water and materials, and a framework of rules and regulations (Quite expansive, I might say!) that guide the development and maintenance of new and old gardens. Additionally the federal government has stepped in to protect these gardens. As early as in 1919, the first federal legislation supporting these gardens was passed. Then in 1983, the Federal Allotment Gardens Act was passed securing land tenure and fixing the leasing fees. I have a book an inch thick that details out the rules and regulations at the federal level – all in German though!

Check out for more information about the new gardens emerging across cities in Europe. Jurgen Hurt’s organization, Berliner Gartenfreunde is impressive in the breadth and depth of support it gives the gardeners. Their website is mostly in German but I was able to translate some of the pages via Google.

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