From provisions for paupers to DDR getaways, gardens have a deep-rooted place in the city. And now inspiring, intercultural garden communities are mushrooming. We ask how they connect the city’s past to the future.
Peter Ehrenburg was born in Berlin in 1941, and spent his childhood years cutting loose from the streets on a small patch of rented land known as a Kleingarten (small garden). He grew up to become President of the Gartenfreunde Berlin, an association that represents the interests of nearly 70,000 of the 74,940 gardeners across the city. Having seen out World War II and the city’s divide, reunification and regeneration, this year is Ehrenberg’s 70th harvest in the same garden.
Like Ehrenburg, Berlin has had a longstanding love affair with the humble garden. Call them Kleingärten or Schrebergärten (allotments), these patches of land have existed here for 165 years and are as ubiquitous as Currywurst. What was once an initiative to enable Berlin’s paupers to grow their own rather than depend on the state is now yours for an annual rent of around €500. In the harsh Berlin winter, both land and owner retreat under a blanket of snow, but come summer, these gardens are ready to supply everything from homes to a steady source of fruit and vegetables for their owners, who forge community solidarity over beers, Bratwurst and barbeques. In the DDR era, Berlin’s Kolonies were a place for free time, a characteristic still adhered to by a 30/30/30 rule that requires owners to split resources equally between buildings, crops and leisure.
But while Ehrenburg’s garden may have remained a constant for him, from a broader viewpoint, Berlin’s gardens are radically changing – updating the functional and social ideals of the original Kleingärten for a new generation. Glance out from the window of a U2 train as it passes the expanse of wasteland between Gleisdreieck and Bülowstraße stations, and you’ll catch a glimpse of Potsdamer Güterbahnhof (POG), one of Berlin’s most famous Kleingartenkolonies (allotment communities, or, in the literal translation, ‘small garden colonies’). Established during the Russian blockade of the city in 1948, the POG recently underwent a renaissance, establishing links with local artists and the cultural centre, Haus der Kulturen der Welt. It now hosts regular screenings, talks and events, tapping into a new international populace with both artistic and ecological sensibilities. It’s a world away from the old perception of Kolonies as closed communities of gnome-lovers, and as POG’s President, Klaus Trappman explains, ‘goes far beyond the usual prejudices people have against Schrebergärten.’
Alongside the efforts of Kolonies such as POG, new projects have taken root in the unlikeliest of places, challenging old preconceptions as to how and where a garden can function. What was once a motorway junction at Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg is now Prinzessinnengarten, the latest ambassador for Berlin’s unique brand of urban agriculture. Herbs, vegetables and flowers grow in milk cartons and bakers’ crates, creating an edible oasis that is entirely portable. Meanwhile in Tempelhof the Allmende-Kontor has claimed around 5000 square metres of the former airfield, installing Berlin’s first community seed bank in a mishmash of raised beds crafted from discarded building pallets. Over in the shadow of the flatpack paradise surrounding Südkreuz railway station, an old shipping container and a tub of 50 live carp have been upcycled into a closed system, hydroponic greenhouse at the creative hub Malzfabrik, itself a former Schultheiss brewery.
Horticultural havens are also sprouting in neglected gaps in the inner city. The Kiezgarten Schliemmanstraße, a community garden sandwiched in a gap between Altbaus, is giving Prenzlauer Berg residents the chance to exercise green fingers. In Kreuzberg, Ton, Steine, Gärten e.V. now occupies the grounds of the abandoned Bethanien hospital in Mariannenplatz. And at a much smaller level, the hipster Kreuzkölln area has had an injection of peppermint and geraniums in the cobbled streets of Reuterstraße and Bürknerstraße, thanks to the Blumen für den Reuterkiez project.
Rebecca Solfrain, urban planner at Coopolis, a local planning agency that coordinated Blumen für den Reuterkiez, confirms that nurturing the community is a priority. The initiative, she says, ‘was always for the network, for the local homeowners to finally meet each other and do something together.’ Meanwhile intercultural projects, such as Kiezgarten Schliemannstraße and Prinzessinnengarten, are multiplying, especially in Tiergarten, Kreuzberg and Neukölln. ‘Integration is important,’ asserts Ehrenberg. ‘Everyone needs recognition and you get that here because everyone has a purpose.’
As well as sharing tools and produce, these schemes are an opportunity for sharing knowledge. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Rosenduft Garten, nestled near to POG in Bülowstraße, Schöneberg, on a site once used to shelter Berliners during the air raids of World War II. Now it’s a garden for a group of women, some from Berlin, some refugees from Bosnia who came to the city during the Yugoslav Wars. Among the elderflower trees, the women use their expertise to grow food and host talks and dinners, for themselves and the public.
A new directive across several EU countries is currently safeguarding 50 per cent of the city’s allotments, but while some intercultural projects receive support from organisations, most gardening in Berlin is self-funded and in the face of frequent threats from developers. There is an increasing demand for allotments, with waiting lists of up to six years for many inner city Kolonies, but, even so, Ehrenberg says that Kolonies have to struggle to prove their worth. Even in community projects, a philosophical attitude prevails, as Solfrain explains: ‘You agree to the fact that it could be taken away.’ Development not only threatens allotments in well-heeled districts like Charlottenburg; it also affects impoverished areas. Hand in Hand in Neukölln’s Rütlistraße, for example, is competing with bids for sports fields. Yet Berlin’s garden community is resilient, recognising the importance of growing your own in the face of a fast-paced urban transformation. The new gardens of Berlin are responding with ever more creative – and inclusive – ways to combine community and cultivation.
Participation is key, but it doesn’t have to mean getting knee-deep in mud. Prinzessinnengarten houses a café and shop that sells produce sourced directly from their garden (including honey from their beehive) – a crucial means of self-funding. And although the Rostlaube greenhouse at Malzfabrik is as yet a prototype, there is still time for tours and a harvest party in the early autumn. ‘It’s not just a place to grow things, it’s a place for everyone to get involved,’ explains Rostlaube project manager Burcak Sevilgen. Malzfabrik wants to expand the Rostlaube further, taking the concept to the top of the building: Sevilgen hopes to create enough produce to sell to the community from a sort of hydroponic rooftop greengrocers. It’s a world away from the Kleingarten that Ehrenberg grew up on, but from Kolonie to Kiez, Berlin’s new gardens are building on deep roots.