Urban Gardening

Urban Gardening in Germany

A new generation of gardeners are transforming the urban landscape. From balconies to empty lots, urban gardeners are greening the city and growing their own food. These days it is easy being green.
by Nicolette Stewart

“Urban gardening” is a term that encompasses many forms of gardening in urban areas.  The woman who grows herbs on her window sill is as much a part of the urban gardening movement as the man who has tomatoes on his balcony or the collective who have turned an abandoned lot into a thriving community vegetable garden, though collective projects make up the majority of the people who currently identify with the label.  “Guerilla gardening” is a similar concept, but places more emphasis on the reclamation of space and the creation of Freiraum, or free space.  “Edible landscaping,” another term often used among urban gardeners, specifically refers to decorative landscaping created using edible plants such as fruit trees and herbs.

Urban gardening around the world

Though urban gardening has been going on for thousands of years, the origins of the urban gardening movement as it is being practiced today can be traced back to New York City.  In the 1970s community gardens were created in particularly volatile neighborhoods.

In 1973 a group called the Green Guerillas started throwing “seed bombs,” packets of dirt, fertilizer, and seeds that later blossom on their own, into vacant lots.  These actions eventually grew into a full-scale urban gardening program.  The group rented a formerly abandoned lot for $1/month, which they cleaned up and turned into what they called the “Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden.”  It was the city’ first community garden—home to 60 vegetable beds and numerous trees—and the beginning of a worldwide trend.

In 1978, a group called GreenThumb began coordinating other leases with the New York City government for vacant land that residents could then transform into their own green haven.  Today, the group is the United States’ largest urban gardening program.

Read more about the urban gardening movement in New York City here.

In places like Havana and Buenos Aires urban gardening is not a trend, but a crucial part of the economy and people’s diets.  During the Cold War, Cuba imported 50 percent of its food supply.  When the USSR collapsed, food became scarce.  City- and country-dwellers alike took up farming to supplement their diets.  Though the motivations for Cuban urban farmers were more acute, many modern urban farmers take the Cuban people’s urban gardening tactics and knowledge as an example for their own mini farms.

The history of urban gardening in Germany

Germany has been promoting its own version of urban gardening since the 19th century in the form of allotment gardens.  Schrebergärten (singular: Schrebergarten) are small garden plots that can be bought or rented on the outskirts of urban areas for very little money.  Travelers on the German rails have probably seen these gardening communities as they approach urban areas—they are located on the outskirts of every city.  Here people can plant vegetables and other edible plants or create their own green oasis to spend time with their friends and families outside.

The history of Schrebergärten dates back to 1865, when Leipzig Doctor Mortiz Schreber and his colleague Ernst Innozene Hauschild set up an outdoor area for children of factory workers to spend time playing outside.  Later, a teacher named Heinrich Karl Gesell planted gardens there to help teach the children about plants and farming.  Soon the land was divided into family plots that these children’s parents took over.

Now more than one million Schrebergärten can be found across the country.  Many of these gardening communities are organized into Vereinen (associations), and in highly populated areas there is often a waiting list for plot assignment and purchase.  Other allotment gardens were created to help the poor deal with food shortages, particularly during and after times of war.

Though Schrebergärten and their kin went out of style for several decades—people who had been forced to grown their own food as a consequence of World War II now wanted to indulge in the ease of supermarket shopping—DIY (do it yourself) has come back into style.  Now you can find hipsters with trowels in hand weeding and watering besides their neighbors in urban garden plots that are as interested in creating noncommercial community spaces as they are with growing food for the table.

Christa Müller, sociologist and author of the 2011 book Urban Gardening.  Über die Rückkehr der Gärten in die Stadt describes the progression like this: “In the 1960s, as the economy boomed, people in West Germany had given up their urban vegetable gardens, not least for reasons of social status; many wished to demonstrate, for example, that they could purchase food and no longer had to grow and preserve it themselves. Today, in contrast, the ‘Generation Garden’ has planted its feet firmly in vegetable patches in the midst of hip urban neighbor­hoods, the ‘young farmers of Berlin-Kreuzberg’ are creating a furor, the German Federal Cultural Foundation stages the festival ‘Über Lebenskunst’ (a pun meaning both “On the art of living” and – spelled Überlebenskunst – ‘The art of survival’) and people need not be ashamed of showing their fingernails, black from gardening, in public.”

Philosophy and motivation

From survival to leisure—people are driven to participate in urban gardening projects for many reasons.  One of the most often cited motivations is community—something that is often hard to create within the anonymous structures of modern cities.  In community gardens, people of diverse ages and backgrounds can find common ground over a basketful of tomatoes or green beans.  It is a way for many to meet their neighbors and get involved in their community, and the act of growing one’s own food can be empowering and educational.

For many, the ability to create noncommercial community space in an urban area is a political act.  As Müller explains in this article, “The commons-oriented practices enable a different perspective on the city. They both require communities and at the same time create communities. People come together here, but not under the banner of major events, advertising or the obligation to consume. Instead, their self-organized, decentralized practices in the public realm implicitly express a shared aspiration of a green city for all. Yet no grand new societal utopia – 'the society of the future' – is being promoted. Instead, simple social interactions slowly transform a concrete space in the here and now, building an alternative to the dominant order based on market fundamentalism.”

Other urban gardeners focus on the issue of the public versus the private sphere.  Privatization can limit access to the city, its buildings, and its resources, and urban gardening it just one way of converting private property—such as an abandoned lot—and turning it into a public domain.  Still others—from localvores to foodies—are just looking for space to grow their own ingredients.

Urban gardening in Germany today

Today, concerns about the effects of climate change, population growth, and pollution are motivating people to seek out creative solutions to the problem of food production.  For urban gardeners, an empty lot or a balcony garden are the first step to finding solutions.  Local and organic food movements are also in favor of these mini agricultural efforts.

In Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, and beyond, you can find urban gardeners with trowels in hand.  Mundraub.org provides a database of trees whose fruit is free to be harvested by anyone, while the Tempelhofer Freiheit project has greened part of the Tempelhof airport with an urban gardening project.

One of the most ambitious German urban farming projects is ECF, or Efficient City Farming. This group has designed urban container farms that combine fish and tomato production in and on re-purposed shipping containers.  The fish’s excrement is collected and turned into fertilizer for the plants that grow on the container’s greenhouse roof.  The result is a water-efficient, organic farm that produces local fair in an urban setting.

Ultimately, however, it might be the simplest projects that forge the way for future production in an energy crisis.  According to a Spiegel interview with Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, an expert in community gardening and urban agriculture at Berlin's Free University : "A simple green roof garden is a good thing but hi-tech solutions can be too energy intensive.  Some of these architects' dreams simply aren't possible in the context of a future energy crisis."

But whatever the reason and whatever the outcome, you can be sure that this summer something green is blossoming in a city near you.

by Nicolette Stewart