Berlin’s reputation as one of the greenest cities in Europe is on the line. Its urban gardens (kleingarten,” literally meaning “little garden”) are being threatened by developers from Texas who seek to turn many of the city’s 73,000 small garden plots into — what else? — luxury apartments.
Such garden plots are found in cities throughout Germany and elsewhere in Europe; they have a 200 year history. In the mid-19th century, public health initiatives called for areas in cities to be leased so that children from poor families could have healthier places to play in, rather than in the “cramped and dingy barrack housing complexes that sprang up” as Germany underwent industrialization. During the World Wars, city residents fed themselves with produce grown on their plots. Now, they are seen mostly as “green oases” where city residents can garden, grow vegetables, raise bees and take a respite from urban life.
Residents pay a monthly membership fee (400 euros; about $530) for the land and a house. Unlike community gardens in the U.S., the plots in German cities are enclosed and people (who take care to tend the land, maintain the structures and, in some cases, adorn them with garden gnomes and other whimsical details) spend the whole day, and even the night, in them.
More than 900 kleingartenkolonie (“little garden colonies”) occupy an estimated 7,413 acres across Berlin. They certainly contribute to making Berlin (which also has contains numerous parks, inner-city forests and botanical gardens) one of Europe’s greenest cities.
More Than 1,000 Garden Plots Have Already Disappeared
More than 1,000 garden plots have been eliminated since 2007 and 19 colonies are now threatened. As Günter Landgraf, president of the Berlin Garden Friends Association, says in the Guardian, “the green spaces in this city have become objects of speculation for property investors and rental sharks disappointed by recent market slumps elsewhere in the world.” Gardeners have been accusing local politicians of selling off their plots as cheap “green” land, after which they convert the status of the land into “building land,” which is worth nine times as much.
City officials expect the population of Berlin to increase by 250,000 by 2030 and say that some 6,000 affordable units must be built every year for at least the next 15 years. But as Landgraf points out, one reason for the shortage of affordable real estate is that so much luxury housing has been built in recent years in Berlin.
As Alban Becker, chairman of the one of the garden colonies, Oeynhausen, points out, the kleingarten are one of the main reasons that Berlin is ”such an attractive place to live in” as they “help keep the city’s temperatures down, they preserve nature amid the concrete and asphalt and traditionally they have also helped to feed the poor. They’re so much part of city life, people are regularly born here and die here.”
Berlin officials and politicians are simply being shortsighted if they continue with plans to decrease the number of kleingarten. I don’t think I’m the only visitor to Berlin who has been intrigued to see not only the well-tended garden plots within a stone’s throw of the city’s S-bahn or metro, but also the number of people busily at work in them. At a time when many cities are trying to figure out how to turn blocks of asphalt, abandoned properties and waterfront areas strewn with litter into green spaces, Berlin would be taking a huge step backward to bulldoze its residents’ beloved gardens.
Photo via Christine und Hagen Graf/Flickr