Berlin’s Super-Sized Allotment Gardens

Jonathan Thompson on Berlin’s super-sized allotments (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. And 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 when I came to Berlin. I automatically started noticing them on our first S-Bahn trip through the city (the S-Bahn mostly rides above-ground, and affords a view of the backside of Berlin, while the U-Bahn is the underground train).

These forgotten spaces are plentiful 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. They are distinctly urban spaces that have surrendered to the forces of the wild.

After I had been in Berlin for about a year, I had become enamoured with a few of these spaces in particular. In one of them, no more than a weed- and tree-infested offshoot of a LIDL parking lot in Wedding, I once came face to face with a fox. On those initial Bahn trips through the city, however, I also started noticing something else: little in-between-in-between spaces, with what looked like tiny houses and gardens.

The first one I saw reminded me of those L.A. freeway strips. It was on a narrow strip nestled between the S-Bahn tracks and and some freight train tracks, right on the edge of the Westhafen industrial complex. 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. It made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included elves and gnomes.

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. Finally, I saw a sign on the entrance to one of these spaces. It read, Kleingartenkolonie, or little garden colony. No elves included. These are Germany’s allotment gardens, which are something like U.S. community gardens, super-sized.

Though we like to think of urban agriculture and local foods as some sort of newfangled revolutionary things, Kleingartenkolonies have been around for a long time. 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; owners 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.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 (Berlin, with an abundance of parks and even a local forest, is considered one of the greenest cities in the world).

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.

There are those who feel that the Kleingartenkolonies, with each plot divided from the others by little fences as if in a mini-suburbia, are a bit too individualistic. And so, more communal urban gardens are popping up in Berlin as an alternative. Still, the slightly more private garden colonies, where the community can meet in community centers, seems to fit the particular German Zeitgeist a bit better. And for that matter, I think it would do quite well in the U.S, given the chance.

Up until recently the American dream of a big house with a big yard surrounded by a big fence to keep out the neighbors would never have accommodated Kleingartenkolonies or anything like them. That may be changing. With the collapse of the housing boom, credit drying up and people experiencing foreclosure left and right, former big-homeowners are developing a taste for smaller rentals and apartments. They no longer have giant yards of their own in which to do their own gardening.

Meanwhile, the cost of once premium land has taken a nosedive, and big parcels that used to be farms, then were slated for development, are now sitting vacant, turning into spaces in-between. Phoenix, Arizona, where the housing boom boomed the hardest and crashed just as hard, now has many such a vacant lot, just waiting for a great community project.

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).

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, although that could change).

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 and maybe even gentrification at bay, especially if the little elf houses were equipped for full-time habitation.

You can get an overview of Berlin’s allotment gardens via this map.

All images by Jonathan Thompson

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