WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space.
Berlin, 14th June 2016
Princezzinnen Garten (Princess Garden) is on the south side of Motizplatz, Kreuzberg, Berlin, off a busy roundabout in the city centre.
It’s an urban garden, a mobile garden, a neighbourhood and political movement, an open space of and for urban learning.
It’s a great example of how public space has become public again. And this is important. In Berlin, there is an active, political and social movement around public space, which feels much stronger than in the UK. There is a feeling that people not only have a right to it, for it to be used for neighbourhoods and for the city, but that it’s unacceptable for an expanding city to be sacrificing public spaces to private ownership when they are needed more than ever. Any piece of public land here proposed for sale for flats or development meets with a reactive forceful response from the population.
Inspired by a visit to Cuba and the urban agriculture there, Robert Shaw and Marco Clausen started the garden after a search for disused green spaces in the middle of the city, working with the concept: learning, local production and non-profit economic activity all around food, which is the essential joiner between people. Nomadisch Grün (Nomadic Green) launched Prinzessinnengärten as a pilot project in the summer of 2009 at Kreuzberg, a site which had been a wasteland for over half a century.
Along with friends, activists and neighbours, the group cleared away rubbish and built transportable organic vegetable plots. It began as a mobile garden with everything planted in containers, bins, tubs and has grown into an extraordinary project attracting relationships with schools, kindergartens, youth projects, researchers and international attention within the communities of urban agriculture and urban space politics.
The site is bordered by a high wire fence and greenery, and you slip in through the gate, and that dense traffic recedes, even though it’s only metres away. It’s extraordinary how far away the nearby can become. It’s striking just how many different people across age and culture are using this place, interested and absorbed by this oasis – it’s busy, friendly and lively. It feels open – and it is open, the gates are open – welcoming, full of chance encounter, people gardening, selling, cooking, meeting and it feels responsive to the city and the neighbourhood. It’s doing something very special.
Full of crates, boxes, containers stacked and planted, abundant and dense, the garden is a maze of growing spaces, with a cafe, kitchen, eating, meeting area and library. Lunch is one dish of the day: a vegetable soup, with cheese on bread made from ingredients straight from the garden.
The garden has had over 50,000 visitors, with more than 1000 people involved, 60 institutions/schools that have run educational projects, 500 species of plant, 30,000 meals per season.
An extract from the introduction to Princezzinnen Garten, the book they produced about the garden:
“If you happen to be stopping at Moritzplatz in Berlin Kreuzberg on an early summer’s day, you just might witness a moving spectacle. Ten thousand or more bees swarm over the square. It’s a surprising sight, as the square is otherwise what could be described as a non-place. It is a transit area, dominated by a busy roundabout. Here, within view of where the Berlin Wall once stood, history has thrown together a heterogeneous urban ensemble of parking lots, disused land, a few remaining Wilhelminian buildings, residential blocks hastily constructed during the postwar period, four oversized subway exits, a mobile snack bar, and the concrete and glass structure of a recently opened department store for creative supplies. The site seems rough and uninviting. What, one wonders, has lured these bees here? The answer is hidden behind a wire fence that is overgrown with hops and lined with billboards.
On this bombed-out site, between the roundabout, the subway station, and a 22-foot high firewall, grows a garden. Entering through a door in the fence, the noise of the city becomes slightly muffled. The pace slows down. People can be found gardening in the planter beds, walking among the plants or sitting in the sun drinking coffee.
All kinds of herbs and vegetables can be found sprouting from the plastic baskets: turnips, carrots, parsnips, kale, red Russian kale, radishes, fennel, basil, tarragon, sage, thyme, lovage, salad burnet, sorrel, chard, orache, charlock mustard and purslane. Between them are the luminescent blossoms of dandelion, cornflower, nasturtium, borage and malva.
Growing in rice sacks are different varieties of potatoes with revolutionary or royal names like Red Emma and King Edward. Tomato plants have grown tall on improvised trellises, promising yellow, red and black, plum and heart-shaped fruits for the autumn. Seedlings are sold in modified Tetra Paks from a shipping container that has been converted into a sales stall. A signboard indicates which vegetables are ripe enough for visitors to harvest themselves. Another signboard announces days when visitors can work in the garden. Anyone can participate, or attend workshops on seed harvesting or pickling vegetables. Amongst a grove of robinias, also in converted containers, are a garden bar and a kitchen. Groups of guests sit at homemade tables built out of drink crates and eat meals prepared with produce that has been freshly harvested from the garden.”
Artistic projects are also strongly associated with the project – it is a space that attracts connectivity, research and experimentation. Asa Sonjasdotter undertook her project The Order of Potatoes at Princezzinnen, growing old and new varieties bred by small scale farmers, but that do not meet EU regulations.
In an interview in the book Make_Shift City (ed. Francesca Ferguson) Marco Clausen discusses spaces of ‘urban learning:
“…the garden itself as an ongoing work in progress where people can contribute to shaping the space is the ultimate space of learning this is it is underlying political power.
…by creating Princezzinnen Garten we returned a piece of abandoned, publicly owned land to the public. We were not aware of the controversies surrounding land policy in Berlin when we opened up the space for social and psychological engagement. It was a process of awareness: we started as a mobile garden and with then faced with the urgent issue of where to move to if everything were privatised and developed in the interests of short term profit.”
What tools did you use (to involve and mobilise)?
“We talked to the people that were actively involved with the garden. We discussed a common strategy and opened up the discussion to the wider public via various channels: the media, open talks in the garden, a petition via change.org. The support was overwhelming. Our campaign was not just about finding a solution for this garden but it also addressed the general question of the use of public property and a perspective for the future. The petition triggered a wider statement: it is about how we live in the city, how we can participate in its future, and how that future can be made more sustainable and resilient.
What is your definition of urban commons?
Commons are what we will need in the future, part of the shared economy: open space, water, education. This garden is an exercise in how to handle these commons.”
Read more about Princezzinnen Garten on the About page of their website (in English) with links to videos, a photo gallery and history of the project.
These photos were taken in June 2016 of the garden on a thunderstorm day.