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Urban Farming Under Threat: Popular Mini-Gardens in Berlin May Soon Be Paved Over

By Christian Schwägerl

Tiny urban gardens are everywhere in Berlin and they have been for decades. But now, the city government is threatening to level many of them to make way for new construction. A battle is looming.

Berlin prides itself on being in the vanguard of a number of trends -- and it might have found itself another one. In this case, it's what climate experts and city planners call "urban farming." Many see the drive to produce foodstuffs within cities -- rather than carting them in from far away -- as the farming of the future.

In the United States, Great Britain and several other countries, having a garden right in the middle of a city is being re-discovered. And in March, first lady Michelle Obama picked up a shovel and began to transform a plot of land in front of the White House into an organic vegetable garden. Her goal is to lure her hamburger-addicted fellow countrymen and women off their couches and into the yard -- and to show them how they can save money in these hard economic times by growing their own vegetables. Even Queen Elizabeth II has had an organic vegetable patch set up on the grounds of Buckingham Palace for the first time since the end of World War II.

Photo Gallery

10  Photos
Photo Gallery: Urban Farming in Berlin

Berlin, though, may soon be relenquishing its leadership role.

Berlin's senate, the administrative body that runs the city-state, has decided that there are too many small urban garden plots and plans to make some reductions. Should it get its way, more than one-fifth of the city's total space devoted to small gardens will disappear.

Re-Zoned for Construction

"The Durlach colony will be one of the first to be affected," complains Inge Titel, who heads an association of small-plot urban gardeners in Wilmersdorf. As early as 2010, some land now hosting gardens could be sold off and re-zoned for new construction.

The senate's reasons for wanting to sell the land to developers are straightforward. Berlin is in debt -- to the tune of €60 billion ($90 billion). Much of that black hole resulted from a massive banking scandal and ensuing bailout in the 1990s, but the city also has high welfare expenditures and an inefficient administration. By selling off the land housing the garden plots, which it calls "attractive inner-city locations for residential and commercial use," the senate is hoping to be able to bring some money into its empty coffers.

One garden colony, called "Württemberg," has been at the center of a battle for years -- a fight it has likely already lost. But urban gardeners in other parts of the city are refusing to back down. Peter Ehrenberg, the president of the Landesverband der Gartenfreunde, an umbrella organization representing the 500,000 people who take advangtage of the garden plots in Berlin, is demanding a guarantee that nothing be done until 2020. As he sees it, Berlin already has enough space for construction and commercial development. "There are huge swaths of open space at the now-decommissioned Tempelhof Airport and near the central railway station," Ehrenberg says. "Before long, there will be the huge area now occupied by Tegel Airport. With all that, not a single small garden should have to suffer." In late August, a demonstration against the proposed changes attracted 800 participants.

Generational Shift

Berlin's senate also argues that demand for the small garden plots has dropped. But that's not how Inge Titel sees things. "We're actually undergoing a generational change," Titel says. "It's mostly young families with children who are now applying for the land parcels." Empty plots can only be found on the outskirts of the city, she says. Whereas centrally located plots are in high demand. Over 400 people have applied for a plot in the "Durlach" colony in Willmersdorf and the waiting list is three to four years long.

Not only that, she adds, a generational change would rejuvenate the gardens, sweeping away some of the unappetizing features plaguing some colonies -- such as, Titel says, the heavy use of chemical fertilizer, high fences and an oversized population of garden gnomes.

But even longer waiting lists wouldn't be the only downside were the Berlin senate to get its way. The list of positives such garden colonies bring to a city is long:

• The small garden plots have a cooling effect on the city's climate, and their trees filter harmful particles out of the air.

• They provide refuge in the middle of the city for many species of birds, insects and wild plants.

• They provide children who live in city-center apartments a chance to experience nature. They also provide a social milieu for the elderly.

• Gardening is healthy and a cheap way to get some exercise. The British government has been promoting gardening as part of its efforts to prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

• The gardens allow food to be grown near where it is consumed, thereby reducing climate damage caused by having to transport it over longer distances. By growing their own food, families with lower incomes can also save on their expenses.

Part of the Workers' Movement

From an historical perspective, it is ironic that the current Berlin government, run by a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the far-left Left Party, is endangering the mini-gardens. Indeed, they emerged as part of the workers' movement in Berlin. At the end of the 19th century, workers used to snatch up these pieces of property in deserted areas or along railway lines to plant potato patches. Land was also set aside as a way to calm disgruntled workers. In the Weimar period Berlin had 6,240 hectares (15,400 acres) devoted to such small gardens -- about twice as much as there is today.

Nevertheless, the city currently boasts around 74,500 small gardens, many of the colonies dating to World War I or World War II, both periods during which the popularity of city gardening exploded in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. Whereas many big cities are just now discovering the attraction of city gardens, the practice has been well established in Germany for decades.

Which makes it even stranger that Berlin would be seeking to eliminate garden space. Six months after Michelle Obama's launched her gardening initiative, the number of people who have started growing their own private vegetable gardens in the US has exploded. One company seeking to benefit from the "recession garden" boom is offering packets of seeds for $50 (€33) that can, according to their estimates, produce up to $1,250 worth of vegetables.

For Berlin, however, the time is growing short. The final decision is to be made in October.

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