Social Design Award Transitioning to a Better World

Community gardeners and other activists in Berlin are helping the Transition movement to take root in the German capital as part of its worldwide campaign for a sustainable society.
Baumhaus Berlin

Baumhaus Berlin

Foto: Hannes Jung/DER SPIEGEL

Maike Majewski is taking her lunch break and eating Turkish pastries at a wooden table in a large, light and airy storefront in Berlin's Wedding district. The shop is called Baumhaus, which means "tree house" in German, and an old Bob Marley song plays on the stereo in the background: "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights."

And this is exactly what Majewski has been doing for years as a local activist in the worldwide Transition movement. "I was sick of always just being against something," she recalls. She says that people's ruthless exploitation of nature obviously had no future and this raised existential questions for her: "How can less be more? How do you live a really good life?"

The Transition

Transition has to do with changing and moving on, that's clear, but what exactly is behind this movement, which sprouted in Britain and has now taken root in Germany as well? What transition are people talking about here?

When Maike Majewski expresses it simply, she says that she and her fellow activists intend to press ahead with the transition from a society that is completely dependent on fossil fuels for energy to a world that uses energy and runs its economy in a sustainable manner.

When she waxes somewhat emotional, the 44-year-old activist puts it this way: "Hands, heart and mind have to work together. It's about understanding, taking action and coming together."

Concretely it looks like this: A few blocks from the Baumhaus, also in Wedding, Felix Lodes is working outdoors with a circular saw and cutting boards for raised garden beds. "Himmelbeet" is the name of the intercultural community garden project, founded in 2012 and managed by Lodes. The garden has nearly 300 raised garden beds, each about 2-meters long and 1-meter wide (6.5 feet by 3.2 feet); 120 are community beds and 170 can be rented. It costs 60 euros per season to rent a bed, including water and helpful gardening tips. Renters also commit to doing 10 hours of work for the community. With three times as many applicants as available garden beds, the plots are assigned using a lottery system.

"The social aspect here is almost more important than the ecological one," says Lodes. Things could admittedly be much better in terms of the inter- and multicultural aspect. For the time being, eco-minded, white middle-class white German professionals in their thirties with children make up the majority of the project's participants. But, aside from that, the Himmelbeet project has been an unqualified success and serves as a shining example.

The Himmelbeet Activists

The Himmelbeet activists have won an architectural award for their café built out of wooden pallets. They have also crafted community gardens for a large housing association. Demand for urban green spaces is high in Berlin, but the construction boom and skyrocketing property prices stand in the way of new gardens.

Still, there has to be a way to overcome these obstacles, says Lodes. The optimistic activist embodies the characteristics that make the Transition movement so engaging and attractive: It's not just about finding high-tech solutions to environmental problems, but also social aspects. Transition supporters say that only by cooperating with others can we tackle today's global environmental problems -- and perhaps even solve them.

Karen Wohlert and Scott Bolden

Karen Wohlert and Scott Bolden

Foto: Hannes Jung/DER SPIEGEL

Transition initiatives in Germany have been launched in such diverse cities as Bielefeld, Essen, Dresden and Hannover, and small towns that most people have never heard of like Witzenhausen and Emskirchen. According to the website of the Transition Network, there are 147 initiatives in Germany in 136 municipalities.

When Maike Majewski came to Berlin from Britain in 2009, a few Transition initiatives had already formed in the German capital. She joined a group in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, but after she got tired of constantly peddling her bike for 40 minutes to attend each meeting, she established her own initiative in her home district of Pankow.

Right from the start, she liked the pragmatic approach of the Transition movement. "It's not just about the strength of the ideas," she says, "but also the appeal of doing things." Majewski lives in an apartment building in the Pankow district of eastern Berlin, where she has also championed food sharing initiatives. Now, residents pass food on to others before it spoils and invite each other over for meals.

Majewski is convinced that you can't have a good life without community. Karen Wohlert, 32, has joined Maike. She rented the large Baumhaus storefront, which has become an important meeting point for Transition activists in northern Berlin. Wohlert grew up in Lüneburg, where she joined the anti-nuclear movement and took part in high-profile protests to block nuclear waste shipments to the Gorleben storage facility. She moved into an apartment with roommates in Berlin, and after their home gradually became a meeting place for environmental activists, they decided to rent the store.

This has become a focal point for various groups that dream of a better world, with projects that attract everything from climate activists to poets. Roughly half the visitors come from the neighborhood and the other half come from the rest of the city. As many as 40 percent of the people attending events there don't speak German. So a great deal of English is spoken.

Scott Bolden, 49, Karen Wohlert's partner, is rather reluctant to speak German, although he moved from New York to Berlin back in 2010. He gives a small tour of the Baumhaus and talks about the place with a certain amount of pride. The kitchen with a bar in front is nearly finished. A Syrian refugee laid the bathroom tiles, which were salvaged from the public swimming pool across the street before it was torn down. At the back of the building is a woodworking shop that will be remodeled as a seminar room.

A building project inside Baumhaus Berlin

A building project inside Baumhaus Berlin

Foto: Hannes Jung/DER SPIEGEL

The Transition movement also shows that the German environmental movement is increasingly coming under Anglo-American influence. Young people who want to do something to save the planet are apparently only marginally attracted to Friends of the Earth Germany and other well-established German environmental groups. Instead, this new generation of activists is eager to embrace initiatives and ideas that come from Britain and the United States, even if these countries are lagging years behind Germany on many environmental protection issues.

'Permanent Culture'

The initiator of the Transition movement is Rob Hopkins, a sociologist with a fine sense of wit who lives and teaches in southern England. "He's the face of the movement," says Majewski, "and he does an excellent job of getting across our ideas." Hopkins feels that the term sustainability has become very stale. Instead, he speaks of "resilience" and the ability to weather a crisis unscathed.

Hopkins, who was born in London in 1968, explored the ideas and concepts behind permaculture, a means of agricultural cultivation that is in harmony with nature and has been advocated by Australian environmental visionaries as "permanent culture" since the 1970s. And Hopkins could not understand how politicians and business executives could ignore the fact that global oil reserves would eventually be depleted, or how they could accept the risk of the economic and social collapse that this would entail.

When Hopkins started teaching "ecological building" at a local college in Kinsale, a town in Cork County in southwestern Ireland, he and his students developed the first Transition plan for this community back in 2005. The initial goal was to reduce the amount of power consumed, a fundamental shift in how we use and view energy. The city council adopted the plan, and after Hopkins moved to the English town of Totnes in 2006, he also worked tirelessly there until a Transition Town plan had been established.

Totnes, an idyllic small community with a population of 8,000, could be referred to as the unofficial capital of the Transition movement. It is home to the Transition Network, whose members endeavor to keep track of all the groups around the world that call themselves Transition initiatives and the activities that they pursue. There are now Transition initiatives in more than 40 countries, with between 3,000 and 4,000 active groups, although no one knows the exact figure.

Productive Diversity without Hierarchies

Yet the strength of the Transition groups and their projects lies precisely in this fragmentation and its decentralized structure. Transition movement members find solutions that are tailored to the conditions on-site and vary widely, of course, depending on whether a project is being developed in Brazil, Germany or France.

But the productive diversity of a network without hierarchies and leading figures is also the weakness of the Transition movement. It limits its opportunities to launch large-scale campaigns, curbs its political influence and reduces its chances of pushing through much-needed environmental reforms at the national level.

Of the three spheres of ecological intervention -- global, national and local -- the Transition initiatives have consistently decided in favor of going local. German social psychologist Harald Welzer characterizes the Transition movement as a "strongly practice-oriented movement that does not seek to bring about change discursively, but instead explores its own scope for action." Former German President Horst Köhler once praised Transition projects "as a wonderful combination of local civil involvement and a network that spans the globe."

Around 15 people have now gathered in the Baumhaus; most of them are activists in the "Real Junk Food" project in Berlin. They have brought in crates of food, whole grain bread and vegetables that come from a nearby organic grocery store and can no longer be sold. The activists are cooking tonight in the Baumhaus, all according to their down-to-earth motto of "fill bellies, not bins."

This article has been published in conjunction with the Social Design Award 2017 presented by SPIEGEL WISSEN and SPIEGEL ONLINE. Are you involved in projects to improve urban life with community-oriented activities that revolve around parks, gardens and public green spaces? If so, then you can apply to participate in the competition by submitting your project for this year's Social Design Award by Aug. 31, 2017. The winners of the jury and audience awards will each receive 2,500 euros. An online application form and further information about the competition can be found at the following link:

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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