Prinzessinnengarten 2010

Workshop on Urban Farming and Local Empowerment
led by Nomadisch Grün

at Prinzessinnengarten, Kreuzberg, Berlin    
24 to 30 September 2010

These workshops for Urban growers take place at Prinzessinnengarten just off the busy traffic hub of Moritzplatz in Kreutzberg, below the drone of cranes engaged in new build. This is Berlin’s real estate land alright. By its looks, Prinzessinnengarten is certainly strange; there is an enormous amount of formal aesthetic innovation in this ‘urban garden’ which combines an economic pragmatism with a rampant grow in any way and every way you can approach:  white vinyl bags strewn around with vegetables growing out, herbs popping out of tetrapacks, stackable red plastic containers, a ‘grow or be damned’ attitude. The colours combinations aren’t too bad either, red, white, then the clean minimal lines of the café and kitchen in shipping containers. Everything here is mobile; if push comes to shove this community garden or farm can pack and go, all of which contradicts conventional notions of both community and food growing. So what brings about a phenomenon such as Prinzessinnengarten?

 

The urban geographer David Harvey in a seminal essay described the ‘widespread erosion of the economic and fiscal base of large cities in the advanced capitalist world, and the shift from a culture of managerialism to the culture of entrepreneurialism' in the governance of cities’ since the late eighties. With this change, the economic environment of neoliberalism sought to create a level playing field for all our urban spaces. What were outside the economic equations of profit – our parks, public spaces, educational resources, odd bits of empty spaces in the city where informal exchanges with improvised uses could take place – are now part of the real estate market with its ‘level playing field’.
Whilst we can’t be certain that the urban ecosystem under such a financial regime, largely of debt-financed development, is sustainable, economically, environmentally or socially, it is nonetheless how the cities are being shaped at the start of this century, the defining process that invariably will force a new ‘urban metabolism’ to emerge. The notion of an urban metabolism, the way we humans use the city to define its relationship to nature, was introduced by urbanists like Ernest Burgess who suggested that the way the modern city lives as a process, as part of nature is actually separate from its physical structure: ‘the metabolic processes of the city were (now) distinct from the formal rationale of its design, a split heightened as the modern city’s metabolic functions were increasingly handled by technologically complex infrastructures.’ How the ecological processes of the city through necessity overcome this split under predatory mobile capitalism to arrive at some conception of a ‘sustainable’ city invariably requires new forms of urban-ecological entities. The question is how we identify them.
In this context an useful way we can categorise Prinzessinnengarten, rather than relying on existing models, is as a form of an ‘urban-ecological assemblage’ to use the idea of the ‘assemblage’ from Deleuze and Gauttari. An assemblage is not a ‘pre-fixed object or entity, but consists of open relations among dispersed heterogeneous elements whose only unity derives from the fact that they operate together. Every assemblage is a multiplicity composed of other assemblages that are also multiplicities that together form a functional, ever-changing ensemble’. Such a constitution is open to new realities and relationships for a new metabolism of cities: the connections between new markets and the natural environment through the social.

 

The contradiction in Prinzessinnengarten as an urban-ecological assemblage is its ‘co-adaptation of space’ under the nose of capital. The assemblage enters the space of neoliberal capital; of course the relationship is uneven but the political message is that this urban assemblage-cum-garden can be capital friendly on its own terms, yes in order to deny the potential of the polar opposite:  that capitalism can be ever be nature friendly on its own terms.
This is a far cry from the  ‘old school community garden’ activists’ rejection of consumer culture and their defining of autonomy from market forces but Prinzessinnengarten is an engagement with the social consequences of the neoliberal ethic – pervasive possessive individualism being the norm for human socialisation and its corollary, the political withdrawal from any collective forms of action. If the ‘old school’ community garden requires affiliation and commitment, the assemblage draws on other states of socialisation, prevalent and therefore contextually enabling of a diversity of participation.
To quote Robert Shaw who co-founded Prinzessinnengarten with Marco Clausen after returning from Cuba, “…the structure of a ‘verein’ (association) is much more open to people who want to go in to it and take part in a responsible position, but on the other hand it kind of excludes people who just want to help and don’t want responsibility for it, they just want to come by for two hours and not be responsible for what they do..”

The Prinzessinnengarten workshops brought together a variety of European practitioners from the squatted autonomous spaces of Spain and Portugal to the publicly funded urban growing spaces of Scandinavia to the NGO-run growing spaces in civil war ravaged Bosnia.  The purpose was to conjecture an European green metropolis for 2030 and the types of practice that would enable this. Claudio Cattaneo of Can Masdeu spoke about optimisation of urban spaces for growing organically and creating network of social gardens within cities – rurbanism, Roger Dircon of kitchengardeners.org on the potential of food as a tool of change to re-structure society by utilising domestic spaces for growing – back-gardens, front patios etc.  Vesna Malenica from Sarajevo spoke about the use of community gardens as a means of healing aside from its economically valuable crop yield. The connecting link between all the workshop participants was the formulation of forms of collective praxis – this is doing, not only theorising, yet the doing together with…  it’s a bottom-up remaking of the urban imaginary.

 

Pim Bendt in his study of the urban gardens of Berlin described them with the phrase ‘communities of practice’ that create resilience. Resilience as means of countering the erosion of community by the market. “Resilience is the capacity to deal with change and to continue to develop, and that depends on diversity, experimentation and continuous learning rather efficiency, optimisation and ‘blue-print’ solutions. The current uncertainty of future requires organisations and cities which learn continuously. Therefore it is also important that we understand how learning actually takes place, learning collectively”. It’s this process that leads to the evolution of nascent social structures, Pim outlined in his study of Berlin’s community gardens. The urban gardens so provide a performative space for learning through doing, learning through the friction. Vesna pointed out that in Sarajevo  people from different ethnic groups become friends by spending an entire growing season together aside from the value of food they co-produced. The growing season comes from nature not from market relations. Berlin has 77,000 allotment gardens, and 25 to 55 community gardens. Pim Bendt argues that allotment gardeners as a community-of-practice, form a human reservoir storing knowledge of local ecosystems to counter the ongoing ‘extinction-of-experience’ (of nature) in urban environments.

 

It was useful that Dr. Franz Schulz, Mayor of Kreutzberg generously participated in the workshops if only to convey the marginality of civic vision in the new neoliberal landscape. He addressed us one evening in a packed hi-rise apartment at Kottbusser Tor (the nearest thing I have experienced in Berlin to an inner-city sink estate with occasionally dysfunctional lifts). The Mayor, a Green Party official, sketched out a picture of a ‘difficult financial situation with no future perspective’, and a resignation to loosing public space to individual interests. Civic governance was further handicapped by the separation of different pots of responsibility lying with different bodies – the bind of decision-making merry-go-rounds with no-one in charge. In the discussion Christian Damgaard from Copenhagen pointed out that loneliness was such a big problem in his city as in all European cities –that community gardens contribute considerably to savings for the health sector and municipal budget. But these are unaccounted economic benefits that never appear on spreadsheets. So it's an uneven contest in the dynamic of the making of the green metropolis but through the dialogue we get a picture of the contestation.

Frauke Hehl’s presentation showed up the experience of some of the more grassrootsy community growing spaces. Bürgergarten Laskerwiese run totally by citizens, without help from the Green Party was thriving. However at the Rosa Rosa in Friedrichshain, after 10 years of fighting off developers or justifying its existence on economic terms, many people left because of a lack of legal status. We also visited Angela Animal Farm Adalbertstrasse nearby in Kreutzberg.  I saw these gardens in 2006 as part of the social-mental-environmental workshops but they had regressed considerably since. It was dispiriting to see bureaucracy’s reluctance to support autonomous community initiatives meant their slowly nurtured collective energy drains away, exposing the spaces to petty vandalism. Whilst the gardens that Frauke spoke about operated with the ethos of minimal consultation – ‘let people do what they want to do’ – we got a glimpse of the other end of the spectrum with the visit to Neukölln and the vast disused Tempelhof Airport now ready for development: a total administrative annexation of every avenue of social energy with a curatorial placement of the proposed community garden in its designated plot. How it will materialise I must return with bated breath to find out in the coming years. So a confused picture but with only one certainty to make the future as Frauke put it: plant a tree as a protest, create a fact on the ground.

Gardening is not the revolution, nor does gardening turn every gardener into a cultural radical…” said Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey in 1999. “Gardening produces good food and other benefits outside the complex of exchange… It can function as an important part of “everyday life” in the radical sense of that term.
In 2010 he is only partially right. The space of revolution has been re-defined and like everything else perhaps it’s also for sale.  In capital defined landscapes, nature perversely mimics the market like a performing animal in a circus. Its not meant to and the show won’t last. So the devising of forms of social assemblages which are radically different in nature in terms of organisation and the means through which humans can interact in the city environment is ever more critical for a sustainable urban metabolism. This requires strategies to invent and invert social power geometries through aesthetic means, through material resources and through innovation to generate new engagement: the participatory spaces for the present social condition. As our ecosystems are now entirely dominated by capital and if capital is value in motion, then it’s appropriate that we are gathered to work on the future in a mobile garden to envision a way to get through a current  state of being that’s living on borrowed time. Prinzessinnengarten is a nomadic entity transposed onto space that’s equally living on borrowed time; this is land for sale as the city of Berlin quarries whatever it can lay its hands on. Though this urban assemblage is barely an year old, in that short space of time the experiment has created manifold means of social participation. But who can guess what will be here at Moritzplatz in 2030.

 

Re-posted xyzlondon > amplife  Sept 2012