Intercultural gardens are a place where people with and without migrant backgrounds can share the same ground beneath their feet and soil in their hands. For more than a decade, these gardens have been loved and tended to by German-Russians, but today, for the country’s newcomers and refugees, they are no less important.
Gerda Münnich stumbled upon urban gardening by chance. Having spent her childhood in the Spree Forest, a rural area close to the German capital, she has since been living in Berlin for more than 50 years. In university, Münnich studied finance and business information studies. Plants and greenery have always been essential for creating balance in her life. “Twelve years ago, I simply wanted to support the first community garden for migrants in Berlin. And then suddenly the issues of integration and project organization emerged in addition to the actual gardening.”
Münnich is one of the founders of the Wuhlegartens. In 2003, the first intercultural garden was established in the far east side of Berlin. The garden is located in a neighborhood that has been strongly influenced by Spätaussiedler, or ethnic Germans who previously lived in the Soviet Union before migrating to Germany in the nineties. In an ideal world, the Spätaussiedler would have gladly taken full control over the garden. However, the garden patches were instead distributed in accordance to the district’s immigrant demographics: one third of the patches went to ex-Soviet gardeners, one third to Vietnamese plant-lovers, and the remaining third to individuals representing a mix of other countries.
Analphabets meet Akademics
From the very beginning, the project received significant attention – particularly in regards to the subject of integration. As the gardener community grew vegetable patches and celebrated festivals, neighbors became curious, and in came a city representative in charge of integration. In such a sleepy part of East Berlin, many visitors were amazed by the vitality and cooperation seen in this community garden. This could also work in our district, many of them thought.
In the following years, many intercultural gardens emerged – and Münnich knows them all. “We were always praised for our project, but no one in politics or the administration was really responsible for these new gardens. From office to office there were various contact persons,” Münnich recalls. It was clear that a working group needed to be created to oversee the projects, promote inter-garden cooperation, and inform the general public. Moreover, this working group needed a location – preferably at a garden.
Finally, in 2010, the long-awaited opportunity to create a centralized intercultural gardening information and networking hub appeared. Two years after the closure of Berlin-Tempelhof Airport and its subsequent reopening as a public recreational space, the city ushered the projects of urban pioneers to the site. The “Allmende-Kontor,”or Commons Office, as they call themselves now, received 5,000 square meters of the Tempelhof Feld. The massive collection of 250 planting beds, as well the consulting and networking hub’s other services, are now known throughout Germany, well beyond the borders of Berlin.
In Berlin, there are already more than 100 intercultural gardens, with even more that are up-and-coming. According to Münnich, gardening has a decisive advantage in supporting integration processes. “Our gardens are easily accessible, everyone can come, there’s no admission fee, and you don’t have to explain yourself. Also, you don’t have to dress up in a particular way and you don’t need to worry about lacking certain skills. No one will ask you about your profession or income,” Münnich states. In this relaxed atmosphere, people can engage in a conversation more easily than in other contexts. People without education can converse with academics, even if they would have little to do with each other everyday life. “Some may be better at talking and organizing, while others just want to do some gardening. Everyone can find their task and place in the garden,” says Münnich.
Different people living together in peace
Learning German is encouraged, although language skills are not a prerequisite to join the gardening community. Because participants’ mother tongues are so diverse, however, the gardeners quickly and pragmatically agree on German. “Gardeners want and need to communicate on matters regarding organization, for example. But it’s not as though we’re saying, ‘Only German is spoken here,’” Münnich explains. If, for instance, women from a distant country happen to meet in the garden and are able to converse with each other in their native language, this interaction could bring a piece of home to them, easing their feelings of isolation in a foreign land.
Münnich is critical about the concept of integration. “Actually, it’s about different people normally and peacefully coexisting. Many practice integration every day without even being aware of the term —and that’s what counts!” With the arrival of every new migrant, she stresses, Germany is also changing. Instead of proposing assimilation, however, Münnich would rather see people learn from and accept each other. In the gardens, everyone has to offer something to the community. Neighbors’ plant beds are carefully observed. “Gardeners breed seeds and share them with each other, give away some of their harvest as gifts, and we also cook and eat together.” Sometimes, even small businesses emerge from these activities. In the “Pyramidengarten” (Pyramid Garden) in Berlin’s Neukölln area, for example, gardeners make chutneys and fruit spreads from their harvest to sell.
Values in action
“We have norms and values that we should keep. The question is: how do we convey them to people who are new to our country and our culture?” Münnich wonders. Once again, intercultural community gardens may be a solution to this dilemma. “For example, let’s take the issue of gender equality. It’s not something you can just explain – you really have to practice and live it.” At the same time, in Arab cultures, gardens are already acceptable places where women can participate and share experiences. “These kinds of spaces are currently needed for the refugees.” In fact, they don’t even necessarily have to be gardens, Münnich admits. Still, she continues, “In most of the countries that refugees come from, after-work time is spent outdoors. And what else does one need besides a roof over their head? A garden!”
In the near future, we’d like to explore some pan-European but also local transformative initiatives in more detail. We will examine the movements’ models for societal alternatives, as well as their methods for achieving them. Our goal is to identify and share sources of inspiration for regional and global change.