Community-based initiatives contribute in a lot of different ways to the well-being of a community and the people participating. These contributions can take the form of directly supporting people and communities through giving them access to education, healthy food, social support, nature, informations about political and administrative procedures. Indirectly they also allow the development of a culture of mutual help, sharing and empowerment. This post is a description of what we have learned about care structures in communities during our years as community activists building Prinzessinengarten an urban garden in Berlin.
But let’s start from the beginning….
Prinzessinnengarten: Making gardens from wasteland
At Moritzplatz, a busy roundabout in the center of bustling Berlin-Kreuzberg, well over a thousand supporters have helped the site to grow, turning a lot that was vacant for 60 years into a flourishing garden. Without specific expertise, with little money and motivated by the idea of a communally used garden in the center of the city, we began in summer 2009 to put down the first roots of a flourishing garden between cement and rubble. By now, a huge diversity of plants is growing here as well as a diversity of social relations. People of different origins and of different ages meet and exchange their knowledge and their experience.
The Prinzessinnengarten is a communal project; our vegetable beds are shared without anyone claiming individual ownership. Over the course of four years, supporters from the local community have dirtied their hands in order to. This takes place in a neighborhood that is one of the most densely developed and socially most vulnerable in the city. Here a garden evolved that can sustain itself financially and that grew into a locus of social exchange and mutual learning.
Prinzessinnengarten, as well as other urban gardens in Germany, have been able to develop small economies around its activities. Prinzessinnengarten has been able to support 15 full-time jobs during it seasons, being financially independent through its economic activities such as horticulture, the tending of a small café, selling its products, as well as giving training in gardening, ecology or the planning of further gardens. At the same time, it has been able to offer high quality, healthy and ecological food at affordable prices.
In cooperation with local institutions, with universities and international partners, the Prinzessinnengarten became a laboratory for resilient forms of urban development. In a pragmatic manner, we have been asking questions on how to deal with urgent issues such as climate change, dwindling resources, food sovereignty and the loss of biodiversity. The answers being experienced and experimented on all strive toward the creation of a resilient city, not only taking global challenges such as climate change into consideration but also incorporating local actors in the building of practical and local solutions.
The success of the garden has been vividly mirrored in vast press coverage: Since 2009, well over a thousand supporters have helped the site to grow „from an ugly vacant lot to a paradise“ (Die Zeit). 60,000 visitors come to Moritzplatz each year to see this „biotope and sociotope with a model character“ (Tagesspiegel), this „utopia in miniature“ (Berliner Zeitung)
Despite the garden being a celebrated pioneer project and undisputed value even by official sources, in 2012 the Berlin Property Fund was commissioned to sell the plot of land on which the garden stands. We only had an annually renewable lease, leaving no prospects for long-term planning. Through the immense support of our public and an increasingly motivated government, the Berlin government decided to return the property the Borough of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain. The Prinzessinnengarten has been able to establish its model character as a locus of social, ecological and urban change.
To discuss questions arising from this kind of community engagement, Elizabeth Calderon-Lüning, Marco Clausen, and Asa Sonjasdotter initiated the Neighbourhood Academy in 2015:a self-organized open platform for urban and rural knowledge sharing, cultural practice and activism. This bottom-up academy combines different knowledge- and experienced-based formats: non-standardized knowledge, hands-on know-how, sensuous narratives and research methods. People, organizations, and projects from different neighborhoods come together. Participants can come from Berlin-Kreuzberg or the region around Berlin just as likely as from Detroit or rural areas in Greece to find common ground for learning and teaching.
So what have we learned about care structures in communities?
In taking over responsibilities in issues that affect the whole society - refugees, climate change, social and ecological justice, to name just a few - community-based and grassroots initiatives play an increasing role in tackling these challenges and their effects on the local level. They are breeding grounds for social innovations and new bottom-up-strategies. Often people take initiative when traditional or institutional forms of care and support decline or do not meet people’s needs. Community gardens and urban agriculture- the field in which I am personally engaged- can serve as a good example. Without being part of planning, or political programs, these places are mostly created by local, self-organized initiatives. Based on local engagement and alternative forms of economy and often without public or financial support, community gardens contribute to the well-being, social inclusion, healthy and sustainable lifestyles, biodiversity, the physical- as well as the social climate. Not only they contribute to the physical health of their participants, but also to their sense of dignity and self-esteem.
There is also a downside to community engagement. While community organizations have to promote themselves with success stories to get recognition, political- and financial support, the negative aspects are often less visible. You hear a lot about precarious funding, internal or outside conflicts, political and economic pressure, multitasking, impossible workloads, competition between projects. At the same time, dealing with complex and often rigid political and social institutions, community activists have to become self-trained experts in finances, public relations, lobbying, community-organizing etc. But these fights are long and complex and the institutions and their procedures require a patience that easily outlive the time, the physical and mental resources individuals and grassroots initiatives are able to mobilize.
Over time, this situation can result in what you might call an „activism-burnout“. When this happens, physical, mental, and social damages are far too often just seen as a personal or biographical drama. These individual burn-outs are likely to be accompanied by a weakening or even a collapse of the organizations and initiatives that are often carried by the engagement of single individuals. The disintegration can lead to a situation where an organization loses knowledge, expertise, networks, and spirit.
For the reasons mentioned above, community care should also include structures to support the people that are directly invested in it. It should create securing and supporting networks. Instead of competing, it should allow people from different initiatives in different fields of engagement to share their knowledge of failure. There should be at once structures of collective learning and consultancy, which at the same time help the individuals to find spaces of trust and recreation. With the Neighborhood Academy, we started informal meetings with members of different groups and initiatives, not only to exchange experience and knowledge and to broaden networks and alliances, but also to deal with stress, conflict, fear, doubt, and failure on a more personal level. Even though this is just a tentative beginning, we experience a need for this kind of care and support structures, which was previously not expressed. Often issues related to the stressful conditions of organizations and community initiatives are externalized into the private and infuse personal relations . Therefore on a structural level, we see these caring structures also as a form to win even when you lose.
Community groups often focus on single questions, spaces, conflicts. They often react under economic and time pressure to immediate problems. They act within marginalized or weak political and economical communities. They deal with institutions and stakeholders with more time, much power, and resources whereas they rely on limited personal resources or precarious funding. Simultaneously there are a lot of joy, learning and personal empowerment involved as well as a sense of a meaningful life and community relations. However, the risk of failing is high, which can lead to frustration and disintegration.
Community care structures can help to ease this stress not only in giving support but also in a form of what we call „collective learning“. They can work as an archive for the knowledge, the experiences and know-how being created in grassroots and community initiatives. Thus, they allow activists to see themselves not only as part of a singular local fight that you might win or lose but as contributors to a collective living memory.