Video Interview Transcript: Michael LaFond from Spreefeld Cooperative

Today I shot an interview with Michael LaFond from the Spreefeld housing cooperative, who have taken charge of a piece of land by the river and created a public/private space with community projects, co-living and public access and events. He says a lot of great stuff but it’s about 25min worth, so I need help editorially with choosing what content is useful for us. (I also threw in a question about stewardship so we can use this for LOTE4 as well.

Audio/Video quality is good and I got lots of shots of the location for the edit.

Here’s the transcript, please highlight, edit and comment all over it!

Sam: Can you put the Spreefeld project in context for me in terms of this space and the political situation it arose from?

Michael: Spreefeld is contribution to the debate around Media Spree conflict, which was a campaign going back about 10 years ago between city and marketers/investors to market this land along the river Spree in downtown Berlin - it was previously the border between east & west, undeveloped since the war.

The majority of people around this area spoke out against this forced gentrification, and the threat of

exclusive places, and ‘gated communities.’

This project, Spreefeld, developed as something of a reaction to this - the difficult question of combining private and public interest. That means maneouvering between the extreme positions of global investors wanting to maximise profit and construction, and local activists wanting to prevent all kinds of development. The idea is that there is a way to develop respectfully and sustainably.

That means allowing people to live and work here, but increasing public access to the river. in a sense recognising the value of this land along the river, and maximising the use value instead of the profit value, for people who want to live here but also for people that want to visit, take part in gardening projects, community projects, and also small businesses.

Sam: So how does the project work?

Michael: Maybe it helps to explain the structures: we’ve got the housing cooperative, which has about 85 adult members, another 30 children, who are living here. Another more

than 50 or so people working here every day, maybe a couple of hundred that come by.

To complement the cooperative project is another project called the Spreeacker (Spree garden plot/field) - which existed before construction began. The goal was to involve the public/neghbourhood before, during and after construction.

The idea was to really consciously and explicitly invite initiatives to set up here, that would be engaged in the public and the neighbourhood to begin this process of communication and networking with the neighbourhood.

My organisation was one of these - id22, the Institute for Creative Sustainability, so that fit in really well to our own strategy, which means looking at what we call sustainable reuses or redevelopments of vacant land and buildings - not just temporary uses or short term things but long term reuses or redevelopments.

We’ve been around for the last few years here, and another main thing that has come out is the community garden which we’re sitting in right now, which has been working for the last

few years to bring people from the local neighbourhoods to work in the gardens - so we see the community gardening as one of the

main ways to open up the land and use it in a sustainable and attractive way.

In recent years we’ve often used the word permaculture or urban permaculture to describe that, and we use those words to emphasise the permanent or long-term nature of that kind of gardening - a lot of gardening is temporary, using the land just for a few months. we want to make the point that urban gardening/edible landscapes should be seen as part of the landscape, taken seriously and

developed over the long term.

So that’s a part of what’s going on here. the community gardening, and what’s already started and what will continue in the coming years is to bring these ideas of permaculture and edible landscapes into the really public space like here behind us, the shorepaths that run along the river. so creating accessible public spaces and paths that are attractive but also include this idea of the possibilities of edible landscapes, so new ideas that are emerging in cities like Berlin to do with productive landscapes. There are a lot of people in Berlin who are interested in these things and we’re in discussion with the local government make that a reality over the next few years.

Sam: how did you actually change the direction of the media spree campaign and the initial wishes of the government?

Michael: well, it’s not easy to summarize in a few minutes because we’re talking about processes and movements that have been growing in Berlin over the last few decades and it all comes together in places like the Spree, in concentrations of, or you could even say battlegrounds for talking about power, development strategies, fundamental questions like rights to the city, who helps to decide, who has access.

These are pretty important issues in Berlin, and we’ve got a population that’s awake and still critical - so that’s the population that really fought the Media Spree and at least we were able to slow it down and get attention for these issues. and projects like ours are really working with that energy or the results of these kind of things.

So on the one hand projects like Spreefeld or Spreeacker are in some ways responses to the movements, to the demonstrations, to the discussions in the last years and decades and at the same time we’re part of movements - or you could even call them traditions - that have been developed in Berlin over the past thirty or forty years, especially in neighbourhoods close to here like Kreuzberg, in West Berlin. Self-organisation, participation, DIY is the new word for it, even anarchist traditions where people are interested in doing things for

themselves and not wanting the government to really tell them how to do things, but believing that they have the right or the

responsibility to organise their own spaces or their own housing, so there’s a bit of a political thing, a bit of a cultural thing, a bit of a historical thing that’s reflected in what we’re doing here.

In any case, I think it’s necessary to describe what we have here at the Spreefeld as a reflection of a lot more than just the people who are living and working here, it’s really emerging out of this Berlin landscape, both in terms of protests but also on the positive side, of what people have been doing in Berlin for decades, of organising their own projects, it’s the current manifestation of that.

Sam: Can you tell me a bit about the practical process of setting it up, acquiring the land and so on?

Michael: The original people that started the Spreefeld cooperative were able to buy the land from the federal government. that was the beginning point - they wanted to get the city to buy the land, they didn’t even want to own the land, but it seemed there was no other way to do it - they couldn’t get a foundation to buy it, so they turned it into a private project. a well-minded, sustainably-oriented private initiative to try to do something here. so that was the original moment of obtaining the space or access to the space. In terms of the ongoing situation or the future situation it’s definitely a struggle with the local government. The local government has its own ideas about planning and managing space, and would like to control it and would like to do it their own way, and I’m optimistic that we will be able to do some really interesting things here but they don’t make it easy.

They’re not interested in improvised things, they’re not interested in experiments, they’re not interested in edible landscapes, they’re not interested in much of anything except grass and benches and you know, safe lighting and so on. And that’s frustrating and a bit scary but we have some advantages, of being here, and having a different kind of motivation, and having a public around us that’s supportive, and a having a media i think that’s also supportive , so we have some good cards in our hand, so if we can maintain the energy then some really nice things will continue to happen here.

I guess i’m an optimist in the end that it’s gonna work out but it’s not like it just happens, people are not making it easy for us, the government is not just… thrilled, you know.

To a certain extent, I mean, I don’t know if you’d call it pioneering work but it seems that we’re involved in educating the government to help open the doors for

others for these more sustainable, creative kinds of cooperation between  above and below.

Sam: How do you ensure that this tradition can continue in the future - how can you ensure that other projects can do as you have and build similar initiatives?

Michael: Well, if you’re asking me that, part of it relates to the Spreefeld and part to me and my work with id22 - in terms of Spreefeld and this place, the cooperative and the Spreeacker - those are some of the major goals in the cooperative, now we have created a the new non-profit association called Spreeacker, which is a manifestation of that, to create the structures that we think are necessary to involve people or to allow people to be engaged here, either in the garden or with the ongoing and future work with the shorepaths and the public spaces.

So part of that has to do with structures, structures to get recognition and to be able to work with money. We’re in Berlin, in Germany and these kinds of organisational structures have quite a bit of significance, legally but also culturally speaking. Some of it has to do with the spaces here - so the fact that there’s no fence or gate around the land here means that it’s accessible, the gardens here, they’re there, I mean the land belongs to the cooperative, still , but it’s clearly accessible to the public. but the invitation is there, the trust is there, people can destroy it if they want, but it’s there, so that’s an important thing.

It also relates spatially to some of the rooms we have, ‘option spaces’ they’re called. Big semi-private, semi-public spaces, or the boat house which are meant to be meeting places for the cooperative and for the public, for the neighbourhood, which are done in a low-budget DIY way, so that we don’t have to demand a lot of rent or maybe even no rent, so it’s a combination of spaces and structures which really allow or encourage people to react or to do things.

And at the same time my own organisation, id22, we’re a part of it, we’ve had our office here in a container on the beach for a couple of years, we’re moving into one of the buildings - it relates to some of our fundamental goals of understanding and strengthening participatory methods and structures, so that explains why id22 is here, we see this project as a place to both benefit from and contribute to, so we’re part of the development of making things happen in the garden or the shorepath, like the festival that happened yesterday, Emergent Berlin, it happened largely because id22 was here and we took the time, well, to help make it happen basically.

Sam: I understand Spreefeld is part of a long historical tradition but also has long-term goals, thinking decades into the future - can you tell me why it was necessary to have this longterm approach, why you address the project on such a large timescale?

I would mention id22 again, we’re called the Institute for Creative Sustainability but we sometimes we say id22 means ‘ideas for the 22nd Century’ so it really does want to emphasise the long-term. so it’s really recognising that aspect that when we create buildings or when we create spaces like this that we’re talking about a generational

thing. so id22 is interested in that, again not just temporary uses - well, temporary uses can be nice, but we give our attention to the sustainable reuses and we’re interested in getting attention for self-organised initiatives in the city that could be taken seriously by the government or by the planning establishment as real parners in an urban development sustainable way.

This project is conciously set up as a cooperative to be able to organise people in a democratic way but a cooperative is also a structure that is recognised as having a long-term perspective, so cooperatives are not just setup for one or two years, they’re there for decades or even centuries, like we see in Berlin. So that all fits

together with ideas of sustainability, people being involved or having the opportunities to organise themselves but really and emphasis on the structures, so questions of ownership, questions of participation, that want to be there for decades, not just for one or two years.

So our engagement with the shorepaths that are running past us, we’ve already been working on that for one or two years, and even the city has a 10- or 15- year planning period for this urban renewal area, emphasising the shorepaths, and once the shorepaths are created that’s something that’s there for 50 or a hundred years at least. so for us it takes patience, it takes nerves, you really have to be committed to the place, or to that idea - it holds a challenge but at the same time it also offers opportunities.

so if I come back to the idea of the edible landscapes again - if you’re talking about creating a new shorepath system or public spaces here or planting trees and working with these ideas of permaculture and plant communities, you don’t just do that for one year, you’re not just thinking about raised beds or plants in buckets, it’s really an investment, an investment of people’s time and energy, for me that’s a fascinating opportunity - especially being in this area, where things are changing now, and we have the opportunity with our local place but beyond that we’re interested in being engaged with the spaces around us. we’re hoping that we’re here at an early enough phase that along with the people from the local neighbourhoods we can influence the development all along the river, so how the shorepaths develop and what other kind of uses come next to ours.

Sam: Let’s talk about this stewardship concept I mentioned before we started- when you hear the word stewardship, what comes to mind for you?

Michael: it reminds me of some of my studies in the US my study was urban design and development, comunity development through environmental studies, so stewardship for me is sustainable management of the land and people taking responsibility, people making a commitment to a place.

For me there’s a real personal side to it - although I’m not from here, i came from the US, it’s been part of my own personal philosophy for a number of decades, to make a decision to be somewhere, and at some point I decided to be here - that means Berlin - and in the last few years, the deicison more specifically to be here in this place - Spreefeld - and to me, stewardship is closely related to that decision. I mean stewardship can be done in a technical way, in a managerial way that people can do from an office, like from a government, but I guess I’m thinking of stewardship by people who are in a place.

There’s ideas of local knowledge and local sensitivities and so on,  so I don’t see myself as a

professional expert here, as much as somebody who’s part of the neighborhood, and part of this

place and one of the people who’s interested in helping to encourage or coordinate a lot of other

people to also see themselves as being part of this place.

So we’re working on creating structures and processes and places and so on, that allow and encourage people to steward the land here, I would say.

The community gardens are one example, the shorepaths are a long-tem thing. for me it has this ecological side, but I guess related to the way I see sustainability- we definitely have an ecological interest here but we’re beginning with a cultural or a social point - participation, self-organisation,

DIY, democracy, to a certain extent justice - rights to participation, rights for expression in a particular area. we’re interested in the

ideas of creativity and innovation.

we’re interested in working with the rainwater the quality of the land, the biodiversity and all that stuff, but I would say in the beginning, for us,  it should be a nice place, it should be attractive for us and others, it should be a special place, it should be open. And it

should be something that’s never really finished as a process, that’s going on into the next generation I suppose.

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This is great great content, Sam, well done. I’ve highlighted some of the things I feel need to be in the video, but in the end it’s your editorial choice, also depending on space and commonalities with the other interviews.

I love how he frames the idea of stewardship and the fact that it’s long term and the value is in the process of teaching people to steward the land.

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