150 Years of Allotment Gardens Oases in the City

Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig | Photo: Julius Lukas

The British have spacious landscaped gardens, the French their playfully baroque ones. And the Germans? They have allotments – called “Schrebergärten”. Over 530,000 of them throughout the country. They are green oases in the city, but also icons of “Spießigkeit”- German petty-bourgeois philistinism.

Visitors to the Dr. Schreber allotment association (Kleingartenverein /KGV Dr. Schreber) in Leipzig first enter upon a wide, green field. It is the heart of the facility, with see-saws, swings and other playground equipment for children. Gardens are laid out around this field. The association has 162 plots, and in 2014 it is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

The term Schrebergarten derives from the Dr. Schreber, but is actually misleading in two respects. For one thing, when the Schreberverein was founded in Leipzig in 1864, it had nothing to do with gardens. It was simply a parents’ association – the gardens came later. And the eponymous Dr. Moritz Schreber, an educator, had nothing to do with founding the association, as he died in 1861.

The fact that, despite this, the association and later the gardens were named after him is due to school director Ernst Hauschild. He was an adherent of Schreber’s ideas, above all that children needed more space for physical activity. More and more open spaces were disappearing in cities during the industrialisation of the 19th century. They were built over by factories and housing. “Hauschild wanted to solve this problem,” says Alexandra Uhlisch, director of the German Allotment Gardeners’ Museum (Deutsches Kleingärtnermuseum), which is housed in the landmarked association building of the KGV Dr. Schreber.

  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
  • Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig Photo: Julius Lukas
    Allotment Garden Dr. Schreber in Leipzig
Dr. Schreber wanted to create spaces for romping around (Tummelplätze) to counteract these unfavourable conditions for children. These romping spaces thereupon became the founding concept for Hauschild’s parents’ association. “He proposed leasing a field for play and sports with the membership dues,” explains Uhlisch. There, children could spend their brief free time under supervision. The special feature: All children were allowed onto the field. “It was open to all,” explains Uhlisch. And children could play there at “Schreber rates” – in other words, for free.

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The gardens were first introduced by Heinrich Karl Gesell. He was one of the first play and games directors who kept children occupied and under supervision. The garden concept originated in Berlin. There, garden beds were laid out for school children. They were expected to learn how cultivating and tending plants works. In the beginning, though, self-sufficiency was never an issue. For this there were the paupers’ gardens, which had been in existence since 1814. At that time in Kappeln an der Schlei (Schleswig-Holstein), small plots of land were laid out for the needy on the grounds of a church.

However, the allotment association’s gardens did not have the hoped-for pedagogical success. “By the time the radishes are grown, the children have lost interest,” is Alexandra Uhlirsch’s assessment. So the parents stepped in. Plots were shared out, paths laid and fences built. The allotment garden as we know it today was born. It was a kind of refuge for their owners: an idyll in the city. Out in green spaces and central at the same time.

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Neat lawns, ramrod straight beds

But it’s not only the image of the oasis that is associated with the allotment gardens. They also stand for “Spießertum” – petty-bourgeois philistinism – and the German love of order, for neatly mowed lawns and ramrod-straight beds. Everything fenced-in, well-tended and crowned with that symbol of kitschy hominess: a garden gnome.

Something of this “Gemütlichkeit” and love of order still lives on even today in the KGV Dr. Schreber. If one walks down the narrow paths one comes upon neatly-mowed green surfaces, but also a wild, natural idyll. Leasers can keep to themselves or take part in community life – like Helga Honer. At 82, she meets with a group of older ladies who spend time together in the association. “We’re such a fun bunch,” says Honer. “It keeps one young and fit.”

The Federal Small Gardens Law (Bundeskleingartengesetz) was passed in 1983 to protect and preserve this community form. A unique piece of legislation, as Alexandra Uhlisch says. Allotment gardens are the only form of leisure activity covered by a federal law - and not without reason. Time and again have the often centrally-located plots drawn the covetous gaze of investors. “That’s expensive land,” explains Uhlisch. But its preservation is guaranteed by law.

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And with the strong support of the people: the allotment gardens have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Above all, young families find the green oases attractive. The boom is also evident in the KGV Dr. Schreber in Leipzig. Every plot is taken, and the waiting list is long.