Urban Community Gardening An antidote to the accelerating society – Urban Community Gardening

One of the most important preconditions for a good life is time
Photo: Inga Kerber

Munich sociologist Christa Müller explains the urban gardening boom in Germany’s big cities in part as a widespread quest for slower-paced collective activities that bring nature back into the city.

The pace of life is steadily increasing in our functionally differentiated, increasingly digitally controlled society. The “Beschleunigungsgesellschaft” or “accelerating society” is one of the most trenchant terms to describe this modern-day syndrome. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa sees the competitive society as permeated by a “rationale of non-stop growth”, which causes not only ecological, but also social and psychic harm.

“Time famine”, the feeling of being rushed all the time, is only part of the problem; another, perhaps more serious, problem is what we might call “satisfaction deficit”, a lack of contentment with one’s life. This is a paradox, since the steady increase in efficiency was initially closely tied into the promise of progress, of a “better life”, through access to affluence and emancipation from heavy manual labour.

Turning car park rooftops into gardens

But time happens to be one of the key prerequisites for a “good life”. Above all, time for satisfying relationships: to oneself, to others, to nature. The new urban gardening movement is a latter-day attempt to engage in hands-on interaction with our social and natural environment. Urban gardeners are turning brownfields and empty lots, car park rooftops and other neglected urban areas into green life-affirming environments. Using wooden pallets, industrial tarps and baker’s boxes (plastic boxes with holes on the sides and in the bottom), they are creating mobile community gardens with plenty of neighbourhood participation from local communities, for instance at what used to be Tempelhof Airport in Berlin or on the grounds of a former brewery in Cologne.

They keep chickens and bees, sow, harvest, cook, reproduce seeds, build clay ovens and delivery bikes out of scrap parts, turn shipping containers into workshops and garden bars, share know-how and teach one another various crafts, and revive forms of interaction with nature as well as people from all walks of life.

  • Zeit zum Lesen Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Jeder Hinterhof kann zum Garten werden Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Blumen in einer recycelten Kiste Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Hinterhofgarten Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Erfahrene Stadtgärtnerin Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Frisch geerntete Kartoffeln Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Selbst gepflückte Blumen Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Apfelernte Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Es gibt viel zu tun Foto: Inga Kerber
  • „Nicht klauen” Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Keine Tomate gleicht der andern Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Zeit zum Auspflanzen Foto: Inga Kerber
  • Einweckgläser Foto: Inga Kerber

Devoting time to natural growth processes

This trend of small-scale farming is booming smack in the middle of Western big cities – and with a heady admixture of urban lifestyles. It demonstrates a different sort of rationality: that taking time out for community gardening, which involves taking part in natural growth processes and thereby heightening our awareness of our own world of sensory experience, is truly worth our while. Time is not used efficiently in these gardens – after all, it would be more efficient for all of us to buy cheap global market produce from our local supermarket to take advantage of agro-industrial economies of scale. A garden conveys a different conception of prosperity.

Community gardens are about decelerating. They afford urban gardeners an opportunity to slow down and get back in touch with themselves, to concentrate on one simple manual activity and to experience time as a prolonged present. In Eastern schools of wisdom, the ability to be fully present in the present is one of the basic preconditions for attaining to what people seek: satisfaction, happiness and being in touch with the world.

Gardening immerses us in agricultural time cycles

For many a big city dweller, a vegetable garden provides an antidote to attention deficits and the disconnect with the present, to multitasking and second-screening, to acceleration and time compression. It serves as a refuge from what French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg calls “la fatigue d’être soi”, “the fatigue of being oneself”. A garden does not demand time compression. On the contrary, it lays a claim to the time that is owed it and calls on gardeners to get involved in the growth processes of other living beings. Gardening gives us experience of the time cycles and hermeneutical horizons of agrarian culture. Hence the semantic equivalence of time and weather in the Spanish tiempo, Italian tempo and French temps, for example. Agrarian culture, which is being re-enacted in urban community gardens, is cyclical. Every year the cycle begins anew with tilling the soil and sowing the seeds. One is exposed to nature, to the prevailing climatic conditions, to seasons and circadian cycles. These time dimensions are fascinating to highly virtualized individuals to whom everything seems simultaneously possible and controllable, not least because they make us realize that even us urbanites are intimately bound up in natural life cycles and that it’s wise from time to time to simply give ourselves up to the way things are.

Longing for a different city

This movement is not by any means about glorifying and romanticizing country life from a safe distance in the big city, however. It is, rather, about the widespread yearning for a city that does not exploit and contaminate the countryside, but treasures it and cooperates with it.

The dichotomy between nature and civilization has determined the Western perception of the world since the beginning of the modern age. Gardeners quite constructively subvert that destructive dichotomy in their urban gardens by painstakingly constructing insect hotels, carefully laying bee pastures filled with honey plants, and hotly debating the best methods of species-appropriate animal husbandry – even in the city. All of these seemingly anodyne practices actually constitute an attempt to reunite things previously pulled apart: production with consumption, town with country, civilization with nature.

The dominant dichotomies of the industrial modern age are collapsing. And that may well be good news for lots of people.

All photographs in this article were taken by Inga Kerber and have been published in the book Stadt der Commonisten. Neue urbane Räume des Do it yourself (City of Commonists. New urban Spaces of do-it-yourself) by Andrea Baier, Christa Müller and Karin Werner, transcript Verlag (2013)

Related Literature
Baier, Andrea/ Müller, Christa/ Werner, Karin. 2013. Stadt der Commonisten. Neue urbane Räume des Do it yourself. Bielefeld: transcript.

Müller, Christa (ed.). 2011. Urban Gardening. Über die Rückkehr der Gärten in die Stadt. Munich: oekom.

Rosa, Hartmut. 2013. Beschleunigung und Entfremdung. Entwurf einer kritischen Theorie spätmoderner Zeitlichkeit. Berlin: Suhrkamp.