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April 20, 2014
The monthly journal for independent thought, ethical standards and moral responsibility The international journal for independent thought, ethical standards, moral responsibility,
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Current Concerns  >  2009  >  No 3, 2009  >  Gardens in Our Cities [printversion]

Gardens in Our Cities

Subsistence Farming Can Contribute to Self-Supply and to Cross-Cultural Dialogue

by Elizabeth Meyer-Renschhausen/Germany

Although, since last year, the total urban population in the world is more than 50%, we are facing a quasi paradox, because contrary development at the same time. Since the rich countries do not want to grant the same wages and living conditions to the inhabitants of the countries in the South, which they allocate to themselves, their progress virtually turns against them: In the context of globalization our jobs emigrate to the so-called peripheries. In addition, rationalization and the new international division of labor turn ever more people out of their jobs. In our Western countries, workers and farmers are likely to lose or give up their jobs; in the Third World countries, university graduates in particular do no longer get any jobs. But also farmers there are under pressure.

[…] In fact, we are facing the phenomenon of shrinking cities, worldwide. The large cities of the rich North and West, of Northern America and Europe, are getting poor. The cities lose their inhabitants, because the better off people move into the so-called exurbs, where they can raise their children in their own house with garden in the countryside. The cities are losing their inhabitants due to de-industrialization. Unemployment is not only high in East Germany, but is constantly growing in the Ruhr district, as well. The former automotive city and capital of the Ford empire, Detroit, hosts almost exclusively poor blacks, African Americans. Philadelphia, richest city of North America at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 is now one of the poorest cities in the USA.
Only if we admit this void and refrain from putting a gloss over this shrinkage process, the new emptiness offers us a chance, says Holger Lauinger in his beautiful film about the creative handling of depopulation and the developing wasteland that he calls “new ground.”1
This development can especially be well observed in the USA. The North American society is possibly already closer to the end of its history, than is visible from outside. Walking or cycling through the ghettos and slums in the cities, one can observe an astonishing extent of decay, poverty, misery, and ugliness. The wilderness in these quarters differs in nothing from similar dumping ground quarters in many cities of the “South”, the “Third World”. Poverty will soon be a hard reality for a third of the American population. According to statistics, 10 per cent of the Americans even today go hungry. Neither the administration in Washington nor the municipalities show any inclination even to develop concepts to fight the need of the low-income earners.
At the same time, however, the ongoing crisis which can be observed since the 1970s, leads to amazing paradoxes. Since the early 1970s “Community Gardens”, or neighborhood gardens, were founded everywhere in the cities. While at first this was a kind self-help movement against the depressing decline of debris properties, inner-city vegetable farming has been the aim for the last twenty or twenty-five years. Since the 1990s we face a second wave of “Community Gardens” founding: In the midst of decayed quarters new “green” neighborhood and self-help movements develop incessantly, dominated by the marginalized outsiders themselves. Maybe the “Community Gardeners” are so successful, because they start off from the grassroots. Social adventurers – commonly called “artists” and “activists” – together with slum ghetto kids, are cultivating inner-city wasteland and grow vegetables. The young people are mostly colored or migration kids. Together they establish local vegetable markets for the poorer people who are under-supplied with fresh food.
With their actions, the African American slum inhabitants suddenly discovered themselves as part of a worldwide ecological movement. They are extremely proud of being able to contribute to the sustainability of our world. Owing to this form of “community gardening” and “subsistence farming in the city”, many young people of disadvantaged minorities emerge from the ghettos – mentally and very often literally – for the first time in their lives. The ongoing crisis is taken as a chance. This new garden movement, this new commitment for subsistence combined with climate protection and fresh vegetables for the homeless people, probably contributes more to the re-establishment of peace in the city centers than a thousand prevention programs. This common cultivation of wasteland can also be observed in other countries, e.g. in South America and everywhere in the world. In South Africa social female workers teach the inhabitants of poor settlements, how they can successfully cultivate potatoes, beans and tomatoes about their huts. Migrants to the cities do gardening everywhere, since they seldom have sufficient income, in Africa, for example. They mostly do their gardening “illegally” on fallow ground at riverbanks, along roadsides and in backyards. They pasture their cows, sheep and goats on the center-strips of highways. This is a kind of informal economy, which the state and municipalities are not interested in, because it is not taxable and contradicts the urban elite’s obsession with a good reputation.
A new garden movement has developed since the middle of the 1990s in Europe as well, practically a “new social movement”, i.e. the movement of “intercultural gardens” and “guerilla gardeners”. Just when the good old-fashioned allotment gardens began to be discredited – although they were perhaps the best result of the November revolution of 1918 – the first community gardens were started here. When in 2000 we held an international “Garden Conference” at the Humboldt University, there was a lot of excitement about starting something mysteriously new, despite the adverse circumstances like creaking old lecture-rooms and bad microphones at the university.2 The organizers and the “AG Kleinstlandwirtschaft” (Workshop Small-Scale Farming) were overwhelmed with inquiries for help concerning the more or less ‘wild’ gardening here or there. They were asked whether they could give some advice on how to acquire a piece of cultivatable land or how to handle one or the other gardening problem. At the end of 2002, the “Stiftung Interkultur” (Foundation Interculture) developed out of the group “Anstiftung” (Incitement) in Munich, a foundation aiming particularly at the promotion of these new gardens. Since then it has coordinated the networking of these gardens and supported each new garden with a small starting loan of 1000 to 3000, so that a new group of gardeners can purchase soil, spades, fences and watering cans.•

1    A trailer to the film can be seen in the Internet at www.neuland-denken.de
2    cf. http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~garten/