Self-Organisation needs space to grow: An interview with Marco Clausen from the Prinzessinnengärten in Berlin

The Prinzessinnengärten (Princesses Gardens) in Berlin is one of the world’s (at least in the global north’s) most renowned urban gardening projects. The project’s site is at Moritzplatz right in the heart of one of Berlin’s most buzzing quarters: Kreuzberg. The city’s website tells us that the 6000 m²-sized area on which the Prinzessinnengärten now blooms and blossoms had been barely used (eg as a parking lot, as a depot, or a place for flea markets) for over 60 years until the initiative Nomadisches Grün (Nomadic Green), set up in 2009, started to clean the site of rubbish and other remains of the former wasteland. Over the summer of 2009 friends, activists and neighbours built transportable organic vegetable plots and started cultivating the first fruits, vegetables and herbs. Since then, the project has successfully expanded and grown. In 2010, the garden opened up a café, it presented itself at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai and received the Utopia-Award 2010. The garden’s own restaurant opened in 2011, and in 2012 the project – and its 30,000 supporters – even managed, or rather had to manage, defending the lot against the city’s attempt to sell the property. Following this, they were granted another five year lease in 2014. Between April and October more than 60,000 people visited the garden, with around 2,500 people taking part in guided tours, around 1,000 volunteers helping with maintaining the garden. As well as this, 20-30 people come regularly, or are employed by the garden, in order to ensure the organisation of the garden, the café, the restaurant and the various educational programmes.

Over the past six years, the project has initiated, established, or managed countless projects of which the Nachbarschaftsakademie (Neighbourhood Academy) is only its latest offshoot. The Nachbarschaftsakademie is a self-organised platform for “knowledge sharing, cultural practice and activism”. The Academy has set itself the task to publicly debate the question: how can humans, plants, animals, and bacteria live together on this planet? What can we learn from each other and how can we transform this knowledge into our everyday actions? The Academy mixes self-confidently various kind of knowledge and experiences. It aims to bringing “non-standardized knowledge, hands-on know-how, sensuous narratives and research methods” into an open dialogue for a wider audience. “The Neighborhood Academy has not a set format. It is made through shared engagement”.

Much has been said, written, and filmed¹ ² ³(international press) about the Prinzessinnengärten and how it produces locally grown organic vegetables; how it has developed an elaborate system of mobile gardening; or simply and how the garden is a place where more sustainable living in the city can be built. Hence, as one of Germany’s most prominent examples of urban gardening, urban agriculture, or community gardens – whatever you want to call it – I’m grateful that I was able to interview Marco Clausen, one of the founders and the owner of the company behind the garden. (The other one is Robert Shaw).

My interview with him was based on three questions: (1) What role does self-organisation play in the Prinzessinengärten?; (2) To what degree is it possible to actually include the residents of the adjacent neighborhoods?; (3) What would you say are the wider impacts of the garden? However, this discussion soon branched out into a broader conversation around social change. It is important to note that the actual organisational structure behind the garden is a private company (Gemeinnützige GmbH), Nomadisch Grün. Marco explains that they chose this particular organisational setting because it seems to be the most suitable legal form for being both, at least as much as possible, financially independent and achieving educational and social goals. “It wasn’t easy to find the right legal framework for us”, as Marco stresses. It is important, according to Marco, that the garden financially sustains itself. Non-profit projects, if they have a certain size, or aiming at growing to a certain size, come across certain limits in terms of knowledge and resources. And, only when the garden is profitable will it be taken seriously as a social actor within this tight housing market and political arena. Therefore, as Marco continues, being an actual employer of 20-30 people (depending on the season) gives Nachbarschaftsakademie, firstly, a certain economic credibility and, secondly, enables it to run the various projects that we are actually interested in. “Without a certain economic credibility, people don’t take you seriously as an actor of social change.” If you want to do things differently, as Marco emphasises, you have to prove to all the politicians and profit-orientated companies that you can do so by yourself. Consequently, various people work in and for the garden. There are full-time employees working for the garden itself, and full-time employees for the restaurant and café, as well as volunteers that come regularly or infrequently, that stay over a few weeks or months.

In order organise the various groups (ie the gardeners, the food service people, the volunteers, within the garden, the project coordinators, etc.), self-organisation plays a major role in the Prinzessinnengärten. However, there are formal and informal ways of participation. There are regular meetings for everybody but also implicit rules according to which certain things are done. And, along the major questions, Who has the relevant information and who needs that? as well as Who is responsible?; certain kinds of hierarchy need to be in place in order to ensure a successful coordination. As Marco states, the organisational structure of the garden is run according the credo that all the people should participate in the decision-making process who are either directly affected by it, or can contribute due to their expertise. When I asked Marco what he thinks about the overall relevance of self-organisation (as defined by the project) within the Global North, he was two-minded. On the one hand, he says, “I’m a proponent of self-organisation in the Global North, in particular if self-organised initiatives are not just filling gaps left by the withdrawal of state from social and ecological services and if they have political ambitions. Self-Organisation mustn’t withdraw into local niches but must always be about spreading successful practices in order to tackle social and ecological problems – out of the local into the regional/global. On the other hand, as Marco continues, “Self-organisation is an important, even a life-enabling, way of getting things done for many people in the Global South (or in European ‘countries in crises’ for that matter). However, I don’t think that it will work similarly in the Global North. The withdrawal of state from provision of public goods will most likely be met by the market. Especially here in Germany, where people have a strong purchasing power, there is a high risk of the market filling the hole left by the state. Hence, for the allocation and management of commons that are essential to survival and to establish social and ecological justice we need new forms in-between the state and the market. The concepts of the commons or solidarity economy could be helpful for thinking along these lines.” According to Marco, “Self-organisation can only happen where the state and the market (beyond top-down solutions as well as profit- and growth-orientated approaches) make room for it.” However, self-organisation or civic engagement in general is a difficult thing to encourage. “If people don’t feel like that they can change something, then they will not even try it”, as Marco continues: “Civic engagement needs the hope that change is possible. And not just any change, it needs to be change that makes a difference to people’s everyday life. Even better if that change makes an economic difference as well. But, the problems in the world seem to be too complex. We are growing into a society of experts, reviewers a controllers where problems seem to be too complicated to be solved by the ordinary citizen. As a result, a certain ‘somebody will solve that [the problem]’ attitude has evolved. People do not feel that they can make a difference. So, people also do not feel responsible anymore.” However, as Marco continues, what we can be seen from garden is that these ordinary citizens are actually the real experts when it comes to organising their living environment, their health care, their access to food of their choice, or the education of their children.”

That is where the garden tries to tackle the political problem: it is about local food production, thinking about how we deal with urban space, how local micro economies can come into being, and, of course, it is about empowerment. However, according to Marco, “Everybody interprets the garden differently. For some, it is all about the bees, the plants, or the harvests, for others it is about our relationship to and with the city, again for others the garden is just a nice and shady place to hang around.” Yet, Marco admits, that is complicated to integrate all the different milieus that are living around the Prinzessinnengärten. In the beginning, people with different cultural backgrounds worked together and alongside of each other. Nowadays, the Turkish and Arabic communities have withdrawn themselves a bit from participating in the garden. Apparently, some people can’t quite understand why you should garden without keeping the fruits for yourself. As Marco explains, “we helped to build a garden for a Turkish community nearby. They weren’t so much interested in the communal aspects of the Prinzessinnengärten but rather just wanted to grow plants within their own community.” So, this lesson exemplifies that cultural differences (eg different gender roles) can’t always be overcome and that ‘learning from and with each other’ works with different people than initially thought. Furthermore, Marco also tells me that they are not able to provide at least a small part of the quarter with food. This problem is not due to poor harvests but regulatory constraints. It is neither simply possible to grow your own foods for, let’s say, a public festival, due to hygienic regulations, nor is it simply possible to grow your own food for selling due to various standards for the fruits and vegetables. However, they were already aware, at least to a certain degree, about these constraints before even they started growing food.

Yet, considering that, as Marco points out, “cultural knowledge [about agriculture] is lost within one generation if it is not recorded or passed on”, there is a huge necessity for knowledge transfer about small-scale agriculture in Europe and especially in Germany. Hence, the garden is political precisely because it is an important space for exchange (of knowledge, people, plants and human beings, etc.) and new experiences. The garden shows that people can easily, even playfully, pick up knowledge and skills as well as become more sensitive to their environment. Thus, the political leverage of the garden, when it comes to political interference, lies predominantly in its symbolic power based on the motto ‘come and see what could be and is already possible’. Yet, this symbolic capital is hard to keep. The political sphere, according to Marco, has already adapted the phrases and the images with which the garden demonstrates its political relevance. “Allegedly, we have many supporters within the various political parties”, as Marco emphasises, “but if change was really wanted, then the political conditions would need to change and I don’t see that happening. Many politicians are quite quick at adapting to words and getting into pictures but they will still sell off vacant lots within Berlin’s city centre just to balance the budget. But, not only is the political sphere quick in making use of the images and the Lebensgefühl (attitude towards life) the garden produces but also quick to capitalise on the advertising and marketing industries.” Be that as it may, Berlin is, according to Marco, still a good place for projects such as the Prinzessinnengärten. The garden has received a tremendous support with a space for bottom-up experiments. However, as Marco notes, one can tell that the time allowances of the people in Berlin are getting smaller and smaller. “The cost of living is steeply increasing in Berlin. Hence, people have to work more and have less time for voluntary work.”

However, the political traction of the garden also lies in its integrity. For Marco, a lot of people have lost their faith in politics and in the idea that politicians for working for a change for the better. Hence, people pay a lot more attention to small projects and initiatives, which in Germany have already proven to be quite dangerous (one only has to think of the uprising of this right-wing group called PEGIDA last winter). At the same time, it is a big chance for initiative such as the Prinzessinnengärten precisely because, as Marco reminds us, we haven’t found the cultural and ethical instruments yet with which we could tackle the globalised problems of the world. “That’s what the garden is actually pretty good at. It demonstrates that if we start treating self-organisation, or local civic initiatives not just as makeweights, or leisure activities but as forms that not only raise questions about the social and ecological impacts of our own behaviour but also as forms that show us how we already instigate change, then our current pressing issues can very well be tackled.”