Keeping the Peace: why community gardens are vital for creating more regenerative cities.
A guest post from writer, photographer and permaculture designer Liz Eve
Update from Peace of Land, January 2022.
This is a guest post by Liz Eve about the Peace of Land permaculture garden in Prenzlauer Berg, which is now under threat from municipal development.
Since 2016 the 4000m2 site, formerly a waste dump, has been transformed into a thriving and biodiverse paradise, providing food and green space for volunteers and the local community, as well as a perfect habitat for insects and wildlife.
Complex ecosystems like the one that has been established at Peace of Land do not happen overnight. The garden is a result of a huge amount of time, care and resources.
Since the local administration has announced plans to turn the Peace of Land into a modern sports hall, local residents, parents, academics, and civil society organisations have sent letters of support calling for the community permaculture hub to be saved.
The current plan is for the garden to be destroyed, and construction of a new sports hall to begin in early 2022. Community organisers at Peace of Land are appealing to the local government to consider a brownfield site at Sigridstrasse 11A as an alternative location for the sports hall.
If you would like to support this campaign, Peace of Land are collecting letters to submit to the Pankow District Office of Berlin.
In this guest post, Liz brings us on a guided tour around the garden and argues that Peace of Land should not only be protected, but held up as an example of how cities can adapt, respond and mitigate the climate emergency.
Keeping the Peace: why community gardens are vital for creating more regenerative cities.
Cast your mind back to June 2021. On the same day that I visited the Peace of Land Community Garden for the first time, hundreds of people had formed a critical mass on bikes to protest the construction of the A100 Autobahn. Considering that the City of Berlin declared a climate emergency in 2019, it has never been a more crucial time to consider what land uses could best serve all of us.
For five years now, the Peace of Land community in Prenzlauer Berg has poured their heart and souls into creating a biodiverse oasis rich with examples of sustainable ways to live, grow food and mitigate climate change.
On this day in June, just a short walk from S-Bahn Landsberger Allee, garden volunteer Stefan Fischer explains that this site was previously used as a waste dump. Today, you wouldn’t be able to tell. In stark contrast to the dead and dry soil found in parks and green spaces across the city, the soil at Peace of Land is rich and fertile. In July, a soil analysis in the garden by the Open Soil Atlas observed a thick, moist and humus rich soil which managed to keep in moisture despite the 31°C heat.
Regenerating soil in urban areas to maximise its capacity to capture and store excess heat and carbon from the atmosphere is an important tactic against the negative effects of climate change, especially in cities where man-made materials like concrete exacerbate the “urban heat island effect”. In the extremely hot summer of 2018, 490 people in Berlin died from the effects of heat. By 2050, hot days of 30 degrees or more are set to double to at least 60 days a year. Given this depressing reality, we remove cooling green infrastructure at our peril.
Creating symbiotic relationships and maximising biodiversity
Researchers from TU Berlin found Peace of Land to have the greatest diversity of trees in Berlin, including oak, ash, rowan, chestnut, redwood, blue spruce, birch, elm, various maple species, elder, hazel, black locust or robinia, walnut, cherry plum and mirabelle. In addition, there are about 60 young fruit and nut trees and berry bushes all providing food for volunteers and the local community.
Permaculture is a systemic design approach that aims to develop sustainable and permanent agriculture and/or settlements. To accomodate all of this biodiversity, Peace of Land have created a particular type of permaculture garden known as a forest garden. Forest gardens are a network of tree guilds, an ancient technique that combines symbiotic species into a well balanced mini ecosystem.
The forest garden at Peace of Land is made up of seven layers, and each is planted with useful and edible plants. Strawberries, Waldmeister and other low growing greens such as clover make up the ground cover layer, keeping the soil moist and fertile. Slightly larger plants such as onion, garlic and a variety of herbs keep away predators allowing other plants to thrive.
Comfrey brings nutrition up from deep soil, climbing peas fix nitrogen and produce food. Rhizomes such as Jerusalem artichokes are a delicious source of nutrition. A shrub layer produces hazelnuts and perennial kale can provide year round greens. Smaller fruit trees can grow well in the dappled shade of the main tree.
Here a small tree apple, known to be a difficult combination with nearby walnut, is growing well thanks to the symbiotic relationship with the other plants.
Berlin is home to around 300 species of bees. In 2020 Dr. Monika Egerer, a visiting fellow at TU Berlin, included Peace of Land in her research on the bee population and pollination in Berlin. Her research has been awarded the UN Decade on Biodiversity Prize, and demonstrated the vital role that projects like Peace of Land play in promoting urban biodiversity.
Decision-making at Peace of Land
Permaculture has a strong emphasis on the ethics of ‘People Care, Earth Care and Fair Share’. As well as a wealth of gardening and plant knowledge, this small community is also developing an expertise of how to organise and govern in a fair and equitable way. Recently the community offered a workshop to the public on the decision-making method they use called Systemic Consensing, which helps groups of any size to make sustainable decisions with less conflict.
SoLaWi (solidarity based agriculture) creates a fair deal for producers and consumers as members commit to paying a regular amount of around 90€ per month to receive a weekly share of delicious fresh produce from the garden.
Zero waste living
‘Produce no waste’ is an important principal at Peace of Land, and many of the techniques used are about recycling nutrients back into the soil.
Composting worms live in bench-sized plywood boxes and help to quickly digest biological waste so it can be recycled back into the soil, and the result is an increasing level of high quality soil and productive plants.
Instead of relying on energy heavy sewage collection, the toilets here use composting to sterilise and deal with waste. They are clean, dry and smell of fresh pine sawdust, certainly more inviting than your average public toilet! Conventional toilets use clean water to flush away our waste, but Peace of Land uses a different technology. Terra Preta - the soil building technology that was used by the Indigenous peoples in the Amazon region centuries ago - could be used again in cities to produce very nutrient-rich humus out of human and other organic waste.
Twisting up from a small pond is a hand built herb spiral; proof that patterns found in nature often produce excellent solutions at larger scales. Herbs that need good drainage and lots of sun grow well at the top, and those needing cool moist earth flourish at the bottom.
Rainwater is harvested from the shipping container roofs, diverting it into a wooden aqueduct directly to water the plants. Based on the average rainfall, 100,000L of rainwater could be harvested from an average apartment building roof in Berlin each year. Using this water saves fresh water and the energy used to treat, process and transport water.
Long term goals, short term pressure: what’s next for Peace of Land?
Conflict over access to land is at the heart of Berlin's sustainability issues. Permaculture organisations with strong ethics and sustainable values at heart are often unable to create their own security due to the various other actors scrambling for high value urban plots.
Considering the immense time and effort it takes to cultivate these kinds of projects, it’s problematic that many high profile community permaculture gardens only have access to short term rental contracts. This means organisers, such as those at Peace of Land, Prinzessinnnengarten at Moritzplatz and Himmelbeet invest a huge amount of energy and resources into gardens that will eventually be displaced or destroyed — often for profit.
Although it comes with many good intentions a new school sports hall means the displacement and destruction of Peace of Land, which has been developed and nurtured with the sustainability and wellbeing of future generations in mind. Given all of this, it seems absurd that the planning process of building a school sports call should not consider the accountability to the younger generations who are right now so desperately calling for action on the climate emergency.
Peace of Land believe that destroying the garden would be an attack against the Sustainable Development Goals, and that there are viable alternative locations for building the sports hall. The community propose the construction of the gymnasium at a different location - such as the brownfield site at Sigridstraße 11A. The gymnasium building type TSH 60K can fit on this site. With this solution, the children will not only have a gym but also the opportunity to learn and participate in the garden at Peace of Land.
Since the recent election there is renewed hope. “The Pankow district is politically greener than ever,” say the Peace of Land ZUKUNFT working group on their website (translated from German). “Die Linke have shown a great interest in promoting climate protection and climate resilience as well as social projects in the district. We strongly hope that Die Linke and Die Grünen of BVV Pankow will work together with the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin.” For this article, I contacted local government representative Tino Schopf (SPD), who said that he is currently supporting Peace of Land in a request to the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin.
I personally hope that across the city, those heavily invested in profiting from land in Berlin see that a move towards real sustainability and better life for all involves supporting those with skills to plot a course for a slower, smaller and more meaningful way of life.
Here are some actions you can do to support Peace of Land:
Send a letter of support by email with the subject „Solidarität und Zukunft für Peace of Land“ to: firstname.lastname@example.org. More info here.