Integration over the garden fence: German allotment gardens go international

Brightly coloured garden gnomes, tomato beds, manicured little lawns – these are all seen as typical of German allotment gardens or Schrebergärten. For some time now, Germany's Schrebergarten associations have welcomed members from other countries too, thus lending these allotment plots new potential for integration. The old and newly arrived garden-lovers are sometimes faced with challenges they did not expect, however.

Everyone knows the pictures: funny little garden gnomes smile at us from meticulously weeded flower beds, and bean and tomato plants stand straight as soldiers in orderly rows. In Germany, allotment gardens used to be considered a paradise for the petty-minded in which even the colour of the curtains in the arbours was regulated. But a great deal has changed over the past twenty years. The people now leasing these garden allotments are younger than ever before, and the proportion of migrants in Schrebergarten associations is rising – which can sometimes lead to problems.

Typical German allotment gardens

Schrebergärten, small allotment gardens, have been an inherent feature of many German cities since the mid-1800s. During the industrial era, the populations of cities increased dramatically, and many of the new city-dwellers were very poor. Small allotment gardens gave people a chance to grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption. During the period following the Second World War, too, allotment gardens gave German city-dwellers the opportunity to grow their own food and provide for themselves.

Now that Germans are better off financially and few people depend on garden plots to supplement their family’s food requirements, most Schrebergärten are cultivated by hobby gardeners looking for a place near their city apartment where they can enjoy nature in their free time. They spend weekends and holidays in their Schrebergärten, cultivate their flower and vegetable patches, and decorate their arbours. Allotment garden associations were established to regulate activities in the Schrebergärten. In Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, younger people derided these associations and their mostly older members as petty-minded. A 'Schrebergarten mentality' stood for a provincial, clannish attitude.

Moritz Schreber

Dr Moritz Schreber (1808–1861) of Leipzig is not, as one would suppose, the inventor of the allotment gardens named after him. His main interest was children's health, which he attempted to improve through exercise and occasionally extreme orthopaedic aids such as the 'straightener' he prescribed to make children sit up straight. He founded the first Leipzig gymnastics club and called for urban green spaces where children could exercise and do gymnastics – strictly according to his own method.

After his death, his friend Dr Ernst Hauschild dubbed such green spaces 'Schreber places', and from then on plots set aside for children around the borders of sports fields were called Schrebergärten'.

The Schrebergarten: a place for integration

In recent years, however, the Schrebergarten image has changed, and the associations now have a very mixed membership. Especially migrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union and South-East Europe like to grow their own fruit and vegetables and simply enjoy gardening. German families with small children, too, are joining the ranks of leaseholders of allotment gardens in growing numbers. As neighbours lean over their fences to exchange tips on fighting pests and improving yields, their children play together, and a vision of successful integration becomes reality.

The Schrebergarten culture is not without its problems, of course. In German allotment gardens, people from a number of very different cultures spend their time together at close quarters, which can lead to conflict. A study commissioned by the city of Hanover, among others, showed that although life among the multinational neighbours of the allotment gardens could generally be described as positive, different people had different expectations. The German leaseholders particularly complained that their international neighbours did not take part in Schrebergarten association activities, seldom accepted posts on the association board, and tended to spend their time in their gardens with their own friends instead of with German association members in the association's meeting house. People also differed in their ideas about quiet hours, acceptable levels of noise and adherence to the regulations governing the allotment gardens.

Migrant quotas for allotment gardens

One Schrebergarten association in northern Germany even went so far as to raise the possibility of changing the association's articles to introduce a migrant quota that would limit the number of non-German members of the association. This proposal, however, drew the attention of the Lord Mayor and the state association of allotment gardeners, and they asked the local association board members to distance themselves from any request for a quota. Since then, the local association has written several letters of apology and sees the idea as a mistake. As disquieting as such an initiative may be, it is nevertheless reassuring to see that German civil society reacted so quickly and decisively, signalling to those responsible how inacceptable such measures are in Germany.

The large number of studies and surveys commissioned by municipalities and the German federal states show how important sociologists, politicians and urban planners consider developments in German allotment gardens. The integration potential of these gardens appears to have been recognised. In an address to the German National Small Gardeners Congress, spatial planner André Christian Wolf put it this way: 'Whether and how rapidly this potential falls on fertile ground depends on how open garden-lovers are to social change, how effectively they can introduce changes themselves, and to what extent they seek advice and support from other actors.'

Garden trends in Germany

Whether it is a question of growing veggies on pavements, creating oases of calm in the hectic everyday life or providing hotels for insects: there is no end to the possibilities offered by urban gardening. We present three gardening trends.

A wave of green is engulfing our cities

Activities within the Community

The Alumniportal Deutschland Community has taken up the theme of allotment gardens, particularly in connection with the new trend towards urban gardening. Take a look at the ‘Cities in Transition’ group (Städte im Wandel) for a contribution from the Eschborn Dialogue on the topic of ‘Driving transformation – the city as a global player’.

Do any large cities in your home country have allotment gardens similar to the Schrebergärten in Germany? Do you think these gardens could foster integration among the people of different countries? In your view, what accounts for the recent trend among city dwellers to lease garden plots? Discuss your views on allotment gardens with us and other Germany-Alumni in the Community group ‘Cities in Transition’.


Author: Elena Krüskemper

November 2012

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