'Empty' Spaces are Full of Life in Berlin -- For Now


The Tentstation campground is just five minutes from central Berlin's main Hauptbahnhof train station. Photo via IgoUgo.

In the crowded heart of Istanbul lies a secret garden. Actually, there are probably at least a few, but the one I had the pleasure of having a barbecue in recently sits behind a friend's apartment, a neglected, overgrown empty lot that tenants of the building have spruced up with new plants, a patio area, and a good old American-style grill. Such oases are hard to come by in densely populated urban areas, where any empty space is generally quickly snapped up by enterprising developers. But a couple of innovative, if bittersweet, examples from Berlin show how much benefit can be derived from letting such areas be.Anyone who's poked around the German capital knows that there's more to the city than initially meets the eye. On a recent trip, I noticed what seemed to be a a small street market inside the crumbling archway of a building in the city center. Venturing through, I was surprised and delighted to find that the decaying facade hid a massive open space, full of artists' workshops, a garden of metal sculptures, a real garden full of fauna-attracting plants, enough sand to supply a small beach, and a lively beer garden.

Camping in the Center of the City
Not too far away, but unknown to me until I read about it in the New York Times, lies another kind of urban oasis:

Tall, shady trees, grassy meadows, chirping birds and nary an urban sound to be heard -- this is what surrounds the colorful tents pitched close together at Tentstation, a clever tents-only campground just a five-minute walk from Berlin's new main train station in the city center.

The five-acre campground opened in 2006 after its four co-founders, intrigued by "the concept of using fallow urban space," identified "a bucolic site surrounding an abandoned outdoor swimming pool and struggled for about nine months to get the first of what would be several one-year leases to use the land." A maximum of 300 people can camp at Tentstation, which has plenty of room for picnicking and hosts concerts and readings, even dances in the empty pool.

This urban idyll seems, sadly, to be coming to a end, however. The crew is looking for a new site after the recent sale of the land on which the campground sits, presumably the result of the same kind of development pressure that is threatening a longtime tradition in the city: Berlin's allotments, or garden colonies.

Urban Gardens Provide Food, Respite
"Having sustained the inhabitants for more than 100 years, Berlin's urban gardens are struggling to survive the property developers," the BBC reported earlier this month:

As you walk along the street, there is a door in the wall -- half hidden by ivy, covered with graffiti. Its lock is stiff. Open it and there is an alleyway behind, dustbins, a smell of leaf-mould in the gloom. Beyond, a flight of concrete steps leads up into the sun of a hot summer morning. The S-Bahn is close by and a train rushes past, shaking the scarlet roses which spill over the line. Ahead -- leading in all directions between tall hedges of beech and yew -- neat green pathways stretch away into the distance, a fragrant labyrinth of trees and shrubs, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

The city is scattered with hundreds of such gardens, "oas[es] for flat-dwellers without their own plot." Today they offer respite in the form of flower and vegetable patches, kiddie pools and barbecues, but during the two World Wars, they served an even more urgent purpose: feeding and sheltering city residents, a use that hearkened back to their mid-19th century origins as gardens given to the needy to grow food. Now, with the land considered too valuable not to develop, bulldozers are coming for Berlin's gardens, heedless of the other kind of value they have brought, and would continue to bring.

More about Berlin:
The Key.To Shift Toward Green Fashion is in Berlin
Green Vision for a Place With a Grim Past
Berlin Announces Plans for World's Largest Community Electric Car Infrastructure
German Parliament Building to be Greenest in the World
Berlin Drivers Don't Balk At Emission Badges
Slowmo Organic Cotton Design: Berlin Siblings Give Comfort a New Style
Bike City Berlin
Berlin: 250 Hydrogen Buses by 2009

Tags: Barbecue | Berlin | Camping | Cities | Community Gardens | Local Food | Turkey | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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