I want to use this platform as a means to write about green and other social spaces, gardening and other forms of activities that are autonomous, self-sufficient, self-reliant and communal/local. I believe it is important to share alternative modes of being, living, spending time and consuming that do not harm anyone or impact the environment and living beings negatively. This first article is about the importance of green spaces in our lives, not only to connect with nature but also for our mental well-being.
Having lived in Berlin for three months so far, one favourite topic for discussion amongst people I meet has been, inevitably the weather and the depression that comes with it. The cold and dark months during the winter seem to test the endurance and raise doubts of many ‘Zugezogenen’ (expats and migrants) of their move to Berlin each year, myself included. When you add the stress and pollution that comes with living in a city of 3,5 millions inhabitants, it can have a strong effect on people’s mental health.
Today, more than half of the world’s population is living in urban areas, and the numbers are increasing at a rapid pace. I believe that modern life has removed many of us living in cities not only from nature, but also from what we eat and consume. We buy fruit and vegetables almost daily, yet how many of us can distinguish an apple tree from a pear tree? Or know when they are in season? More young people grow up in cities and many do not have many opportunities to be in nature or even have access to a patch to grow vegetables or do some gardening. At least in my case, I know there is a strong correlation between lack of interaction with nature and mental health problems.
For most city dwellers, the most immediate relationship and daily interaction with nature remains the weather. I wonder whether the weather is one of the few mystical, unresolved ‘things’ that Man has not mastered yet (and never will) and and thus serves as an annoying thorn in the eye to complain about. It is in contrast to city life, where reason, rationality and punctuality rule the workings of the metropolis (the sociologist Georg Simmel wrote a chapter on the effects of city life on one’s mentality), that the weather prevails as an untamed natural phenomenon.
Living in Berlin, it is good to know that it is supposedly one of the greenest cities in Europe. There are more than 2500 public parks which make up almost 6400 hectars of land. There are also many urban and community gardens, which serve as a meeting place for the local neighbourhood and anyone interested in gardening. This year is especially exciting for Berlin as the International Garden Exhibition (IGA Berlin) opens in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, outside the city as a move of decentralisation, and celebrates with events throughout several parks and green spaces in Berlin.
Not surprisingly, parks and recreational spaces were built for people’s mental health in cities. Back in 1840, the only recreational space in Berlin was the Großer Tiergarten (Zoological Garden). With the Industrial Revolution around that time, a huge increase in population and urban agglomeration led to unsanitary, unhealthy and antisocial conditions. By 1877, there were one million people living in Berlin, compared to 322,000 people in 1840. This led to the demand for green spaces and the construction of so-called people’s gardens, ‘places of exercise, recuperation, of sociable conversation, and also of the enjoyment of nature, as well as the formation and refinement of manners’.
With spring slowly tottering along, I finally awaken from hibernation and decided to visit a park. A 40-minute train ride from the city centre to the south leads to Berlins ‘most beautiful park’, Britzer Garden. Built in 1985 for the German Federal Garden Show on agricultural land and allotments, it became a recreational park for West Berliners in Neukoelln, Tempelhof and Kreuzberg as the Berlin Wall built in 1961 denied them access to green public spaces.
On a sunny weekday in mid April, the park seems vast and almost empty with only few people walking around. It is mostly elderly couples, parents with prams and toddlers, joggers, photographers and garden lovers frequenting the park at this time. The garden is so huge with so many different areas that to see everything one should plan a whole day and plenty of energy to walk. Compared to other parks, Britzer Garden charges an entrance fee of 2 or 3 euros. It might not seem a lot but when you also consider its location, it is not a place for many Berliners to just come and go as they please.
Compared to public parks, where you usually find a lot of people, music and picnics, Britzer Garden is meticulously clean and almost empty on that day. Metal chairs placed randomly around the flat grassland invite you to rest on them, rather than sit on the grass itself. It might sound silly but walking through this garden, I really become aware of the meaning of a garden (aside from the fact that I usually go to parks, not to gardens). A quick consultation on Wikipedia says: A garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature.
The theme gardens exemplify it well: Geometrical, clean arrangements of plants, stones, shrubs and even trees, bent to Man’s will shows the conquest of nature by man. But walking on, there are also lots of patches of wilderness, some nooks and crannies between trees and less regulated green space where you almost feel you are on an adventure. There are different areas and biotopes for any nature lover to discover and appreciate, my favourite being the small wild forest area where vegetation was almost completely left unhindered.
I am sure this place will be bustling full of people during summer and events. There will be a different energy, but for now I was content walking in the tranquil, sleepy atmosphere and passing by the small forest. Inhaling the air of fungi-loaded soil, I thought of nature as the weather: a wild phenomenon that is mystical and mysterious when left untouched by man.
A lot of people, especially young people, experience stress and suffer from anxiety and depression. I want to suggest to anyone feeling low to go walk in a park, or visit or even volunteer in a community garden. While it might not save long-term problems, it is good to know that there is always a safe, healthy environment somewhere outdoors to breathe fresh air and contemplate.
Georg Simmel wrote a chapter called ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’