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Sustainability from the children's perspective - A journey through the landscape of German children's city farms


Oliver Ginsberg, BdJA educational consultant, Berlin

Paper for: "People, Land & Sustainability: New directions in community gardening", International conference, University of Nottingham, 13th-16th September 2000


See Also: A comparative survey on adventure playgrounds and city farms in 6 European countries (Denmark, UK, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland & Germany) in English and German. Adventure playgrounds and city farms in Europe and what they contribute to sustainable urban development.


About the author:

Oliver Ginsberg, 39, playscape planner and advisor to land based community projects, author and enthusiastic cook got involved in the childrenęs and city farms scene in 1984, as a student of landscape architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. He interrupted his academic career to support a local children's farm, work in a community health center and other community projects. Over the years he found himself managing a wholefood vegetarian restaurant and catering service as well as the school cafeteria of a Rudolf Steiner school. In 1994 he went back to university graduating with a comparative survey of European adventure playgrounds and city farms. Since 1996 he is member of the board of Berlin`s federation of adventure playgrounds and city farms www.akib.dee . At present he works as an educational consultant for the German Federation of Youth Farms and Adventure Playgrounds www.bdja.org.


Before we start our journey through the landscape of German children's city farms, let me share with you some thoughts on sustainability and what children have to do with it. We all know, that sustainable development is supposed to include social equity, environmental soundness, and economically viability, that it means "meeting our present needs in a way, that doesn't compromise future generations' ability to meet their own needs". Let us stay with the socalled "future generations" for a moment and lets call them "children" to make this abstract term a little more vivid.

Did you know, that within the 500 pages of the "Agenda 21" the world "child" or "children" appears just about 60 times, while the word "government" is used more than 1000 times! This is a first indicator, that perhaps children's needs aren't adequately reflected upon, even less met. Can we expect future generations of children to be able to meet their needs, if even today's childrens needs are not well considered? When you study sustainability papers, you will find, that their playneeds for example are hardly ever mentioned, nor their need for adequate play provisions within the city. Play deprivation however is one of the major reasons for health problems among children.

Let me give you some examples: children increasingly suffer from chronic and stress related diseases, some of which are generally referred to as "manager diseases". According to recent surveys, every fifth child in Germany suffers from sleeping problems and gastro nervous syndromes. Allergies and neuro dermititis affect one out of four children. Obesity and other nutrition related diseases are recognized in one third of school children and 40% suffer from motorical deficits. Not to mention increasing alkohol and drug abuse or violent and autoagressive behavior among young people.

Some of these aspects are related to economic marginalization of families with children. A recent German report found. that since 1980 the risk of poverty for children has risen three times as compared to that of senior citizens, which actually has declined somewhat. But children in "rich" families are also suffering. Excessive hygienic regimes and social isolation as well as over-protectiveness in suburban one-child-families are now acknowledged high risk factors in the development of allergies, asthma and neuro dermitis.

Another reason which is closely related to social segregation is lack of adequate play space. In Berlin for instance nine out of ten districts which provide poor open space to their inhabitants is overproportionally rich with children and the other way round. The biggest rival for children as far as open space use is concerned as we all know are cars! Cars now outnumber children four times and the space cars need in terms of streets and parking lots is 50 times as big as play areas for children.

This doesn't yet take into consideration, that a lot of the playgrounds do not at all satisfy the play needs of the children. They usually offer little or no nature experiences, they are not open to changes and self creative activities and they offer only limited sensory stimulation. Conventional playgrounds do not allow complex construction play activities, nor do they encourage deep social interaction and role plays. They very often exclude children with disabilities, while playgrounds designed for the disabled are not attractive for a broad audience.

Most playgrounds do not correspond with what children ask for either. In a survey on play ground wishes among 2000 Berlin school children between the age of 8 and 11 years, more than 80% of the children expressed a wish for tree houses, caves, climbing walls and animals. Hardly any of the conventional playgrounds have these on offer.

So what does all that have to do with new perspectives in community gardening you might ask? Well let me tell you a little story about a man called Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, who's name is most often mentioned in connection with the socalled Schreber gardens as many allotment gardens are called in Germany. Gottlieb Moritz Schreber was a pediatrician living in Leipzig in the middle of the 19th century. He found that the urban conditions in which children grew up at that time were detrimental to their health, one of the reasons being lack of play provisons. You will be surprised to hear, that what he demanded as early as 1861, was not the provision of gardens or food for the poor, but rather play areas for children.

Garden areas were later added to these play grounds for "educational reasons" by Schreber's son in law who happened to be - you already might have guessed it: teacher. Only with the occurance of economic crises especially during war times were these gardens used mainly for food production. Children never regained their central position in these gardens even after food supply to the poor had ceased to be a major problem. Until today Schreber gardens serve more the esthetic demands and recreational purposes of adults than children. Play areas for children on the other hand gradually mutated to mere exercise constructions designed again to satisfy the taste of adults rather than the developmental needs of children.

It was only in 1931, that a Danish landscape architect pointed out, that common play facilities were not sufficient and demanded the planning of what came to be known later on as "adventure playgrounds". Many of which have developed into what could easily be defined as "urban children farms". Some of these we will take a look at later on. Almost needless to say, since 1931 the need for such open access play facilities has increased vastly. It is this realization that forms the background of most German children's city farms

The first time I encountered such a farm was in 1984, when I was a student of landscape architecture at Technical University of Berlin. I was studying the social use of urban open space in disadvantaged neighborhoods and one day a friend told me about a "children's farm" which had been established in 1981 on a squatted piece of land - in the district of Kreuzberg - a neighborhood characterized by high migration - mostly of turkish origin).

I found the group who ran the project in a desperate struggle against local authorities, who wanted to evict the farm and develop the land. A kind of scene some of you might be familiar with. Interestingly the group consisted mostly of women, many of them being the head of a single parent family with one, two or more children to take care of. The women could be defined as poor by German standards, even though that still might be fairly prosperous compared to many other countries. Anyhow as it turned out the basic motives of these women to start and run the farm was not about food or nutrition. It was about having a place to meet and some natural and safe environment for their children to grow up in and experience, what many children in metropolitan areas have virtually no contact with anymore.

I repeat, that the people we are talking about here were poor, because there is a general prejudice, that poor people have only simple needs such as food and shelter. Also there seems to be a gender specific difference in addressing urban farming. In general women perceive an urban farm in a different - usually more complex way. Women might call a community farm a children's farm, even though it is used and supported by the whole neighborhood, because they want to point out, that children should be more in the center of attention, while men might consider a children farm a community farm only, when it moves from recreational use towards "serious" crop production.

Because children are more attracted to animals than plants, daily farm work focusses on animals such as horses, a donkey, sheep, goats, pigs, chicken, ducks, geese, rabbits and guinee pigs. Crops play only a small part in daily life, even though part of the land is also used for gardening and fruit trees. The daily rhythm of feeding the animals and cleaning the stables is the main frame for social interaction, with occasional work in the garden, hand crafts, art work, horse riding, special events, visits of school classes and kinder garten or special needs groups etc. happening in addition.



I made this somewhat lengthy statement to point out that, when addressing urban agriculture and sustainable development, I believe it is absolutely necessary, to use a broader perspective and not narrow it down to food supply. I don't say that food supply and quality of nutrition are not important topics. Actually I believe these topics are gaining more and more significance. However we should take other aspects of urban farming into consideration with the same seriousness. Let me point out some of these aspects from the children's perspective

  1. The possibility to meet friends and have social contacts

  2. The wish and need for diverse and stimulating play environments

  3. The importance of nature experiences such as child-animal-interaction

  4. The significance of learning about the adult world outside of school, family and TV-shows

If you look at urban farming from such a perspective you might come to different planning guidelines, design strategies, best practices and training schemes. For instance you might include more areas for social contact, play or direct contact between children and animals and less for intensive gardening. Or you might suggest more diverse planting systems instead of annuals and monocultural "market fruit" systems. You might be interested in preserving a variety of "non-economical" species instead of strictly sticking to most productive species etc. I'm pointing at extremes here to make the point clear - because in most land based community projects you might find a variety of intermediate qualities.

We have touched some "soft" quality aspects now. What about quantity? After all sustainability is also about economy! Is there a possibility to point at the value of land based community projects in terms of "hard numbers"? In a survey among city farms and farm like projects in six European countries, I found that projects with just 1 hectare (2,5 acres) size host as many as 60.000 visitors a year. The numbers of visitors tend to increase up to a size of 2 hectares (with 200.000 vistors a year). After that it will drop even with an increasing size, because larger projects are only found in periurban areas and become more produce oriented. In general, the intensity of use in terms of visitors per area unit will increase with the density of population. And the diversity of social uses, needs and interests to be considered will increase as well.

The point is, that you cannot easily put a tag on the "social value" of urban farm projects, whereas the market value of produce can easily be traced in terms of average prices. That is why most research is done on the latter, which in general reflects a "male dominated" point of view. One could define the social value in terms of (mostly publicly financed) budgets of "land based community projects (which is not a very reliable indicator- because as we all know this is rather a question of the political power structure). The average number I found (for middle and northern european city farms) was 200.000 _ at an average size of some 4 ha (10 acres). My guess is, that it would be hard to achieve the same "market value" in produce alone.

The general trend to view everything in terms of market values, I believe is not contributive to sustainable development, but that is yet another topic. If talking about sustainability however, we should stay sensitive to the diversity of contributions of urban farms and gardens.

I would like to propose the following service fields as roughly defining the different contributions of city/urban farms:

  1. Productive services (producing crops and animal stock for sale/consumption)

  2. Cummunity oriented services (offering a neighborhood meeting place, organizing
  3. community activities and special events, diverse recreational opportunities for all age groups etc.)

  4. Educational services (In the traditional sense of highly structured learning about
  5. agricultural and ecological themes - may include project oriented schemes)

  6. Youth services and play facility (Offering a reliable place for parents to take care of or have their kids be taken care of similar to day care centers, kinder gardens etc, but with an emphasis on outdoor, agriculture related activities)

  7. Health services (garden or animal based therapeutical work or integrational work with disabled persons)

Most land based community projects will include several, some might even include all of these service aspects, but the productive service in many cases might just be a minor aspect.

When it comes to children's city farms or farm based adventure playgrounds in Germany, you will find the youth service and open access play facility aspects in the first row, community and educational services in the second and a few projects specializing in specific health services. As mentioned earlier, gardening for food production plays only a marginal role. The slides will give you a you a general impression of these projects in Germany showing six projects in 5 cities and different regions of Germany.






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Revised Monday, September 18, 2000

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

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