Düsselgrün: An urban commons in the heart of Düsseldorf

Tucked away in a public park near Düsseldorf’s main railway station is a small community garden named Düsselgrün, in which urban commons are a lived reality. The urban gardening project, which is organized as an open initiative, has been active since 2014 and focuses on growing vegetables, learning about seasonality and nutrition, and raising awareness for these topics, green spaces in the city, and community engagement in urban planning. In an interview for The Urban Commons Cookbook, we spoke with one of the early activists of the project, Viktoria Hellfeier, to get the lowdown.

The initiative faced a range of challenges and questions as it developed and grew. None was more difficult than its relocation from an unused building lot to its current location in a public park near the main train station. The gardeners capitalized on their digital reach, strong network, and a well-timed election year to find a new place for their raised beds. Viktoria explained it this way: “The most important point for a community-based garden is to find an appropriate location – which means a safe, long-lasting, and accessible space where the project can develop. Finding such a place and negotiating with the City of Düsseldorf about how we want to use it commonly was a big challenge. But above and beyond that, it was a logistical challenge. How do you move a garden of raised beds, which weigh tons, when almost all of the members only have bicycles? What about the soil? The area we were moving to had been an industrial area. How are we going to get the quantity of soil that we need in the middle of the city? And that’s where our cooperations were really important – an organic farm from the local region helped us with tractors and donated soil. You don’t have to own everything yourself. Sometimes it’s enough to know someone who has the necessary tools or know-how.”

You don’t have to own everything yourself. Sometimes it’s enough to know someone who has the necessary tools or know-how.

When it became clear that their previous plot was to be developed, they got organized. They created a website and a Facebook page, designated one member to speak to the press when needed, started making press releases and engaged a range of media, including the local newspaper. “I think our digital visibility also played a big role in our success, in particular being able to gather support from outside,” Viktoria said. Simple things like having a website and a Facebook page meant that we suddenly had a large community behind us, and that helped us to reach the local media as well.” Through regular announcements in these channels, the gardeners were able to raise awareness on the political level for community-led cultural projects in the city and their risk of displacement through real-estate development. They even lobbied the mayoral candidates to include their cause in their platforms. In the end, with the help of the city, they were able to find a suitable new location in a public park near the central train station, a success that Viktoria attributes to their successful professionalization and activism during this phase.

Of course, such a central location also brings its own challenges. Like many urban gardening projects, they have had to face questions about the openness of both the garden and their initiative. How do you ensure that the spirit of openness, sharing, and commoning is truly reflected in your structures? One solution is by having your space be open 24-7. This was actually a stipulation of their new location but also a challenge. Thankfully, neighbors in the surrounding buildings keep an eye on the garden when the gardeners are not there. They also curbed unwanted behavior such as smoking by placing signs around the garden.

The question of openness extends to the initiative’s internal structures as well: How do you ensure monthly meeting attendance is as easy as possible and that newcomers feel truly welcome? At Düsselgrün, they rotate the weekday and time of the meeting each month so that those with conflicting regular appointments (such as sports classes) aren’t prevented from participating. They also made the decision to meet in a local association building rather than a member’s apartment. The initiative has to pay a small amount of rent to use this space but they say it makes new members and first-time attendees feel more comfortable and welcome. Finally, their decision-making structure gives more weight to those who have objections to a course of action, even if they are in the minority. Dissenters are given the floor and the group attempts to achieve consensus, rather than “voting over them” through majoritarian-style decision making.

Viktoria attributes the group’s success to the passion of those involved and having a fixed location with some security. “Through our activism and initiative we have managed to start a conversation about urban gardening in Düsseldorf that didn’t exist before – how important it is that citizens have the ability to shape the city themselves or the role that informal meeting spaces play in the social life of the city,” Viktoria said. “Cities can be pretty anonymous. A space like our garden offers the ability to meet other people, to learn, and to share knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and experiences. In my opinion, that is essential for becoming a more solidary society and a topic that is worth expanding on.”

Have the courage to start. Don’t let yourself get discouraged by the fact that there are lots of unknowns. The most important thing is to take the first step.

Which ingredients of a cooperative community project most help it succeed? What are urban commons and how do they fit into current activist and civil society debates? And what tools and methods do commoners need to strengthen their work? These are the three questions at the heart of The Urban Commons Cookbook, a handbook for those interested in starting and growing community-led projects which includes interviews with the leaders of eight projects in Europe, South America, and the United Kingdom outlining their growth, challenges, and how they surmounted them.

This article is part of our series on the Urban Commons Cookbook.

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