The 5th Informed Cities Forum came to me like a…
When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.
Winter is slowly lifting its veil… although, I’m not sure if winter had put it on very tightly. We had a very mild winter here in Dresden, with the December being 6 (six!) degrees centigrade above the average December temperature. In some parts of Germany it had 20°C on Christmas Eve. And even in Dresden, with its – formerly – continental climate, Christmas felt like springtime, with birds chirping, flowers flowering that shouldn’t do so until March and no need to put your warmest jacket on. To me it felt like a weird mixture between pleasant (“Yeah, springtime”… I like spring a lot!), irritating (“What month are we in?!”) and frightening (“If it is this warm now, how will the summer be?” Or “Will there be cherries to eat, when they start flowering now?”).
I guess, this sort of mixed feelings, this irritation will become the “new normal” as some people call it. And not only concerning the climate or weather patterns. A lot of conditions seem to be in turmoil or in jeopardy at this point in time.
One of them is, that we in Europe experience migration flows of people from war torn countries and countries with little chance to make a living that can support ones family and dreams. And people in Europe react differently to this “new normal”. People in Dresden react very differently too.
To describe to you the situation in this town considering that topic would go beyond my ability as a blogger and way beyond the scope of this blog post. A LOT has been said, done, written, presented, organized and tried to just grasp, describe, analyze or help the situation of the people of Dresden with their new neighbors – “the” immigrants. To me it feels like my little hometown is within some sort of collective culture shock. Or in a shock from being faced with the reality of “the world out there”. The bubbles of illusion are bursting everywhere in breathtaking speed.
The challenge for me in every new situation is that you don’t know how to react. There is no template in your brain that frames your actions, no manual to help you out. You have to let go of what you know and your habits of thinking and action and observe what is really going on. Only then you can come to an appropriate decision in this new situation. But this letting go trembles the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that we consider to be “us” or “me”. This brings you to the question “Who am I?”, which is a seldom asked, scary and fascinating question. This leaves you either insecure and defensive or humble and inquiring… or a mixture of both. These are the patterns, I see forming within the different reactions from people.
What happened in Dresden due to the speed and complexity of this situation is that networks joined together. The parish joined forces with alternative student groups, welcome networks linked with the community garden networks, political networks organized events together with civil society networks.
Interestingly, all this turmoil in my formerly somehow sleepy town caused an immense wave of action, political engagement, volunteered help, networking and new things to shoot from the ground. In some ways this was a wakeup call for little old Dresden. In some ways it is experienced (social/political) transition fast forward, although sustainability is considered last when the systems are under stress it seems. Although there is still a major quantity of people in Dresden who remain inactive, this community building on the city level is pretty incredible. If this inactivity of a main part of this cities community is symptomatic for Dresden or not I don’t know.
As I am very active in the community garden scene here, I wanted to share with you the new projects that evolved there. This is just a small piece in the puzzle of what had happened here since about a year, but it is a representative one.
A total of four community gardens started last year which have a main focus on bringing together the people of Dresden with the new refugee community in this town through gardening. Their diversity shows the impact this new situation had on a range of actors:
- Art: One garden, the Golgi Park, with a main focus on the inclusion of refugees was started by a festival theater in Dresden Hellerau.
- Civil society: Several networks of people emerged in different neighborhoods, all organizing volunteered support and leisure-activities for refugees. One of them, the welcome network in Dresden Löbtau, started a community garden in walking distance from a hostel for asylum seekers. Other networks want to do the same.
- Faith: A new community garden called Weltchen (in English “Small World”) was started on a property owned by the local Christian church and is organized by the vicar.
- Transition Movement: A few friends of mine and me started a community garden in Dresden Gorbitz, a neighborhood with below average income rates and the highest density of asylum seekers in government housing… a challenging mix.
What these gardens all have in common, is that they want to create an open space, where people can meet people, without a given political background, which categorizes into “right” or “wrong”. All this in the calming environment of a garden and with useful things to do, like growing food and nurturing life.
I was active in two of these gardens last year, the one in Löbtau and the one in Gorbitz, which are adjoining neighborhoods. We experienced several things. I was surprised about the willingness for fast actions from many sides of society like land owners, sponsors and the city council. Suddenly you can watch ideas manifest rapidly. One new situation for me was to weigh my words, considering if I should tell my full name or contacts to the press or if I should risk adding the address of the gardens to public announcement. The fear of public anger, vandalism or even personal attacks was until now never so present in my mind. On the flipside of it, working in the gardens with until then unknown lovely neighbors and people from the asylum seekers community feels to me like an empowering way of coping with the uncertainties of this “new normal.
All these projects developed mostly independently, just connecting informally by visiting each other. This will change this weekend, when the community garden network holds its first annual meeting in 2016. After a seed exchange market, where heirloom seeds are shared and swapt, representatives of the 20 garden projects in Dresden meet. They want to greet the new gardeners among them, share their experience in working with refugees in their projects and cooperate in joint ventures, like a series of lectures about urban food systems.
And Dresden is not the only one. We are weaving a network also between the city of Hamburg and their community garden network, whose gardeners use elements of garden therapy in their community gardens to help traumatised refugees recover.
I am really looking forward to this exchange of seeds, ideas, experience and support that we can give to each other. I feel, these fast changing dynamics can be faced much better when you are integrated into a system of networks, which are able to react flexible in changing conditions and can maintain social cohesion. As I feel that the centrifugal forces within this transition get stronger and people are pushed to the margins or torn apart these networks can become vital for our society.
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