I didn't think that a humble flower bed could have quite this effect. The verges - for they are numerous, every few metres - turned out to be the key feature of the streets of Schöneberg, Berlin, where I was walking with my colleagues on Friday morning.
We were being given a tour by Dr Dieter Genske (Fachhochschule Nordhausen, Universität Liechtenstein, ETH Zürich etc), one of Europe's leading experts on the relationship between cities, communities and renewable energy, particularly in Germany. And, it turns out, an excellent tour guide. Schöneburg was the subject of our tour as it is in the midst of an increasingly fierce gentrification battle, and so providing a concentrated demonstration site for examining civic action, urban regeneration and urban development.
And Germany was the subject of our visit as — perhaps with Denmark — it has the most interesting (and arguably most successful) energy policy in Europe and beyond. Germany has created an energy infrastructure which is, amongst other things:
- highly distributed and localised (minimising transmission loss);
- increasingly based on a diverse set of renewables (doubling its share of overall energy production from 10% to 20% in only six years);
- generating hundreds of thousands of new high-value jobs in R&D, services and manufacturing;
- and most interestingly of all, the infrastructure is majority-owned by communities themselves (individuals, small towns, villages, community associations.)
This is part of a historic turn away from nuclear power and towards renewables for the country; importantly, described as part of an "energiewende" (energy revolution, or turnaround, roughly), a phrase that has echoes of German unification; and so the implicit idea that this is a national mission shared by all Germans.
We were there, as part of Sitra's Brickstarter project, to explore these relationships between systemic change, governance and citizen participation (we also saw Design Research Lab at Universität der Kunst, Renewables Grid Initiative, and Eclareon (more on all this on our Brickstarter project blog soon, as well as a quick post here explaining what Brickstarter is all about.)
Back to those verges. Schöneberg has as rich a history as any neighbourhood in a city that's seen more history than most, but the verges were the first thing Dieter pointed out. Almost every verge we saw was maintained by citizens — usually those in the adjacent block, or business — and this is agreed either formally, through asking the municipality, or informally i.e. just doing it without asking; "the Berlin Way", as Dieter had it.
Some are beginning to grow herbs and other edibles (of course, community gardens are rampant in Berlin at the moment. For example.)
Sometimes a cafe has built a wooden bench around the base of a tree (strong enough to resist late-night clumsiness) to act as a 'bar' for waiting customers on summer nights. Here we see the name of the adjacent cafe — "Soleil" — spelt out in flowers. (Should be on page one of any branding textbook, this one.)
It's an entirely small thing, and yet thoroughly inspirational. Of course, Berlin's governement is notorioulsy cash-strapped, and has been for years. Intriguingly, this does not seem to affect the city itself too much, which is as appealing as ever (a thought worth reflecting on, in terms of the hand-wringing over debt and austerity both here and abroad.) But it means the city has probably never turned down a request from citizens to look after their street.