7 Jul 2014
An inspiring taste of Transition in Germany
It’s just as well I enjoy travelling on trains, as Germany is a long way from Totnes. That enjoyment however does not extend to the train I’m writing this post from. It’s the 40 minutes-delayed Koln to Brussels train, packed with people, and I’m in the carriage in which the air conditioning is broken, on a day when it is over 30 degrees outside. I’m surrounded by lots of sweaty faces. I’m on my way back from 2 packed and inspiring days in Germany, helping with the promotion of the German version of The Power of Just Doing Stuff (Einfach. Jetzt. Machen!).
You can’t get from Totnes to Berlin by train in a single day, so I had to break the journey with an overnight in Brussels. I arrived just in time for the start of the Belgium/USA game, one of the finest games of football I have ever had the pleasure to watch, and then took quite a while getting to sleep due to the people driving around the centre of the city beeping their horns to celebrate the Belgian victory.
The following day I reached Berlin by about 4pm, with Gerd Wessling of Transition Germany, who had joined me on the train as it passed through Bielefeld. We walked to the Heinrich Boll Foundation, who regular readers may remember hosted a talk I gave about 18 months ago. We were straight into an hour of interviews after which was a short period of downtime before the evening’s event.
On the bill was myself, Gerd, and Dieter Janacek, an MP and the Green Party’s economics spokesperson. The evening was moderated by Dorothee Landgrebe. I spoke for about 30 minutes and then Gerd talked about what is happening with Transition in Germany. We then had debate and discussion with Dieter about the meeting of bottom up activism and top down policymaking, and just how far a bottom up approach like Transition can go. It was billed as a debate, but we pretty much agreed that of course Transition can’t do everything, but it can help politicians who want to make the necessary changes by just getting on with it and changing the culture.
Then there were lots of good questions and dialogue from the packed room. When it was all over there was lots of book signing, chatting, questions, and meeting great people from all over the country (and a guy from Chile who was all excited and wanting to take Transition home with him). After a trip to a bar for pizza and a beer to round the day off, it was off to bed.
The next morning started with Gerd and I travelling by tram across Berlin to visit Leila, a free shop set up by Transition Pankow, who are very active in their neighbourhood of the city. The shop, in the basement of a community centre, has three parts, a free shop, where people can bring stuff and take stuff away for free, a borrowing shop, where … I think you’re getting the point by now .. you can borrow stuff (lots of board games for example). And lastly a Tool Library, with a wide range of tools.
After a tour of the shop, and meeting the dedicated people who run it, a big group of us had breakfast on the street in front of the shop, including some of the most delicious strawberries I have ever eaten. Then about 8 of us got onto bicycles and set off across the city to our next stop. My bike was an old GDR bike, one of the ones you pedal backwards as a brake. Never ridden one of those before. Not sure I have any immediate plans to do so again. But it got me around.
Our next stop was Goerlitzer Park in the Kreuzberg part of the city. We met members of Kiezwandler, the local Transition group, among the 26 heritage variety fruit trees they planted in the park. Goerlitzer Park is, as our hosts put it, loved by many and hated by many. It suffers from overuse, from rubbish and littering, and from open drug dealing in the park, as well as from parties and loud music. For some the park is a nice clean green oasis, for others it is an anarchist free zone that operates without state interference. It proves to be a tricky balance.
Kreuzberg had, until a couple of days before I arrived, been under something resembling a siege. Between 500 and 1000 police from across Germany had closed off part of the area due to a large group of mainly African refugees occupying a school building. It had been squatted for around 18 months, and over time the situation had deteriorated within the squat, with drug and alcohol problems, fights, inadequate sanitation and even one murder.
The district government offered to resettle people to other districts, and around 200 people left voluntarily, but about 40 remained, some threatening to leap from the roof if the police entered. The night before I arrived, an agreement was reached to allow the occupants to stay in part of the building while work begins to transform it into a centre for refugee organisations. It is in this context of a part of the city where social and political problems and disputes are very visible that our friends have been working since 2009 to try and make Transition happen.
In this context, the group proposed, at a series of meetings with neighbours, local politicians and park authorities, planting an orchard of heritage varieties in the park. A rota of people now look after the trees and water them regularly due to the poor, free-draining soil in which they stand. The plantings have suffered minimal vandalism, and have had good feedback, and are seen as being one of the key contributors to the recent decision by the district to redefine Kreuzberg as an “edible neighbourhood”, meaning that any plantings, where possible, will be edible species. That’s quite an achievement.
Although the group has done lots of things, they have also struggled with engaging a critical mass of people in a neighbourhood defined by high levels of left wing dissident activism, high levels of diversity, low incomes, and many groups already existing before Transition. The group is currently, apart from maintaining the orchard, on a hiatus, due to burnout and over-reach. There were very interesting discussions about how an approach more rooted in REconomy might have been a better way to do things, as the group definitely felt it has reached the extent of what was possible as a group of volunteers.
Then it was back on the bikes and off to ThinkFarm, a social enterprise incubator on one floor of a great old 1930s factory complex. ThinkFarm is a community of entrepreneurs, and was founded inspired by Transition values. They are home to a number of innovative enterprises, and one of the founders, Boris, showed us round and introduced us to many of the businesses there.
There was Milpa Films, who made the very influential Voices of Transition film (now out on DVD!). There was a media company specialising in ecological/social businesses. There were some designers. There was TransitionLab, a research organisation doing research into Transition. There was Quartermeister, who brand beer brewed in a local brewery and sell it in bottles with all profits going towards local charities They operate as a not for profit, as a transparent business, with a social purpose, and with a membership who choose the local charities the profits are distributed between.
There was Fairbindung, an organisation doing education work with schools and also selling Fairtrade coffee from Nicaragua. They all share the space, have a kitchen area in which they try to eat shared meals on a regular basis, and which feels like a really creative community. At the end of the tour, they asked me to wax lyrical to their camera about ThinkFarm, not easy with 1 minute’s preparation! Very inspiring, something that could be replicated in many Transition communities.
Then back onto the bikes and off to Prinzessinnengarten, in the centre of the city, one of the best known urban agriculture projects in the world. Given that the site has no soil, the garden is raised in boxes of compost, often stacked two or three deep. Runner beans scramble up very sturdy supports. All manner of produce flourishes in boxes. The place is fascinating from a financial model perspective.
It has become a key tourist attraction, and its cafe, which appears in many tourist guides as a “must visit”, serves delicious meals under the trees, in a unique setting. 60% of its income comes from the cafe, and the rest from consultancy. The group who run the garden also have installed and manage a number of rooftop gardens across the city and act as contractors on others. They receive no funding from anywhere and the site is thriving.
I met a woman who is the site’s beekeeper. She’s clearly a woman who loves bees, to the extent of having a beautiful bee tattoo on her arm. She showed me the site’s hives. I was fascinated by how close to people they are. Just feet away from people sitting having lunch, the bees are minding their own business. Apparently they travel up to 5 kilometres from the garden in pursuit of pollen, and the beekeepers have mapped where they get their pollen from within that radius.
After lunch under the trees and a couple more interviews, Gerd and I set off for Bielefeld. Bielefeld is a city of around 300,000 people, and is a University city with the largest single-block university building in Germany. It was to the University that we headed for the evening event.
When we arrived, a Transition ‘market place’ had been set up, with stalls from many of the Transition initiatives in that region of Germany. The way to it was marked by boxes full of plants. It was great to see the different groups and what they’ve been up to. Always a fascinating and inspiring experience. Here’s a short video someone made of impressions from the event:
Then a couple more interviews, a sandwich, meeting more great people, and then at 7.15pm, it was time for the talk. A great crowd piled into the huge lecture theatre, hardly an intimate space, and for the next 45 minutes or so I talked about Transition and the steps people are already taking around the world to bring a new culture into being. We then had good questions and answers and discussion, and I signed lots of books for people. We also asked people doing Transition in Bielefeld what, for them, Transition is:
… as well as asking why they do it:
In my talk I had discussed how important it is to start things, to get projects underway, to take the step across into action. I met a woman from Transition Town Witzenhausen who said “starting projects isn’t our problem. We’ve started loads. We now own and manage a building, we’ve started gardens” and a huge range of other projects I can’t remember now. “Our problem is maintaining them all!” she told me. She showed me one of two folders packed with all the press coverage they’ve had over the last couple of years. Impressive.
Then I went for supper and a drink with a lot of the Transition Town Bielefeld crew which was very enjoyable, before heading back to Gerd’s for the night. Then up early the next day and onto the sequence of trains that led me home again, including this extremely hot carriage. A great trip, full of inspiration, and delightful as ever to see Transition popping up in different places, and to hear people’s experience of it. My thanks to Gerd and everyone at Transition Germany as well as my German publisher OEKOM for organising it and to everyone who hosted me and came up to say hello.