“Tomatoes, courgette and strawberries – everyone was invited to pick their own” – urban renewal in Dortmund has taken on a new twist, explains Jens Woelki, a Project Manager for the city, who has witnessed a decade of change.
Hörde, a district in the south of Dortmund, has long been synonymous with the city’s heavy industry. Home to blast furnaces and steel factories for more than 160 years, the demise of production left a void in the community.
The city responded through urban renewal projects: creating a new lake and establishing a new area for high tech firms, bringing in 3,000 new jobs to the site, with plans for 7,000 more.
However, high unemployment has remained an issue for Dortmund, with some of the highest numbers of long term unemployed in Germany. A second strategy was needed to reinvigorate a once thriving community: the city council hit among others on the idea of urban gardening.
“The main goal we defined was in social life. We wanted to bring people together, to talk with each other and take care of their surroundings,” says Woelki.
In 2012 the city council launched the Querbeet Hörde project. Taking over the area around a disused swimming pool, 4,000 square metres of public space was put to new use, and local people were encouraged to sign up to make use of new allotments.
People began to talk about nutrition
“We had some people that had recently lost a garden, or others who were interested in starting one,” says Woelki. “What was so clear is that it quickly got people talking. They would ask each other, when is the right time to plant wild strawberries or how much time does it take to grow.”
The city quickly moved on to other urban agriculture projects. Fifteen raised beds were placed on the streets of Hörde. “People began to talk about nutrition,” says Woelki. In fact, the focus on food was so successful that by 2015 the city council decided to concentrate only on plants that could be eaten.
There are now 30 raised earthen beds in Hörde, and people are joining in, as well as helping themselves to the fresh produce.
The city council also put on workshops. “We taught people how to sew sacs for their balcony, how to make their own raised beds, and how to grow mushrooms,” says Woelki.
In the Middle Ages, vines grew within the city limits of Dortmund. In a bid to recreate this former atmosphere, the Emschergenossenschaft (which is responsible for all affairs connected with the Emscher river) placed 90 plants alongside the new lake.
“There was an old railway embankment, and we thought the slopes would be perfect to grow wine grapes. It faced south, getting lots of sun,” explains Woelki.
Unfortunately, the impact of the heavy industry over the years has degraded the quality of soil across most of Dortmund, leading to a massive challenge for the project. Much of the ‘green space’, such as around the now filled in swimming pool, was deemed unsuitable for cultivation, and soil was brought in – one reason behind the raised beds and mission to grow fruit and vegetables out of planting sacs.
“We thought about growing the vines in sacs or pots,” says Woelki, “but usually their roots would go much deeper, and it was difficult for us to provide them with enough water.”
An analysis of the city’s soil shows that it will take a lot of time, money and effort to treat the ground in order to bring such a project to success,” adds Woelki.
Other projects also failed, such as a bid to use the cellar of an old brewery to grow mushrooms. The city decided that the escape route was unsafe in the event of fire, and the team agreed that the manual labour of carrying items daily up and down the two flights of stairs would have been too much.
While the Querbeet project itself recently ended, its legacy lives on. It is local residents, rather than the city council who are now managing the planting beds, and a new initiative is helping one group of unemployed find their feet.
A currently unused area reserved for a future slip road has been taken over by eager urban agriculturalists. Started just this year, the new garden, which is farmed entirely by unemployed women, has already produced its first tomatoes, with many other crops on the way.
We give the food we produce to the Tafel system
“We give the food we produce to the Tafel system, which is the same that supermarkets in Germany send their food to when it is too old for sale,” says Woelki. “Although we call it our market garden, we can’t sell this food because of the labour office’s conditions. But the experience of getting back to work is already bringing strong rewards for these women.”
And it is suitable for the Tafel system too – the market garden adds fresh fruit and vegetables to the other items that the supermarkets distribute to the poor.
So, what’s next? According to Woelki, the aim is to bring this initiative to the whole city, from 10,000 inhabitants to all 600,000 inhabitants. Querbeet Dortmund will start in spring 2022.
Elsewhere in the city, Christian Nähle, a Climate Protection Manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, is focused on preserving biodiversity through food. His ally in this quest is the humble tomato.
Since 1900, we’ve lost over 75% of our seed variety
“Since 1900, we’ve lost over 75% of our seed variety, and we need to ask ourselves how this impacts our future food security, the way we will produce food and how we will feed the population,” explains Nähle.
Free packets of ‘sunviva’ tomato seeds are now being sent to people all over the city. Their status as open-source seeds means that no rights can be held on them in terms of replanting, guaranteeing that people can do with them as they please.
And that’s exactly what Nähle is encouraging. “It can grow practically anywhere, which makes it very nice for citizens because you don’t need much knowledge or skill, and it is very resistant to rain. Oh, and it tastes very good” he says.
“It’s bright and yellow, so it stands out from other tomatoes,” he adds. And, perhaps most importantly, the tomatoes are not hybrids, as is the case of some commercial varieties that are standardised by large corporations and may not reproduce.
So far, many connections have been made with eager gardeners and allotment owners and a few teachers taking up the call with their students, but Nähle sees the tomato seeds as only step one. Biodiversity ultimately means many species.
Perhaps one day soon, Dortmund will be abloom with the freshest produce all year round thanks to projects like these.
Main image: Jutta Sankowski/Stadt Dortmund