What would you get if you mixed together “Treibstoff,” the Viennese countercultural group that parks converted trucks in disused urban spaces, and the community gardening scene described by Jeffrey Hou in his recent lecture? Both movements have attracted considerable interest of late: The members of “Treibstoff” were profiled in a documentary screened at the DOK.fest in Munich, while the urban gardening movement in Seattle (“P-Patch“) has grown from 10 gardens in 1970 to over 90 in 2013.
It’s hard to imagine a peaceful coexistence. The “Treibstoff” group is composed of young, loud, uncompromising individuals, while the urban gardens are quietly developed by a wide range of city residents. Community garden projects seek to improve urban life, reintegrating elements of self-subsistence and communal living, while “Treibstoff” take issue with private property itself. Urban gardens change the city from the inside out; “Treibstoff” expresses dissatisfaction and disaffection with cities and development in general.
Offer one piece of land, and the two groups would probably clash. Community gardeners would patiently seek the support of city planners for their project; “Treibstoff” would drive in, park their trucks, distribute flyers, and ask why anyone should have the right to evict them.
Yet these two projects have a lot in common. Both are related to a familiar complaint: the increasing absence of public space. For “Treibstoff” and similar “Wagenplatz” groups, this absence of public space restricts lives to a specific shape. In the city, everything is owned; the only option is to buy or rent an apartment, at increasingly exorbitant prices. (Like having and raising a child, owning property has shifted from a norm to a privilege – something young people wonder whether they will ever be able to do.) Even unused, vacant land belongs to developers, who hoard it in the hope of one day making it profitable: Towards the end of the “Treibstoff” documentary, we are shown the various sites from which the group has been evicted, undeveloped and uninhabited one year on.
Urban gardeners are less vocal about this privatization of space, but their projects clearly show the benefits of public, common land. Urban gardens bring individuals out of their apartments to a shared space, creating community. Thus, as Jeffrey Hou highlighted, urban gardens in Seattle have gradually come to incorporate other useful activities. Self-management of the plots means that bands can be invited to practice during gardening sessions. Yoga classes are offered before the gardening work begins. Children can play in the open spaces in the urban gardens. Local artists can decorate the floors and surfaces, or install sculptures. BBQs and potlucks are a regular occurrence.
“Treibstoff” create a community distinct from the city, while urban gardeners add community to city life. The underlying desires, though, seem to be the same: live together, share, take ownership, and work as a group.
Neither “Treibstoff” nor urban gardeners present themselves as revolutionaries with visions for a better future. “Treibstoff” have broad gripes but would settle for a place to park their trucks, while urban gardeners are mostly law-abiding citizens engaged in minor activism. Yet it’s possible to see the two projects as part of a general movement away from the isolating anonymity of global capitalism and towards local, sustainable, community-based existence. Ecovillages are perhaps the more explicit expression of this sentiment.
It’s easy to look approvingly, even a little enviously, at community gardening projects. They are fun, wholesome, useful, and productive. But maybe “Treibstoff” is attractive too. They have no running water or basic facilities; they’re harassed, belittled, and at the mercy of the authorities. What they have, though, is a group. They see each other every day, they cook together, they share hopes and dreams, and they work for each other. Urban and economic infrastructures give us so much; we shouldn’t take them for granted or imagine they can be easily replaced. But city life sure can be lonely.