What does Allmende mean, anyway?

The antiquated word Allmende (English: common or commons) describes a communal plot of land, typically of collective ownership by a village community. These spaces were often so-called „wastelands“ and remained even into the present in communal ownership. In the Middle Ages in Europe, this mostly meant meadows, poor farmland, pieces of forests, or lakes, that were communally tended by all of a village’s inhabitants.

These Allmenden, or „commons,“ were designated since the Middle Ages by written constitutions, carefully composed by all participants. Today, the system of commons is probably best understood as cooperatively why not by a community managed communal ownership. American economist Elinor Ostrom sifted through countless theses from over the world and concluded that retaining commons means ensuring the maintenance of the rules that govern them. In case of rule-breaking, the Allmende-comrade would face a gentle warning. Upon the recurrence of misbehavior, however, the person would then be punished through exclusion from further use of the commons. In this way, Garrett Hardin’s postulated „tragedy of the commons“ – namely, its overuse – could be prevented. Overuse actually arose often only when the state intervened in the commons constitution from above. Until the late Middle Ages, many European village and town communities had such commons, known by different names: in England, „common“; in the U.S., „commons,“; in France this was the bien communal, in Spain and Latin America, the ejido; and in the Netherlands Markengenootschap.

In Europe, an „absolute ownership“ of land was only possible post-Renaissance, with the introduction of Roman law. The transfer of community-owned properties to state or private ownership sparked fierce opposition and was one of the triggers for the German Peasants‘ War between 1524-1526. In Prussia, the commons were privatized over the course of the so-called peasant liberation of 1806-1816. As a consequence, the landless small-property people in the countryside became – without any succsess to any common land for their cows – a class of hungry. They began the (often futile) search for decent work, wandering and soon becoming a burden for the urban social help systems .

Today approximately 4% of England’s total land area are considered commons. In 1945 in London, each city district was apportioned a commonwealth of their own. Today, these are mainly parks where city residents can exercise and get fresh air, but they also include some children’s farms and community gardens. In the Alps, many common meadows, Alm or Almen Almen are still held in communal ownership by residents of the town – to great extent in the Swiss Alps, especially, but also in Austria and Bavaria.

The names of city parks – like the Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts – evokes the memory of the town grazing pasture, when most Bostonians were still a farming community. In 1919, following the first World War, the Imperial Garden and Settlement Regulation (German: Reichs-Kleingarten- und Siedlungsverordnung), and later the relevant law, guaranteed that an allotment garden be made available to each and every resident of German towns that needed it, in order to feed themselves with the food they produced there. Municipalities were required to set aside a certain portion of land, ensuring that there were always suitable plots available for these garden parcels. The fundamental right to an allotment garden for everyone was removed from the Federal Allotment Garden Law in the 1980s, when the law was weakened as a result of interventions from the construction industry.

Today, the social global movement for community gardens and urban agriculture provides a new perspective to this debate, with their urge to „reclaim the commons.“ This new social movement emerged probably in conjunction with and resistance to the explosion of „landgrabbing“ worldwide in the last decades: a process through which land previously held in common was privatized by investors whose interests lay more in profit than in the cultivation of the land.

The Allmende-Kontor project on the Tempelhofer former airport field, with this specifically chosen name, is meant as a reminder how necessary it is in large cities like Berlin to maintain plots for growing food – including in the inner city – and perhaps even more so in times of an increasingly instable economy. The gardens provide an opportunity for meaningful engagement and activity for unemployed persons and forcibly idle people, such as asylum seekers. Growing food in a community garden serves as practical environmental education, especially in reflecting on and developing healthy eating habits. As physical activity fundamentally connected to the senses, this reappropriation of the commons brings pleasure in the beauty of nature. The gardening commons-movement serves to positively and undramatically support inclusion of non-native German speakers, the prevention of social breakdown in marginalized city neighborhoods, and, with that, the preservation of social peace.

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