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The Sustainable Economy Forum in Berlin: a city of opportunities

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This article is part of an online series about the experiences of the Sustainable Economy Forum during their trip to Berlin, 4–8 November 2012.

The group set out to Berlin to find out about grassroots phenomena. What is all the buzz about in the city?

We meet up at the office of urban activist Michael LaFond, who established the Institute for Creative Sustainability (ID22). The “office” is a good example of the bustling activity of Berlin: it is a freight container furnished with second-hand furniture from a flea market and located on a riverside wasteland.

The yard has a site for a camp-fire and there is an allotment next to it. The office is a Freiraum, a space open for all, the kind of which are still frequently found in Berlin. The container is used for discussion, training and cultural events as well as for planning future publications. Sometimes people just sit around the fire with residents of the neighbourhood. All this aims to promote sustainable and participatory urban development.

LaFond takes us on a tour of communal spaces nearby. The first of these is the Spreeacker house, currently under construction. It is being built by a cooperative, the members of which – the future users of the house – are actively engaged in its design. Spreeacker will become a passive house with communal spaces that are freely usable in addition to apartments and workspaces. The banner of the anarchist cultural space and the oldest claimed building in Berlin, the Köpi-Squat, advertises solidarity and anarchy to passers-by.

The refugee camp is Oranienplatz is a sobering sight. The camp is a large tent village in the centre of Berlin located on a busy bar street. The tents are homes to refugees waiting for an asylum decision. The village is a protest against turning back refugees and it is run by Berliner volunteers. Surprisingly, the mayor of the district has expressed his support for the camp. Our tour ends at Prinzessinnengärten, a large urban garden, where dozens of Berliners are now growing their own food on a former parking lot.

At the same time, other forum groups are acquainting themselves with the planned Spreeblüte local currency, the mass funding platform of cultural projects Inkubato and a social enterprise established by immigrant women, the Weltküche restaurant. Why is Berlin buzzing with activity?

In support of counterculture

“Berlin is a city of opportunities,” says Michael LaFond. The opportunities are largely created by the fact that as a result of its history Berlin is full of empty spaces. The population of the city has decreased by one million since the end of the Second World War. An abundant supply of residences and affordable rents have attracted many artists and activists of various kinds who have shaped Berlin into a very multicultural city. The creative atmosphere has also turned Berlin into the start-up centre of Germany.

However, gentrification and rising rents are a constant threat to Berlin’s creative free spaces and the city has increasingly started to catch the eye of investors. “During an uncertain economic situation, investors prefer to invest in real estate instead of the more vulnerable securities trading,” says LaFond.

Regardless, the Berliners’ resistance remains firm. Almost all the spaces that we saw during our tour have been under the threat of eviction at one time or another but the stiff defensive stand of Berliners has so far been effective, according to LaFond: “The City of Berlin has been fairly sympathetic towards cultural activists. It has understood that voluntary cultural activities are a part of Berlin’s charm that attracts large numbers of tourists and new residents.”

Previously, the city sold its land to the highest bidder but now one of the sales criteria is quality. If a buyer plans to use the plot in a socially and ecologically sustainable way, they are preferred to other potential buyers.

So, what, according to Michael LaFond, is the uniting factor in the field of active counterculture in Berlin? “Diversity, the fact that anyone can join in. Free spaces are important because they enable alternative ways of living. You don’t have to act as capital markets expect you to. You need an economy which people can understand.”

Read here what the forum learned about social solidarity economy.

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