Until the 18th century parks were planned as places of out-of-town excursion. Due to growing urban zones, parks increasingly became recreation zones in the midst of the “urban jungle,” while the idea of a “national park” – since the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 – fostered an understanding of intact nature as deserving protection. Since then, nature itself has become part of civilization’s self-understanding. In parks, nature becomes culturally shaped or, vice versa, nature withdraws from cultivation. Thus, parks may be conceived of as urban civilization’s experiment in redefining its own borders – on the one hand by preserving open space in contrast to the street canyons, and on the other by refiguring nature for the purposes of an urbanized society. Hence, these two very possibilities clearly indicate an entanglement of cultural forms in the process and organic vividness of nature that historically took shape in French and English gardens, in Baroque sculptural gardening as opposed to Romantic landscape gardening. Even in Romanticism, one finds the various ideas about how gardening should be done act as reflections of symbolic or political orders, which also reflect, as in Goethe’s famous novel The Elective Affinities Die Wahlverwandtschaften, gardening as paradigm of the symbolic in general.
Today, rapid changes in urban spaces, not only in developing cities of the Global South, highlight the conflict between housing requirements, real estate prices and the need to preserve green spaces. It is not particularly surprising, therefore, to see how parks, gardens and other green spaces undergo rapid and profound transformation, reevaluation and functional change. Former no-mans-land areas, such as the Berlin Wall, the “buffer zones” of residential segregation in colonial and apartheid cities of the Global South, or the extant urban parks and remaining “urban wilds”, are discovered, contested and appropriated by conflicting groups and interests: by urban poor squatters and real-estate developers on the one side, who want to transform such areas into built environments, and by environmentalists and urban farmers on the other, who express the need for functional or recreational green spaces. In times of climate change and an increasing awareness of global environmental problems, such political activists have discovered the symbolic value of trees in urban areas.
Meanwhile, there is a growing interest in the use of urban agriculture, as recreational and educational activity and as a means to enhance and make sustainable the biodiversity in the cities of the Global North, and as a way to address food insecurity and poverty in the Global South. Furthermore, environmentally sound and carbonefficient cities are central visions in urban planning scenarios. Taking into account the different functions, planning scenarios and the refiguration of parks in urban space and the planning of urbanization, global urban parks appear sometimes as “open space,” sometimes as reflections of symbolic orders, and sometimes as catalysts of social tensions.
With these diagnoses in mind, we propose a series of workshops whose major aim is threefold:
• To provide, in the light of current developments and occurrences, an overview of the contestations of urban green spaces incorporating dichotomies such as private/public (as in the case of mass protests against the privatization of public parks for construction purposes); inclusive/exclusive (as in the case of the buffer zones in colonial urban planning); economy-driven/ecology-driven (as in the Uhuru Park example, where the demonstrators appropriated the urban green space the removal of which they stood against as a protest location).
• To develop a conceptual matrix that helps clarify the multifarious uses and appropriations of urban green space: for communally horticultural, recreational, educational, and heritage-specific purposes, but also, and increasingly, for housing/squatting and agricultural use. This explicitly includes a semantic, and thus language(s)-specific approach, covering word-fields and grasping the differing meanings for various urban green “reclaimer actors”.
• To draw on the imaginative potential of parks as a threshold between urban and rural space. As an “incision” within urban cultivation, parks cannot exclusively be conceived either as a realization of cultural topographies or as giving a more or less temporary shape to nature’s forms and their dynamic movements. At the same time, parks cannot be conceived as an “anti-civilized” and in this respect, utopian, spaces of “blank” nature. To figure parks as implementations of urban design within nature’s cycles, rather, opens up a space of political imaginations: a civilized urban space that may liberate from urban manifestations of cultural and political power (e.g. the English style of gardening; parks as public buffer zones); but also showing a “politics of nature” that presents nature’s forms within the context of cultural meaning, and therefore manifests cultural ideas without the impact of architectural monuments that leave their marks in people’s lives. This also includes an understanding of parks as latent cultural memory (e.g. the Grüngürtel in Cologne with its landscape formed by the mountains of rubble after World War II).