Written by Hannah Roehlen
Once a week I replace my regular office clothes by wellies and a garden apron. I usually work for the Bamberg World Heritage Office (German: Zentrum Welterbe Bamberg), the central coordination body for all issues concerning the World Heritage Site “Town of Bamberg”. The town in southern Germany was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1993 due to its unique representation of a central European town built on an early medieval layout and is comprised of three historic city districts – the City on the Hills, the Island District and the Market Gardner’s District. Our daily work at the office consists of multifaceted activities to protect the outstanding universal value of Bamberg – the draft of a new management plan and the development of awareness raising campaigns are only a few of our tasks. On Tuesdays, however, my after-hours stroll takes me away from the well-known landmarks of medieval Bamberg towards the Bamberg Heritage Garden (German: Bamberger Sortengarten).
Surrounded by historic gardeners’ houses, the Heritage Garden is situated in the very heart of Bamberg’s Market Gardener’s District. It forms one of numerous unique urban gardening areas used to cultivate local produce like potatoes, savoy cabbage, onions and licorice. Since the middle ages, the tradition of urban gardening has played an important economic and cultural role in Bamberg. Back then, more than 500 market gardeners families earned their money with local produce, their gardens even being marked in the oldest existing town plan from 1602.
In recent years, however, this urban gardening tradition has experienced a variety of developmental pressures that significantly threaten its existence. The cultivation of gardens within the historic district is time-consuming and cumbersome: Due to the layout of the fields modern machines cannot be used. Instead, cultivation and harvesting has to be done by hand. At the same time, promising building plots within the city center, such as the historic gardening areas, are highly sought after. As a consequence, large parts of the sensitive areas have lost their initial use, lie idle or are eyed as building plots and with the loss of these urban gardens, the traditional knowledge of cultivating local produce is endangered to disappear as well.
This issue troubled not only the Bamberg World Heritage Office, but also many locals. Thus, in 2011 the coordination body, supported by many volunteers, decided to take action. They started to recultivate one of the unused fields of the Market Gardener’s District into a flourishing show garden - the Bamberg Heritage Garden. The aim of the project was to preserve parts of the unique inner-city lands as an integral part of the World Heritage site by actively communicating the typical gardener’s culture to Bamberg’s local population, as well as by cultivating exceptional, nearly extinct local produce. Guided by local market gardeners, volunteers and schoolchildren dug up the soil in hours-long handiwork. They pulled up weeds, prepared vegetable patches and planted seeds until finally the garden bloomed in different shades of green again. In 2012 the plot, now home of more than 30 different local plants, was opened to the public. Different types of local potatoes, beans, onions or cabbages line up in row after row, displaying the wide local variety of plants in Bamberg. Amongst those local plants the so called ‘Bamberger birnförmige Zwiebel’ – the pear-shaped onion – forms the undisputable highlight of the garden, as it was nearly extinct prior to the project.
Today, five years after the first plant started growing, the Bamberg Heritage Garden has proven to be a great success. To maintain the garden volunteers, me amongst them, meet once or twice a week. Some of us are experienced gardeners. Most, however, are laymen with a passion for flowers, handiwork or traditional gardening. Our experience with vegetables is confined to weekly encounters at the supermarket. Working in the Heritage Garden therefore offers the rewarding and valuable experience to come into contact with local produce in its natural habitat. Guided by local gardeners, we learn how to seed plants, we are taught when and how plants are harvested, we study how to fight vermines and are able to follow the small seeds growing into huge plants.
Of course, there are drawbacks at times: sometimes the sun is shining so hard that we can’t stand the heat and the work in the garden becomes nearly unbearable. Other times it is raining cats and dogs and the earth turns into mud. And sometimes it happens that the carefully looked after plants don’t develop as planned. But all of this is made up for by this one magical moment, when, after hours and hours of work, we finally harvest our own, self-grown vegetables. It is exactly this rewarding feeling, mixed with the knowledge that by volunteering at the Bamberg Heritage Garden we are provided with the rare chance to gain insights into a century’s old tradition and contribute our part in cultivating and preserving the historical land that inspires us each week anew. And while there are still numerous unused garden plots, our work has already succeeded in reawakening the locals’ interest in these old horticultural traditions and will hopefully continue to do so for many more years to come.
If you are interested to learn more about the Bamberg Heritage Garden or other projects initiated by the Bamberg World Heritage Office, take a look at the following websites and facebook profiles:
Written by Rui Maio
African vernacular architecture is an inspiring one-man project conceived by architect Jon Sojkowski, who saw a great opportunity of increasing awareness and attention to African vernacular architecture by taking advantage of the current communication technologies. These vernacular structures have been erected with local materials for many generations, being therefore a significant part of Africa’s cultural heritage. However, this massive heritage needs to be catalogued so that it can be internationally recognised, cherished and valued. Unfortunately, many negative connotations have been labeled to African vernacular architecture for its alleged temporary nature, substandard comfort conditions and old-fashioned-style. According to this project’s mentor, these connotations are far from reality. When interviewed by the YHE, he clarified: ‘I lived in a mud hut for 2 years and found my home to be quite comfortable. These villages and homesteads are not cultural monuments that need preserving, they are a way of life for the majority of people living in Africa. What needs to be preserved is an individual's belief in vernacular architecture’. From his field research and experience in Malawi and Zambia, he found out that people desire metal roofs and burnt bricks (as used in western constructions) that are often perceived as permanent, modern and a symbol of wealth. The lack of knowledge and awareness on the potential of vernacular structures was identified as the main cause for the abandonment of these ancient construction techniques and local materials.
Based on this framework, Jon Sojkowski decided to take action and build the African Vernacular Architecture database, a unique online source containing images from every African country. First, he started in 1997 as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Zambia where he had the opportunity to travel the entire country to document vernacular structures. More recently, in August 2014, he traveled to Swaziland with no budget for transportation to document those vernacular structures. In September 2014, he traveled to Malawi where he visited and documented over 300 villages and homesteads and interviewed several home owners.
When asked about the role of youth for the success of these types of projects, such as the African Vernacular Architecture database, he promptly answered: ‘It has been repeated many times that the youth brings a fresh energy, a new way of looking at things. But to be completely honest, what has the old guard (existing system) done for the documentation of African vernacular architecture? The answer is not much. There is no organisation dedicated to vernacular heritage documentation. No school of Architecture in Africa has any database or catalog of their own vernacular heritage. In this day and age of technology this seems pretty hard to believe. Thus, the youth engagement has been crucial for documenting this forgotten heritage’!
African Vernacular Architecture database has been growing thanks to extremely motivated people and volunteers that have been submitting their own pictures of African vernacular architecture. One of the most recent examples was Elao Martin, a student of architecture and member of the YHE, who has contributed to this database by collecting and submitting his personal photos about the Namibian vernacular constructions to the African Vernacular Architecture database. Hence, if you share the same passion for African vernacular architecture as Jon, you can also contribute for this project by submitting your photos on African vernacular architecture to firstname.lastname@example.org. Plus, you don’t need to worry about copyright issues, because you will naturally receive the full credit on your photos!