Author interview – Marit Rosol speaks about 'Community volunteering as neo-liberal strategy? Green space production in Berlin'

Here we catch up with Marit Rosol, lecturer in the Department of Human Geography at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt / Main, and discuss her new paper, ‘Community volunteering as neo-liberal strategy? Green space production in Berlin‘, which will be appearing in Antipode 44(1) / January 2012.

Hi Marit, and thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Let’s start with an easy question: Why did you decide to write ‘Community volunteering…’?

For my PhD dissertation I investigated the development of a new form of public space in Berlin, Germany, in which a group of people work collaboratively and voluntarily for the creation of a publicly accessible open green space in the city. This new form I called community gardening – in reference to experiences in North America and elsewhere. As well as an in-depth analysis of the functioning of these gardens and the motivations of the involved residents, I was especially interested in what these new experiences tell us about the changing role of the local state in the provision of local services like public parks. Thus, after presenting community gardening as a new way of creating public green spaces in my dissertation, I wanted to focus exactly on what these experiences tell us about “neoliberalisation on the ground”. Antipode, as a journal of radical geography, seemed to be the natural home for such research.

What’s the central concern of the paper, and why is it important?

In my paper I try to bring together a critique of current state transformation with a very contradictory and complex topic: community gardens. Community gardening is characterised on the one hand by its grassroots origins and its many benefits (ecological, social, economic – even political) and on the other by its potential new role as a resource for cushioning the outsourcing of former (local) state responsibilities in neoliberalising cities. Whereas other authors concerned with community gardens and neoliberalism identify the process of selling garden lots for profit as a neoliberal privatisation strategy (as in the New York case, for example), I discuss the use of gardens and the voluntary labour of gardeners as a form of neoliberalisation of urban governance. In doing so I wanted to introduce a critical voice into the general community gardening literature – which tends to focus exclusively on its benefits and be too defensive – and argue for a careful evaluation of those experiences in the light of current state-society transformation processes.

What is it that draws you, personally, intellectually and/or politically, to this topic?

I think we need attentiveness to and a grounded critique of the potential of neoliberal thought and practice to absorb and transform emancipatory experiences and achievements. This is especially important in cases that do not seem to cause any harm at first glance, in which the conflict is not as self-evident as in others (like, for example, homelessness, labour rights, gentrification, etc.). Community gardens are such a case. Besides, I am drawn to community gardens as a topic because of the great heterogeneity of people who are connected to it and the myriad questions which can be raised in relation to it. They are a great topic to study empirically.

How does your paper relate to current affairs and matters of concern?

I believe that our critique of neoliberalism is still urgent and important, despite the growing loss of its legitimacy in the course of the financial / economic crisis since 2008. Like Jamie Peck, for example, I would argue that there is still a neoliberal hegemony, which we have to confront. I think special attention is needed towards its apparently “soft” versions that work through our own aspirations and our commitments to others.

And now for a tricky question: What are your paper’s implications for praxis? How might the knowledge you have generated help change or shape the world in progressive ways?

I think it’s always useful for activists to have a good understanding of the general societal context in which they act and voice their claims. So if, for example, the Berlin government now encourages more “voluntary engagement” of citizens and communities in public green space provision, activists can strategically use this discourse of voluntary engagement to strengthen their claims for self-determined open green spaces – something they have for decades been struggling for. However, I would suggest that it is necessary to critically engage with the basic ideas and concepts that inform this new interest in urban green space creation by citizens in order to “change the world in progressive ways” like your question suggests. I believe academics can show solidarity by critically accompanying activists’ struggles, by providing space for such reflections and by pointing out potential pitfalls.

What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote the piece? And what sort of reaction do you hope it will get?

Generally, I wanted to present the Berlin experience to an international audience; I wanted to address people who are interested in community gardening as well as those interested in the neoliberalisation of cities – both academics and (community garden) activists – and possibly encourage a dialogue between them. I am hoping to connect and exchange ideas with other scholars who work on a similar topic (something which is actually already happening after the publication of the article on Early View, which is great!). Beyond academia, I hope to encourage critical reflections on collective service provision through volunteering, both on side of the volunteers as well as municipalities. This is something that won’t happen just because of the article but via other channels like presentations and discussions for/with non-academic audiences or through my teaching.

What’s your current work all about? And what’s next?

As I suggest towards the end of the paper, of urgent concern are new logics of government which are also shown in community participation in urban governance. With the help of the Foucauldian governmentality approach I’m currently trying to trace and criticise those tendencies based on case studies of (urban planning) participation processes in Vancouver, Canada. Also I am still interested in the progressive potential, as well as the problems, of community gardening experiences worldwide. In cooperation with other scholars I am planning to investigate in more detail experiences from Israel and Switzerland, for example.

Thanks again for talking with us, Marit, and good luck with what sounds like an exciting project!