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  • Writer's pictureAnna

Meet the tree square: hell strip and micro-garden in one

Where I grew up in America, the default mode of urban planning was a single-family house, surrounded by a green square of lawn. Between the lawn and the street there is usually another area, bisected by the sidewalk. It's not grey in color, but it is something of a grey area.

Because the sidewalk and the street are the responsibility of local government, some people assume the bit between them belongs to the local government as well. At the same time, because this parcel of land is directly in front of their house, some homeowners assume it belongs to them. No one ever seems to know for sure.

What tends to to happen is that these areas become a kind of no-man's land. They are where people drop litter, leave their cigarette butts, bottle caps and dog feces. In winter, the salt that is poured onto the streets washes up on these shores. In summer, the sun scorches anything trying to stay alive. Such extreme exposure is the reason these pieces of land between the street and the sidewalk are only half-jokingly referred to as “hell strips”.

But here’s the thing. They are mostly known as hell strips to those people who try to turn them into green spaces; usually by gardening the hell out of them, in both senses of the word.

I wanted to know if the hell strips of America were something singular, or if there was an equivalent in Germany. This led me to a research project on the tree squares* of Berlin.

I discovered that tree squares are the equivalent of hell strips in the sense that they are used as a dog toilet/bicycle parking lot/ashtray. But there are also a few key differences. One is that the tree squares of Berlin often become extensions of commercial real estate, as outdoor seating for cafes and convenience stores. Another is that they are used as micro-gardens, including for therapeutic and educational purposes by social organisations. Finally, tree squares seem to lend themselves to personal art projects in a way that hell strips don't... maybe because the square suggests a frame? See examples of each below:

I'm currently at work on a toolkit for tree squares, with the intention of helping more people to make use of them as free urban gardens. Stay tuned!

* Note: "Tree square" is my own translation. In German, this area around the base of a city tree is called Baumscheibe. It's a confusing term, however, both because it is the same word as the cross-section of a tree trunk and also because it suggests something round and disc-like. The Baumscheibe is almost always square in shape, echoing the endless blocks and boxes that make up the geometry of the modern city. I like “tree square” because it conveys a more accurate picture.

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