Just a couple of kilometres north of Bremen’s city centre in north-west Germany, on the banks of the Weser, an unusual sustainability project is under way. Spread over just 8,000 sq. m, Gemüsewerft is an enclosed yard filled with raised beds made of hundreds of plastic crates and pallets, almost all of them overflowing with plants. It was a cold day in April but the scent of herbs, vegetables and assorted greenery hung in the air. One of the more innovative and novel experiments in urban farming, the yard also has a section for growing hops, used to make the beer next door.
Once a busy industrial area, the dockside neighbourhood of Überseestadt had gone to seed until a regeneration project, launched two decades ago, slowly pumped life back into it. Concrete structures and building sites still dot the nearly 300-hectare area but terms such as modernity, sustainability and community are used to describe it. It pulsates with a quiet energy. And it’s a project Bremen is incredibly proud of.
The yard and the surrounding area are a far cry from Bremen’s claim to fame. For the city, spread on both sides of the Weser river, gives you the feel of stepping back in time. It is a city of sprawling gardens and water bodies, with the occasional giant windmill converted into a chic restaurant. But the fulcrum is clearly the Marktplatz, or Market Square, an expansive oblong open area surrounded by Hanseatic buildings that are predominantly Gothic and Renaissance in style.
The focal point is the city hall, in a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles (originally built in the 13th century and added to later). As striking as the building is, it is fronted by a towering Roland statue, a stone knight symbol that is rooted in medieval history but represents freedom. Both are Unesco World Heritage sites. At the other end of the square, St Peter’s Cathedral dominates the skyline with its elaborately sculpted facade and giant double spires. The vaulted ceilings, medieval crypts, even some mummies, within lend it an air of mystery.
But the most endearing aspect of Bremen, and something it has adopted as its symbol, stands outside the church. Called the Town Musicians of Bremen, the statue depicts four animals, each standing on top of the other—a donkey, dog, cat and rooster. It was inspired by a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that tells the story of four ageing domestic animals who overhear their owner, a farmer, saying he plans to kill them. So they run away to Bremen and become town musicians. The sculpture, in bronze, has been rubbed to a shiny sheen by tourists who consider it a lucky charm and believe this would ensure they visit the city again.
Bremen’s conscious effort to take the road to sustainability catches my attention. Much of the old town is vehicle-free; for those who prefer a vehicle, an electric-powered road train—Town Musicians Express—ferries visitors to the main sights. There are cyclists everywhere and row boats can be rented to ply on some water bodies. A series of zero-waste shops stock everything.
Amidst shiny towering buildings and construction sites, Gemüsewerft (literally vegetable yard) not only holds its own but seems perfect in the setting. Strolling between the beds, founder Michael Scheer points to the different herbs, vegetables, fruits and other plants, explaining their philosophy: Gemüsewerft combines urban food production and social service (it employs people challenged in various ways; Gemüsewerft offers dignity and a safe space to work). “It combines economic and urban sustainability,” he adds. Their website explains that it “promotes food skills with regard to cultivation methods, cultivation techniques and diversity of varieties. It imparts knowledge about the harvest, processing and preparation of food, illustrates the effort involved in the production process and promotes the seasonal consumption of regional food”.
Scheer says the yard produces 75 kinds of organic produce—herbs, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, zucchini, etc.—that is supplied to restaurants and cafés in Bremen. Any excess produce is publicised on social media and immediately picked up by the local community.
In fact, the community has been an integral part of the yard. “When our first hops crop was ready, we wondered how to harvest. On a whim, we put out a post on our social media handles, asking for volunteers in exchange for beer,” he recalls. More than 300 people responded. Over six years, it has become a tradition.
Scheer insists that projects like Gemüsewerft are the way forward to tackle issues such as ecology, food sustainability and self-sufficiency, arguing that food production in urban areas can help redefine regional and seasonal food production and consumption.
The Bremer Braumanufaktur, a small-batch brewery that shares a wall with the Gemüsewerft, takes the concept of hyperlocal a step further. Markus Freybler, who brews a range of craft beers, from dark to pale ale, jokes that he wanted a set-up where the hops could be thrown over the fence directly into the machine. “We call it catcher in the hops,” he remarks, riffing on the title of J.D. Salinger’s famous novel. After the visit to the vegetable yard, Freybler leads a tasting of his beers, including the Übersee Ale, which uses hops from next door. It has a distinct citrusy smell and tingles on the tongue.
For me, the most touching and endearing things were the bookmarks prepared by Bremen Tourism: Two thin strips of handmade paper sandwiched with assorted seeds of the city’s flowers that could be buried whole. I imagined bits of Bremen sprouting all over the world. Surely there can’t be a better way to sustain the memory of a city.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.