A Walk in the Park

Laura Lukitsch on capturing the essence of Berlin’s green space with Park Project Berlin

Erika Clugston and Cathy Bijur Mario Heller

Everyone in Berlin has allegiance to a certain park – whether it’s the Tempelhofer Feld fan or the Grünewald enthusiast, it seems like everyone has an opinion. These green oases smattered throughout the cityscape each have individual personality and bring life to the urban space they occupy. Laura Lukitsch, creator of Park Project Berlin, has captured the intimate moments, lasting impressions, and hidden histories that keep Berlin residents so drawn to its parks.

One of the most striking things about Berlin is the sheer volume of green woven into its often grey backdrop. The city’s public spaces fill a lot of different roles for its residents – a venue to gather in, a spot for relaxation, one for contemplation, or the perfect place to exercise. And just like the way each park is used differs for every individual, so too do the characteristics and personalities of each park.

Shortly after arriving in Berlin, Laura was looking for a new project to ground her during her early days in a new city. She was inspired by the mountain of parks and green spaces the city has to offer, so she began exploring and documenting. Laura became the founder of Park Project Berlin, a virtual museum of parks and public spaces. She mapped out stories and compiled video and audio documentation of parks across the city. In her words, each exploration has produced a portrait of the space, capturing the individual moments she spent in each park and providing brief glimpses at the people she found there. We spoke with Laura, spokesperson for the often silent stories that our parks can tell us, about her project and what she discovered about green spaces in Berlin.

Tell us a little bit about Park Project Berlin. What inspired you to start the project?
I was new to Berlin and lonely, so I started looking for a creative project that I could do regularly. As I was getting to know the city on foot and by bike, I saw the parks and got this feeling that each one had its own unique personality. Some were overgrown, others were full of wooden play structures for kids, and others were just pockets of grass and benches.

Coming from San Francisco where they were just tearing up parks and installing these generic, warped metal structures that seemed to all come from the same manufacturer, I loved the originality and homegrown feel of the parks. I learned that the parks were far from homegrown, but that feeling sparked my initial curiosity – that and having a project that would get me outside and give me a reason to explore the city.

I call Park Project Berlin a virtual museum of Berlin’s parks. I set out to go to parks every week for a year to collect footage and conversations. The website contains both the videos that resulted from this research, and a series of essays I wrote about what I learned and saw.

What makes Berlin’s parks so unique?
The sheer number of parks is amazing. There are over 2,500 parks in Berlin, and the personality of each park is so different. On top of that, almost 46% of Berlin is covered in parks or water. Recently, I’ve been interested in how the history of Berlin has made its imprint on parks and public spaces. What stories are being told through markers in public space and what stories are left untold? Or how female figures are represented differently in the former east, versus former west Berlin, seen in the number of women memorialised in figure-form in public space. Taking a year to explore the parks in a somewhat systematic fashion has led to many interesting questions and observations.

When did you come to Berlin and what brought you here?
I came to Berlin in September 2016. When I was younger I lived in Japan and India, so I had already experienced living outside of my comfort zone and felt the growth that comes from those experiences. When I came to Berlin, I had lived in San Francisco for over 15 years and I felt that I needed change and a new perspective. One of my first short documentaries was on a dancer who lived part of the year in San Francisco and part of the year in Berlin. I got the sense that Berlin was a great place for artists and I wanted to live in a place where I could focus on video as an art form and explore new ideas, so it immediately came to mind.

I saw the parks and got this feeling that each one had its own unique personality.

How many parks have you filmed so far?
I don’t know the exact number, but I have 42 videos online and another 20 videos in progress. I think I’ve filmed over 40. Sometimes I would go to multiple parks in one outing and sometimes I returned to the same park several times.

Many of your films dive into themes connected with the park’s history. How do you go about collecting the stories and research?
I talk to friends, read sites like Wikipedia and the Berlin Senate (Berlin.de), go to museums like the Märkisches Museum and the Spandauer Citadel, attend exhibitions, read plaques in the parks themselves, or attend guided tours. When I find a subject of particular interest, I dig deeper.

For my research on female figures in public space, I visited a site called Berlin Ehrt Persönlichkeiten, or Berlin Honors Personalities, which is a database of 6806 names of people recognized in Berlin through awards, streets or parks named after them, or statues erected in their honor. Of over 6,000 people recognized, only 559 were women. Only five had a statue. So you rarely get a glimpse of an important woman in public space.

Basically, this project took over a year of my life. The videos themselves show just a few moments and a few of the key learnings I uncovered. I wanted them to inspire viewers to make their own journey to discover the parks and the history that surrounds them.

How do you approach each park in the process of creating the films?
I wanted to film at least one park in each district of Berlin. Often I choose a park based on recommendations. Sometimes I choose a park based on its name – like Lilienthal, which I thought was a woman’s name at first. Sometimes I choose based on the shape I see on Google maps, as was the case with the string of parks that snake through Neukӧlln, or from the remoteness of a park, like with Jelena-Santic-Friedens Park in Marzahn.

Sometimes I do research before going to film, and other times I want to capture the experience of the park, so I do research later. I challenged myself to shoot still shots, which forced me to concentrate on framing and finding motion or inaction within the frame.

I also wanted to bike to each park. Biking helps me get in a good state of mind for filming. I need to be open to capture what I am seeing and feeling, what captures my interest. In State Park Lichtenberg I kept noticing bright orange BSR bins and tried to avoid them. Then I realized that they were part of the character of the park, so I kept them in the frame.

Have there been particularly memorable or surprising moments while filming?
I had been hoping to film wild boar in the forests of Berlin. I even went so far as to attend a night walk with the Forest School in Grünewald, since the description of the walk mentioned it was possible to encounter them. One evening in September as I was biking to Teufelsberg and I got my wish quite unexpectedly. I was on a quiet street lined with an apartment complex on one side and a small building on the opposite side. Suddenly, a group of wild boars came charging down the hill, and I had to jump out of the way to avoid them. It was a family of two adults and two young boars running from one small park to another down the way.

That was amazing. I’ve had many memorable encounters with wildlife in the city. In Tiergarten I was at a lecture and saw a family of foxes hanging out in front of the window. And in May I love hearing the mating calls of nightingales. Being in a city and still being so connected to nature is an amazing feeling.

I think parks can provide so many benefits if they are open, accessible, and cared for by the city and its residents.

Why are city parks and public spaces so important? What do you think their role is?
That is a big question, and one I don’t feel particularly qualified to answer. But for me personally, I think parks provide valuable places for kids to play, for adults to unwind. It is good to keep in close contact with nature, to have spaces to interact with strangers where we can feel like part of a wider community. The forests provide places for us to be in contact with trees and for those trees to provide protection to the city, as they remove pollutants and filter our air.

I was in Mexico City recently. There they are adding parks in the poorer neighbourhoods around the city in the spaces in between the highways and roadways. I thought they would feel like toxic spaces, being in such proximity to motor exhaust, yet people were enjoying these parks. I went and filmed a group of people playing soccer and a family out with their young daughter, who ran with delight. You could see lots of couples enjoying a stroll. I think parks can provide so many benefits if they are open, accessible, and cared for by the city and its residents.

How has doing the Park Project changed your perspective on the city’s parks?
When I started this project I was more interested in biking through the parks to get exercise. I loved the variety of scenery in the parks, but I never spent time relaxing in them. After filming baths in several of the forests of Berlin, I came to appreciate the time spent just being in parks. I visited San Francisco recently and went hiking with friends who just wanted to just get to the other side of the hike. I suggested that we just sit for a while and take savasana in the park. I like the revitalization that you get if you slow down and don’t just rush through an experience.

Do you have a favorite park in Berlin?
I have many favorite parks. I’d include Peacock Island, Charlottenburg Schloss, Sudeglande and the waterways in Tiergarten on the list. It also depends on where I am and what is nearby. My favorite thing to do is still discovering new parks.

What other projects are you currently working on?
I recently released my documentary, ‘Beard Club’, about the social politics of facial hair. I also just completed an interview series with performers in Marseille called ‘When Nobody’s Watching’.

In Mexico City I plan to complete additional filming for my documentary project, ‘Mind the Gap’, about the unspoken politics of urban transportation. And this year I plan to start a book about curation, where I interview 100 curators about the challenges of bringing new voices to the public and the process of creating dialogue.

To view footage from Park Project Berlin you can explore the project website, Laura’s YouTube channel, or visit her website for a complete overview of her work.