Interview with Karl Linn: Community Gardens: Reclaiming a Commons

I first met Karl Linn at a symposium in Oakland in September of 2000. Ivan Illich and several of his friends, at the request of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, had come to town to discuss questions of place, the commons and what approaches to the civic environment might help engender well-being. It wasn’t long before I realized I was among a group of people who had spent decades trying to learn and understand basic principles which could lead to enlightened public planning and urban development.

In the audience on several occasions, I had noticed Linn, a quiet man short of stature, but radiating a noticeable physical presence. He seemed to be old friends with Illich and his circle. As the evening programs continued it became clear that many of those presenting papers or leading discussions had strong connections with Penn State University and the University of Pennsylvania. They had taught there, as Illich had, or were still faculty members as were Joseph Rykwert and Terrance Galvin, both architects. Linn, it turned out, had also taught at the University of Pennsylvania where one of his close friends had been the architect Louis Kahn. 
     Sometime after the symposium, Karl Linn came up in a conversation I was having with Terrance Galvin, with whom I’d become acquainted during the symposium. I learned that Linn was born in Germany, had fled the Nazis and had established careers both in child psychiatry and landscape architecture. In fact, Linn combined his understandings of psychological health, civic health and communal gardens (the last remaining element of public commons) into an integrated approach to the social good. Over the years Linn was responsible for the establishment of many such gardens, especially in neighborhoods thought to be beyond help. He knew from firsthand experience the potential that creating and maintaining a communal garden has for building relationships among neighbors and promoting conviviality. 
     For many years, Linn had been active in Berkeley civic life. One of his accomplishments was to convince the Berkeley planners to turn over a piece of land next to a BART tunnel for the establishment of a communal garden, where it still exists—The Carl Linn Peralta Community Garden. 
That’s where Linn and I sat and talked, surrounded by flowers and tomatoes and corn and other vegetables on a beautiful, mild spring day. The sounds of birds mixed in with the regular rumble and whine of the passing BART trains…

Richard Whittaker:  How do you see yourself today in terms of your vocation?

Karl Linn:  I try, really, to contribute to the building of community among people. One description is getting strangers, who are living next to each other, to know one another as neighbors. That’s the most essential motivating thought that leads me to do what I am doing. You could call me a community organizer. I focus on a particular segment of the population, mainly the urban neighborhood, at least right now.
I think of a neighborhood block as something of a unit. A certain street pattern repeats itself in cities, the neighborhood block. Within this block I hope to encourage a new kind of extended family living not based on blood relationship, but on neighborliness, and on intergenerational support. Teen-agers, for instance, can play a more significant role in neighborhood leadership because they have all this energy. So if one can develop these basic social units on a grass roots level, people would get to know one another; people will have a voice. It can contribute to the nurturing of democracy.
In order for this to happen I use a few strategies. One is to make a place available, a public place that’s in the midst of neighborhood territory, not necessarily a park—I call it a neighborhood commons—so that people can meet each other casually. They can even meet each other in the morning hours. If you want to continue with your conversation of last night, you want to meet again the next day. In the past, the sidewalk and the street made this casual continuity possible. But today the vehicular traffic is more dangerous, and there’s the pollution of it. So people build fences and put their porches on the back of the building, not in front as they used to. Consequently to find and establish a place like this, which is a commons, makes it possible for neighbors to meet one another face to face.
It’s important to secure land that is accessible, not only to middle-aged adults, but to senior citizens, babies, pregnant women, to people with special needs—to everybody. It has to be accessible.
Then another dimension is how do you secure that land? If every piece of land is occupied, even with affordable housing—as important as affordable housing is—if only houses are being built, people have no place to meet. The only way to secure pieces of land for common use is to get it into guidelines in the city’s general plan. Berkeley is now the second city, along with Seattle, that has incorporated these guidelines into the draft of a general plan to secure land.

RW:  When did Berkeley create these guidelines?

Karl Linn:  We spent three years with the planning department. They incorporated a lot of guidelines then recently the planning commission of Berkeley eliminated these guidelines. I went in front of the commission. I wrote to every commissioner and invited each one to come here and they reintroduced the supportive guidelines. I’m very pleased right now.

RW:  They are now reinstated, then?

Karl Linn:  Yes. We’re okay. Looking at the community grounds here, which are closed off [there is a fence], there was this wonderful apprehension people had, which is interesting. People looked and saw people gardening here and it reminded them of what they do in their own back yards. What happened was that some city administrators and others said we were privatizing public property since access was limited only to a limited number of people.
To us, it was just a reverse issue. Those of us who are fortunate enough to own homes, members of the middle class, have very secure private back yards and front yards. Why shouldn’t people of lesser economic means, who live right here across the street in this apartment building, have a little security with the crops they are growing? This not only allows them to have contact with the soil and earth and growing things, but also solidifies their pocketbook, economically. It’s the same kind of security homeowners have.
There were newspaper articles and discussions, and we finally overcame those objections. People finally realized there is another dimension to community gardens, which is very critical from an economic and social justice point of view.
There is a certain sanctuary in these gardens, and we are developing a growing trust among the participants as we accommodate each other. Another function is that a lot of artists felt inspired to create special art for the garden, or leave some of their art pieces in the garden. So we are creating a kind of freedom of expression. We’re very supportive when people come to us. We’re always trying to help the artists to realize their work. It fulfills another function. So I have become a midwife to artist’s creations, too.
Often the labor is difficult helping the artists install their pieces of art, finding the proper location—sometimes it’s very difficult. Installing the gate was very difficult, for instance. The artist made the gate, but she didn’t know anything about how to install it. So we always try to be very helpful. So summarizing all this—how do I consider myself? —As a people-landscape-architect. Does that answer your question?

RW:  Yes. It leads me to another question I wanted to ask, which is about your earlier work as a classical psychoanalyst. Is that right?

Karl Linn:  I worked with children, primarily, I had a practice in child analysis for a couple of years.

RW:  Is there a relationship between the interests, which led you to become an analyst and the interests that led you to landscape architecture?

Karl Linn:  Yes. I can explain it. First of all, there’s a carry over of my interests in people and my experience working with them, which helps me a lot in working with community gardens. Inadvertently and unwittingly people step on each other’s toes and so, often, I find myself being consulted by people who have trouble with each other. Often I contribute to helping people resolve such issues, not all the time, but many times.
First I started out a school for disturbed children in New York with a woman who owned the school. This was at the same time I had my private practice, and I introduced horticultural therapy in that school. The contact with soil is very important. In fact, in the Karl Linn garden there’s one bed, which is cultivated by the Alacosta School. That’s a school for mentally disturbed and physically handicapped people right in Cedar and Rose Park. The aides come with the kids and the young people, and they till the bed. It’s a very touching thing to watch how people reconnect with nature in its many different magnificent forms of expression.
Why I gave up my practice is another story. I got much more interested in my work about the connection between body and psyche. As I became more aware of the intricate connection between these two—one’s body and one’s psyche—I felt I had to study medicine in order to go more deeply into it. At that time I was a lay analyst. I became involved with the work of Wilhelm Reich. He was the first to show this relationship in his work of bioenergetics. He showed how the trauma enters itself into the body. This shows itself even in our language, for example when we speak of a “stiff-necked” person. We know a stiff-necked person is usually a stubborn person, but we’re less aware of how the tightness in the neck muscles really contributes to and reinforces that psychological characteristic.
But there were many reasons I did not go into medicine. So I came to the United States for two and a half years to go into body-oriented therapy as a patient. This was after I’d finished my studies in psychology in Switzerland, and after I’d graduated from the psychological seminary and was licensed by the Psychoanalytic Association to practice under supervision.
Undergoing this body-oriented therapy was a very deeply moving experience. From this I felt a growing need to express myself creatively through form, and that called me to return to my early days when I’d studied landscape architecture. I wanted to reconnect with nature as a healing environment for myself and also for my future clients, my landscape clients. I was looking at landscape architecture as a potentially healing profession.
So I gave up my practice and started to work my way into landscape architecture in this new continent. This was in 1951. I must have been 28. So that started from scratch. I worked my way into it and developed a very successful landscape design and construction outfit.

RW:  Are there early influences, which gave you a feeling for plants and nature?

Karl Linn:  I grew up on a farm, which my mother established in 1910 in Germany as an act of higher consciousness, because she was city bred. She had a very fancy position with the city. But she became familiar with modern educators and socialists who wanted to work with children in nature. She put herself through horticultural school despite incredible anti-Semitism. She was the only Jewish woman who had ever graduated from that school. Then she borrowed some money and bought some land. She designed and built a house and ended up with a fifteen-acre fruit tree farm that became an accredited training center and offered horticultural therapy.

RW:  Horticultural therapy. I have an intuitive feeling about the rightness of that, but I’ve never heard of it as a formal practice.

Karl Linn:  It’s actually an international organization. It started in mental hospitals and has developed in many different directions. I was in on it from the beginning, although I didn’t play an active a role. But it’s a wonderful organization. In the people-plant relationship there’s a lot of subtle interactions. In fact, when I taught at M.I.T. I invited Clive Baxter to my classes. He made a name for himself in an interesting way. He taught police officers how to use lie detectors. One day he was sitting alone in his office and there was a little dracaena houseplant. He thought, I wonder what would happen if I threatened this plant? “I’m going to burn you,” he said. He tested it with his equipment, and even the thought made the plant jump right off the grid! He made very meticulous experiments on this and it changed his life.
When I taught at M.I.T. in the late sixties, I wanted to reinforce an intuitive sense of nature in the students, and bringing in Clive Baxter and showing this relationship with plants helped them not to be intimidated by the more mechanical scientists there at M.I.T.
Anyhow, so this was my background. But I always saw women working in the fields, my mother, my sister, primarily women. She had two thousand fruit trees: cherries, apples, pears, plums—which we had to spray and prune and ship, and what have you. So I was used to people tilling the land, and before I knew it, I was starting to get rid of some weeds or prune something, and so on. When my wife and I go to the country, she really meditates. It’s beautiful. And being with my wife, it helps me also open myself up to the meditative. So these things are very much in me.

RW:  You’re drawing some analogies around cultivating plants and cultivating relationships with people…?

Karl Linn:  What I’m saying is that I was accustomed from early on, being raised in this little village on a farm, to see people tilling the land. And I started too. I worked in a little garden, helped the grown-ups, and swept the yard, cut firewood. You see me here. I’m still raking, still picking up papers, and I enjoy doing it. Call me a caretaker. When you asked me for a definition of my vocation, I’m really a caretaker: taking care of, taking care of land, taking care of God’s creation.
I often find myself, when I’ve gone someplace, say during the summer, picking up glass and nobody would ever see it. It’s only between the earth and God —or whatever you might call it. To me, it’s a mystery, not a personification. It connects with other things.
I’m a descendent of many, many, generations of rabbis. My father trained to be a rabbi; his father was a rabbi. My father never practiced, but it’s in my blood somehow. Some people think of me as a green rabbi, because I use plants always as a symbolic and ceremonial context. Anyhow this gets to these connections. And from Germany—I had to escape the Nazis—we went to Palestine, and again we had a farm there.

RW:  Would you say more about that?

Karl Linn:  This was in 1934. We grew vegetables and flowers. I dropped out of school at fourteen because my parents took ill. I had to run this farm on my own, which was very difficult. Then, when the Italians started to bombard the area, I got a scholarship to an agricultural school and my parents moved further inland. In agricultural school I specialized in landscape design and landscape planting because, when I had my own farm —I was a very effective gardener and grew a lot of crops—I couldn’t stand, during harvest times, how the fields were plundered and the plants decapitated. So I was always yearning to grow ornamental plants where you could just enjoy their unfolding. This got me into landscape architecture.
In a kibbutz I had to design places for private family life and for communal life, and I realized that plants are also space-forming elements. This was my real introduction to landscape architecture. But because I had a back injury and couldn’t really work physically at that time, my first job after I got out of the kibbutz was that I became a teacher of school gardens, in 1944.

RW:  A teacher of school gardens? That reminds me of the Alice Waters’ garden here in Berkeley.

Karl Linn:  That’s right. So this goes back a few years, and I was with Alice Waters. I was on the steering committee when she started the project. But my whole experience with the Nazis and with the tension between Arabs and Jews made me more curious about human nature. And I also went into therapy before I even went to Switzerland because I became familiar enough through education about early childhood hang-ups, that I wanted to be as mature and effective an adult as possible. My therapist knew something about Reich’s work, and so this really got me involved. This was back in 1943 and ‘44. After that I went to Switzerland and studied psychology.

RW:  Where were you living in 1943 and ‘44?

Karl Linn:  In Tel Aviv. Up to ’43 I was in the kibbutz, then I was to Tel Aviv in ‘44, ‘45. I went to Switzerland in early ‘47.

RW:  That’s a fascinating story.

Karl Linn:  You see some of the connections.

RW:  Yes. I wonder how you feel about the terminology. We can say “landscape architecture” or “garden.” They’re not the same, but related.

Karl Linn:  That’s why I say, “people- landscape architect.” Because, during the ‘50’s, I developed a very lucrative practice ending up with very rich people, which was not my initial intent. As I told you, I look at landscape architecture as a healing profession. The fact is that as each of my clients became richer and richer and richer, I lost more and more of my sense of social purpose. Then I started to teach at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. I took my students to inner city neighborhoods and worked primarily with people of color, building neighborhood commons.

RW:  Let me ask about these commons—now the commons you have here is a garden, a community garden…

Karl Linn:  Well, it’s more than a garden. It’s a meeting place. It’s a combination of planting bed, individual and communal, and a common place where people meet.

RW:  In establishing a commons, would you say, that ideally part of what it would consist of would be a garden?

Karl Linn:  Well in the past I saw an interesting development. I worked in about ten cities and established two non-profit corporations and inspired about eight others that were the first pioneering community design centers where volunteer professionals worked with economically disenfranchised neighborhoods helping them to build these common areas—architects, landscape architects, anthropologists, sociologists, lawyers, just name it. There was always some vegetation, but primarily we used recycled building materials, voluntary labor and tax delinquent land. From urban renewal demolition we used marble steps, bricks and flagstones.
So there were a lot of spaces created, but not so much vegetation in them. This was a blind spot on my part because I’d just come out of a regular practice of landscape architecture where there was plenty of money and skilled subcontractors. I transferred this erroneously to neighbors who worked very hard to build these things, but it took too much to maintain them. So I switched over to community gardens, which are cared-for spaces. Community gardeners want to grow fresh produce close to home, and they also want to socialize. But in most community gardens you have one planting bed right next to the other with no place for people to meet. So I found at least one key to some of the puzzles I’ve been experimenting with for more than forty years—that combining common spaces with communal gardens really works very well.

RW:  That’s wonderful.

Karl Linn:  In my earlier commons creations there was too much of an emphasis on building steps and retaining walls and pavements and so on.

RW:  Could I ask you then to summarize, because—as you’ve put it, you’ve had more than forty years of studying this—what are the essential and ideal elements in the creation of a commons?

Karl Linn:  I want to extend even the concept of a commons, because I’m redefining it to say that each time people gather in a place, during the time of their occupancy, it becomes a common space. To the extent that people can imprint the changes in this place to suit their needs, it becomes that much more of their space.
Two processes that lead to the building of community is, one, to make a space available. The second one is for people to get together to envision the place they want. First you ask what people want. In fact, it was a lady who said she wanted some artwork in here. It wasn’t even my idea. So this is shared envisioning. Then you get people together in participatory planning and design.
For this garden I had a whole different concept. It started with a circle because in New York there had been the “Garden of Eden” which was a beautiful circular garden in one of the worst slum areas of Manhattan. That garden had been destroyed. My idea was that our commons here was going to be a resurrection of that garden on the West Coast, and people wanted a work of art, they didn’t want an ordinary garden. So my idea was to make circular beds without redwood retaining. I thought, redwood costs money and people could make these circular raised beds, but it turned out people wanted something more ordinary. They felt that otherwise it wouldn’t harmonize with the fabric of the city, or would be too sloppy. So we started to compromise; that’s participatory planning.
Another part would be co-operative building. I call my work “urban barn-raising.” It elicits a smile from people. People realize that barn raising, as a process, means that people come to each other’s assistance and engage in mutual aid. So a part of nurturing community among people is getting people to build together, young and old, men and women. And in the gardens here there is always ongoing building. There are constantly new things happening here.
Unlike other projects where things are finished, each time a new artist comes we have to make a place. That’s our act of hospitality of inviting other people into our own domain and welcoming them. That’s why people feel free to express themselves. So these processes lead to community building. In reflecting on this experience, what concerns me is that inevitably, under our own economic system, when we get involved in property improvement, it increases the value of the property. And it also contributes to the increase of property values around the area. We call this gentrification.
What you find here is that we are living in a multi-cultural community that is also economically diverse, so how can we contribute to community stability, because if an area gets too gentrified, those of lesser means can no longer afford to live in it. But since our community gardens also provide sustenance to people—people grow their own food here—it makes it a little easier. We can’t completely reverse gentrification, but we can hold off some of its impact.

RW:  When was this community garden begun?

Karl Linn:  It started with a surprise birthday party in July 1993 when this garden across the street was named after me. But it was in terrible shape. Then we were fortunately able to get some money for building materials, and with the help of a group of students we designed and built it. At the dedication of the commons in this other garden in the fall of 1995, I drew the attention of the mayor and the other people who came to this event, to the empty lot across the street. I asked the mayor, “Can’t the city lease that land from BART?” Then I started to write to members of the board of directors at BART, and I got Berkeley city council members involved. So we got permission to come here in the fall of 1996 and, from the fall of 1996 until May 1997, we got involved in the participatory design process I told you about. We started construction in May of 1997 working with two teams from Ameri-Corps, volunteers.

RW:  What is Ameri-Corps?

Karl Linn:  It’s Clinton’s creation—like a domestic Peace Corps. I called on them because the gardeners didn’t have the energy to build the planting beds, to make this whole network of wheel-chair accessible pathways with a two-and-a-half-inch level of gravel underneath. It took a lot of physical work. But the gardeners still worked a lot, especially the early ones. So that’s the history.
The garden does a number of things. In addition to being a place for works of art, it has also become a field station to test ecological inventions such as the building you saw at the other end of the garden using straw and earth. It’s an old building technique, which is very sustainable. So we’re re-introducing sustainable building techniques, like the bamboo trellis here [pointing] to show people how one can be more careful with the resources of the land and also learn from the past. I don’t know if you the book by Helen Norbert Hodge, Ancient Futures. If you tap the wisdom of the past, it makes the future more sustainable. The same is true with the flow-form fountain over there. First of all, we have a solar battery. Do you see that? It runs the fountain, which is shaped in a way that purifies the water as it flows. That’s another invention, which can demonstrate some of these eco-friendly technologies.

RW:  That’s quite refreshing. I have the impression there’s more open space than when I came here last year.

Karl Linn:  No. We’re revamping the other garden. We’re putting another entry in. Then we can eliminate all this vacant land here so we can build more planting beds.

RW:  Do you place formal restrictions on how far away people can live and still have a plot here?

Karl Linn:  First of all, we’re favoring people who have no access to land who live close by. The next category is for those who live further away. We even have people who have some private yard, but who can’t grow anything. We’re trying to make land available to those who most urgently need it. So we’re trying all kinds of ways to solidify community, both multi-culturally and for one that’s economically diverse. That’s not easy to accomplish.

To learn more about Karl Linn and his work please visit:

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