It’s an adventure playground for kids, an idyllic sanctuary for couples, and a quiet retreat for those looking to escape from stress – from joggers and Nordic walkers to lovers of nature and culture, the Bürgerpark in the centre of Bremen has something for everyone. For the last 150 years, this protected heritage site in the centre of Bremen has relied solely on the support of donations to keep it open and well-maintained.
A couple of minutes’ walk away from the busy Parkallee avenue, the Schweizerhaus begins to emerge from between the tall trees. What the parish house is to the pastor, this building is to the manager of the Bürgerpark: those who live here have chosen a life in which work and personal life frequently intertwine. Tim Grossman became the manager of the park in 2012, and since then he has developed a special relationship to this green lung of Bremen, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2016.
In the mornings after breakfast, the park manager only needs to walk through his garden to get to his office in the administration building. Most people come to the Bürgerpark to switch off, but there’s no chance of that for Grossmann, who also studied landscape architecture. “Even when I’m jogging through the park, I still have my internal ‘scanner’ on,” he admits with a chuckle. Are those new trees growing as they should be? Can that sign over there still be read? Does that fence need repairing? These are the kind of questions he simply can’t tune out.
A traditional landscaped park without traditional funding
The Bürgerpark is located right in the heart of the city, but it’s easy to forget this once you’ve walked a little way inside. It’s a protected heritage site, although it has the feel of a natural landscape. Most importantly, though, entry is free of charge to all, despite the fact that no tax revenue goes towards its maintenance. Instead, the park is sustained through donations and private contributions such as legacies and endowments, and has been so ever since it was established. “No other park in Germany of this size can make this claim,” says Grossmann.
In 1865, affluent members of Bremen’s mercantile class came up with a plan to establish a park on an unused section of meadow close to the area known as the ‘Bürgerweide’, which would be open to all citizens. As the Senate did not want to set aside any tax revenue for this scheme, a ‘Committee for the Afforestation of the Bürgerweide’ was founded. The 60 members chose to adopt the design of the landscape architect Wilhelm Benque, who conceived the Bürgerpark as a traditional landscape garden. “He was following the trend of the time,” explains Grossmann. “The era of baroque gardens with precisely trimmed trees and hedges was over. Parks that looked like natural landscapes were now in greater demand.”
The initiative was extremely popular, and the number of members soon rose to 800. On 28 June 1866, workers began to excavate what would become the Emmasee lake – and with the first turn of the shovel, the Bürgerpark was born. Wilhelm Benque became the first park manager.
Even in the harsh wartime and post-war winters, none of the trees here were cut down for firewood, as was extremely common in other parks at such times. “While such a past is heartening, it creates a challenge for the future,” says Grossmann. “We have many loyal donors, but the Bürgerpark doesn’t run itself.” He emphasises that last point for good reason – there’s not only 200 hectares of green space to keep in good condition, but also 52 buildings and bridges to maintain that are spread out all over the grounds. In total, it costs more than €2 million each year. The park is supported by a total of 30 employees, and there’s no high season as such: “The park keeps us busy all year round,” explains head gardener Heiko Lustfeld. “We plant the seeds in spring, mow the meadows in summer, and clear away the leaves in autumn and the snow in winter.”
The ancient bridges, fountains and stone benches require intensive upkeep and thorough renovation every couple of years. Donations, endowments, membership fees for the Bürgerpark association, the annual Bürgerpark tombola, benefit concerts – all these have brought in enough funds over the years to cover the running costs of maintaining the park. “But in order to renovate a large fountain such as the Marcusbrunnen, for example, we’d have to spend €200,000 all in one go,” says Grossmann. “We’d need to raise this kind of amount first.” There are other issues as well – for instance, more and more of the trees that were planted in the park’s early years are beginning to rot, and need to be replaced with new ones. Donors have been helping with this endeavour for around 15 years now, sponsoring trees from upwards of €450 each. Some 1,500 trees have already been donated through this scheme, though they have been planted as three-to-five-metre high saplings rather than small seedlings in order to fill empty spaces in the park.
Among the park’s many tree sponsors are a couple in their early 70s. Over the last two decades, they have donated eleven beeches, a Japanese cedar, and a gold larch. “We’ve benefited greatly from our daily jogs and Nordic walks through the Bürgerpark, and so we wanted to give something back,” explains the man, whose name is Rüdiger. “We usually visit our sponsored trees once a week. Sometimes, if it’s a hot summer’s day, we’ll take along bottles of water to give them a drink,” he adds with a grin. He and his wife have found plenty of opportunities to donate trees over the years. On certain birthdays, they have asked for money for a tree donation in lieu of presents, and they have gifted each of their six grandchildren a sponsored tree as well. Together, they are forming their own little patch of forest.
Despite all the challenges, Grossmann is confident that enough money will continue to flow in for the Bürgerpark to survive without the need of state subsidies. “All the same, we must continue to acquire new sources of funding, as we can’t simply rely on the park’s long history of success.” His optimistic outlook is largely due to the fondness that Bremen’s citizens have for the Bürgerpark, for all sorts of different of reasons. In fact, the city’s residents have so many unique stories to tell about the place, it’s almost possible to forget they’re all about the same park. There are the loving couples who shared their first meeting in the café by Emmasee lake, or have rowed a wooden boat along the scenic canals. There are the young families that love to visit for the animal enclosure, not to mention the six play areas. And there are the nature lovers who simply enjoy wandering through the park, discovering medicinal herbs or listening to the melody of birdsong along the way.
The founders of the Bürgerpark wanted it to attract people from all walks of life. “For master and servant, man, wife and child, for benefit and pleasure, for all time.” These words are engraved on a stone bench beside the Emmasee – in the place where, 150 years ago, the story of the Bürgerpark began.
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