Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Karl Linn - Community Gardens

A Documentary about Karl Linn Page

Karl Linn (1923-2005)
A notable landscape architect, psychologist, and community activist, Karl Linn was the inspiration for A Lot in Common. For over forty years in cities around the country, he has created neighborhood commons like the one featured in the film, peaceful places in which neighbors can gather and build community. His many hours of interviews over the five years of production provide the backbone for the narrative of the documentary. Karl died peacefully at his home in Berkeley, California on February 3, 2005.

Tracy Penner's Photos of Karl Linn's Berkeley Community Gardens

"There are three gardens I was able to photograph that Karl Linn helped to design and build with the community and the assistance of UC Berkeley Landscape Architecture students. They are the Peralta, the Northside╩and the Karl Linn Gardens, just a stone's throw from the Edible Schoolyard project in central Berkeley. Each is unique and has special features beyond just their garden plots.╩

"The Karl Linn garden has a small workshop shed built of either cob or adobe; wooden plaques with carved quotations mounted on the fences and a lovely curved wooden bench with trellis and pergola facing the public side.

"The Peralta gardens adjoin a greenway, so╩have╩contributed a public bench╩with a mosaic made by locals into an information kiosk that tells the history of the neighbourhood. The garden is protected by a whimsical gate that integrates scupted dragonflies, frogs and other garden creatures into its ironwork. Just inside the fence, but still in full view of passersby, is a pond with many water plants and a copy of Rudolf Steiner's sculptural, organically shaped╩fountain.

The Northside gardens have a straw bale storage shed with a green roof that looks straight out of Hobbitland."

More information about all the community gardens in Berkeley is available at this link:╩Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative

Tracy Penner, BLA
Environmental Landscape Design

Sierre Club PROFILE: Down-to-Earth Visionary

Karl Linn cultivates community in his urban gardens


by Marilyn Berlin Snell

In a quiet neighborhood in Berkeley, California, there is a handmade iron gate so beautiful, with whimsically wrought dragonflies and arcing sunflower patterns, you don't even mind being locked out. You get the sense that a secret password rather than a key would open it. Behind the gate (which is unlocked during the frequent visiting hours), a community garden flourishes. Members navigate the terrain on gravel paths wide enough for wheelchairs. As they work, either in their own allotted plots or in the communal space that contains endangered and threatened native plants and flowers, a fountain powered by the sun provides a trickling soundtrack. On the morning I visit, sagey smells of native salvia waft by with bits of conversation from gardeners harvesting winter vegetables, while a little kid with sandy curls and rosy cheeks points at a coveted lettuce leaf she'd like permission to pick.

When garden regular Karl Linn spies 18-month-old Kyla Rain tromping toward her mom with a kid-size plastic trowel in hand, he breaks into an avuncular smile. "She's the most important thing growing here," the 78-year-old says.

Much of the Peralta Community Garden is perched near the yawning mouth of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) tunnel in the neighborhood of North Berkeley. When trains swoosh by, they temporarily drown out the birds and force gardeners to either stop talking or yell to be heard above the din. For years the strangely shaped piece of BART-owned land was fenced off with barbed wire, accumulating weeds and junk. Linn had spotted the property as he worked across the street at another once-blighted plot-now the Karl Linn Community Garden, dedicated in his name at a surprise 70th birthday celebration honoring his lifelong dedication to putting beauty and nature back into cities. After the ceremony, Linn and others got the city of Berkeley, which owns the property, to pony up $10,000 for building materials; then they spent nearly two years making it into a vibrant community garden with 15 individual plots. Today, a small shed in the garden serves as a demonstration station for sustainable ecological innovations. Its green roof sprouts various kinds of succulents, while a cutaway in the wall reveals its adobe-like "cob" construction of earth, sand, and straw.

Karl Linn -- landscape architect devoted to social justice

Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

As an 11-year-old Jewish boy in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, Karl Linn knew about persecution when he fled with his family to Palestine.

The conflict he saw in both places launched him on a lifelong quest for social justice and harmony, notably through landscape architecture and community gardens, three of which he established in his adopted city of Berkeley.

A retired professor of landscape architecture and a trained psychotherapist, Professor Linn died at his home early Thursday after a nearly six-month battle with leukemia. He was 81.

"My experience with racism motivated me to devote my life to contribute to the emergence of a humane society,'' he said in a 2003 documentary film that focused on him and one of his community gardens. "That's the way I've attempted to live my daily life.''

Friends and family recalled Professor Linn as someone with a gift for inspiring people to work together toward positive change.

"He just had an amazing capacity for making beautiful things happen,'' said City Councilwoman Linda Maio.

Professor Linn was celebrated for spearheading the creation of three North Berkeley community gardens on vacant lots and for organizing the installation of history and art displays on a portion of the Ohlone Greenway, a path along the BART tracks near the gardens.

One of the gardens, at the corner of Hopkins Street and Peralta Avenue, was named in Professor Linn's honor by the City Council in 1993.

Professor Linn was born in 1923 in a town that became part of East Germany after World War II. He lived on a farm that was a training center for gardening and "horticultural therapy" established by his mother. His father was a former librarian and editor of a journal of Jewish writers.

In 1934, after a raid in which a Nazi soldier dragged Professor Linn's father from room to room with a gun to his head, the family moved to the outskirts of Haifa and established a farm.

Professor Linn graduated from an agriculture school, helped found a kibbutz and later started an elementary school program in Tel Aviv to help students grow food.

Disillusioned with the treatment of Arabs, Professor Linn moved to Zurich, Switzerland, at age 23. He graduated from the Institute of Applied Psychology and immigrated to New York City, where he co-founded a school for emotionally disturbed children and worked as a child psychoanalyst.

Professor Linn felt unfulfilled, and in 1952 he became a successful private landscape architect, working on prominent projects such as the indoor landscape at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City and collaborating with famed architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, among others.

In 1959, Professor Linn became a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and took students to low-income areas to create communal spaces. During the 1960s, Professor Linn founded and directed the Neighborhood Renewal Corps in Philadelphia and the Neighborhood Commons Non- Profit Corporation in Washington, D.C., which became models for similar centers in eight other cities.

Professor Linn eventually joined the teaching staff at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, from which he retired in 1986. His papers will be archived at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, and the Bancroft Library recently completed a series of interviews about his life and work.

In 1989, after moving to the Bay Area, Professor Linn co-founded Urban Habitat, an environmental and social justice advocacy program at the Earth Island Institute. It is now a separate organization in Oakland.

In 1999, he spearheaded the creation of the Berkeley EcoHouse, which is meant to demonstrate ways to make urban homes environmentally friendly by using solar power and other technologies. Three years ago, he founded a group called the East Bay Dialogue Group of Arabs and Jews.

"This was a great man,'' said Carlos Benito, an economics professor at Sonoma State University who has been gardening at the Karl Linn Community Garden for the last year. "He was a very practical teacher about real love, not emotional love or romantic love.''

Professor Linn is survived by his wife of 13 years, Nicole Milner of Berkeley; a brother, Henry Linn of New York; a son, Mark Linn of Haddonfield, N.J.; a stepdaughter, Nomi Wanag of Oakland; two stepson, Joel Ginsberg of San Francisco and Daniel Ginsberg of Gig Harbor, Wash.; and three grandchildren.

About 60 people gathered Sunday for an impromptu service for Professor Linn at the Peralta Community Garden on Peralta Avenue near Hopkins Street. A public memorial is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. March 20 at the Northbrae Community Church at 941 Alameda in Berkeley.

The family asks that donations be sent to Berkeley Partners for Parks (tax-deductible, write "Karl Linn" in the memo line), P.O. Box 13673, Berkeley, CA 94712.

Pagan anarchist Holocaust survivor

Pagan anarchist Holocaust survivor, early kibbutznick, Karl fled the Nazis, landed in Palestine, and left for Switzerland and America before the formation of the Israeli state.

Karl was a child psychologist and a landscape architect; at the end of his life he built community gardens. The East Bay Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group hosted many picnics in the Peralta Peace Garden that Karl founded.

Karl Linn, Architect of Urban Landscapes, Dies at 81

Published: February 13, 2005

Karl Linn, a prominent landscape designer who created opulent spaces for some of the country's best-known architects but abandoned the work to spend the rest of his career building community gardens in devastated urban neighborhoods, died on Feb. 3 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was acute myelogenous leukemia, his wife, Nicole Milner, said.

The landscape architect for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York, Mr. Linn also designed the interior landscaping for the Four Seasons Restaurant. But in the late 1950's he turned to making community gardens in depressed neighborhoods around the country.

Trained as a psychoanalyst, Mr. Linn came to believe that architecture should reflect a deep commitment to social justice. In New York, Washington, Philadelphia, the Bay Area and elsewhere, he helped inner-city residents transform vacant lots into "neighborhood commons," urban variations on the traditional village green that brought neighbors, and strangers, together.

He was in the business, quite literally, of creating rootedness: where a garden flourished, Mr. Linn believed, so, too, would a community. His gardens are noted for their use of native plants, bubbling fountains, colorful mosaics, benches positioned to encourage face-to-face contact and, above all, their involvement of neighborhood residents. Mr. Linn's work on one Bay Area garden was the subject of a documentary, "A Lot in Common," broadcast on PBS stations last year.

Karl Linn was born on March 11, 1923, in Dessow, later part of East Germany. He grew up on a 15-acre farm filled with fruit trees: his mother had founded the place in 1910 to train mental-health professionals in the art of "horticultural therapy." The only Jews in their village, the Linns fled Germany for Palestine in 1934. They established a farm near Haifa, and after his parents became too ill to run it, Karl left school at 14 to work the land full time. He graduated from the Kadoorie Agricultural School in Palestine and later helped found a kibbutz, Maagan Michael.

In 1946, Mr. Linn went to Switzerland to train as a psychoanalyst. He eventually settled in New York, where he helped found a school for emotionally disturbed children and maintained a private practice as a child psychotherapist. He took up landscape architecture again in the early 1950's, seeking to integrate his belief in the restorative power of nature with his psychotherapeutic work.

But in those years, as Mr. Linn discovered to his increasing discomfort, landscape architecture meant fattening the land of well-heeled suburbanites. "When I practiced landscape architecture in the 50's," he told Sierra magazine in 2001, "those who were affluent liked to show off - the model of success being a huge lawn or a big tree that stood alone, looking like a king with a poochy belly, taking up all the nutrients in the soil."

He came to reject what he called "landscapes of affluence," and in 1961 founded the Neighborhood Renewal Corps, based in Philadelphia, which assisted members of disadvantaged communities in reclaiming, designing and rebuilding blighted urban spaces. Similar programs followed in Washington, Chicago, Boston and other cities. Mr. Linn was also a co-founder, in 1989, of the Urban Habitat Program, a project of the Earth Island Institute.

"The garden touches a core of humanness," he told The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California in 2003. "Because of all the war and terrorist activities and means of mass destruction, people think human nature at its core is warring. But there is a lot of evidence that human beings are really wonderfully put-together cosmic creatures. When I see all this volunteerism, it gives me confidence that a peaceful society is possible."

A fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Mr. Linn was also a founder of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Until his retirement in 1986, he was a faculty member of the New Jersey Institute of Technology; he previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. Linn's first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Ms. Milner; a brother, Henry, of Forest Hills, N.Y.; a son from an earlier marriage, Mark, of Haddonfield, N.J.; three stepchildren, Joel Ginsberg of San Francisco, Nomi Wanag of Oakland and Daniel Ginsberg of Gig Harbor, Wash.; and three grandchildren.

Reclaiming the Sacred Commons

by Karl Linn
New Village, 1999


An inherently sacred relationship exists between living creatures and nature. From time immemorial, people of indigenous or land-based cultures have celebrated their connectedness with nature as an integral part of their daily lives. Free and enduring access to their natural habitats of air, water, and land assured their sustenance and survival. These shared natural environments are referred to as "the commons." In the days before mercantilism and industrialization, before private property rights were instituted, local people held the land in common and knew how to harvest, manage, and sustain the natural resources of forests, fields, and fishing grounds.╩

The Enclosure of the Commons

A lineage of robber barons, from feudal landlords to multinational corporations, began to enclose the commons by force in order to profit from the land. Asserting their right to private property, these ruling cliques wrested control of the commons from the majority of the world's indigenous and village populations, disregarding controls on the use of natural resources by which the peasant common holders had protected and perpetuated their subsistence economy. The goal of ever-increasing profit justified the plundering of natural resources and the ruthless exploitation of labor sources. Industrialization, with its focus on the production of cash crops for markets, displaced self-sufficient local economies, which were organized around communal management of the commons. Peasants uprooted from their land became members of a disposable labor force.

Search Our Site[new]

pointer Return to Contents' Page pointer

Revised Oct 14, 2010

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture