Urban allotment gardens key areas in times of crisis

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Allotment gardens have often been sources of local resilience during periods of crisis. During World War I the number of allotment gardens surged from 600,000 to 1,500,000 in Britain, supplying city people with food and other ecosystem services.

The gardens were planted in parks and sports fields, and even Buckingham Palace turned up the earth to grow vegetables. After declining abruptly in the 1920s and 1930s, World War II saw a new explosion in the numbers of allotment gardens in cities of Britain and other parts of Europe.

Germany, it must be said, had already allotment gardens, called Schrebergaerten, since well before World War I, as far as I understand.

In Berlin and Hamburg entire Schrebergarten colonies – that's what they really are called – sprang up and they can also be found in many other towns and cities around that country. Many people actually live in their garden houses, called Lauben, for the entire summer and some even have those as their only residence, living on their allotment all year round. Not something that could be done in the UK for reasons of planning/zoning laws.

A study has been undertaken as to the impact of urban gardening on the social-economic situation and so-called “social-ecological memory” of the people.

The article investigates where and how ecological practices, knowledge and experience are retained and transmitted in allotment gardens in the urban area of Stockholm. It is the first study ever to really analyze in-depth the concept of “social-ecological memory” as the carrier of ecological knowledge and practices that enable sustainable stewardship of nature.

Linking back to the story of allotment gardens during the World Wars, the specific aim of the new study has been to explore how management practices, which are linked to ecosystem services, are retained and stored among people, and modified and transmitted through time.

In the case of Stockholm, social-ecological memory in urban gardening is maintained and transmitted through imitation of practices, oral communication and collective rituals. It also resides in physical gardens, artifacts, metaphors and rules-in-use, and this no doubt will be the case elsewhere too.

Time to include citizens in stewardship

The researchers also found that the self-organised groups of allotment gardeners support critical ecosystem services that both underpin the production of crops and flowers and spill over to a much larger portion of the metropolitan landscape.

Therefore it is time for policy makers to appreciate and actively include citizens that engage in the actual stewardship of urban ecosystem services, whether it is about sustaining urban green areas or designing new ones.

As far as Stockholm is concerned today the city contains about 10,000 individual allotment garden plots, occupying 210 ha of land and involving about 24,000 people.

And these allotment gardens serve as “pockets of social-ecological memory" in the urban landscape and constitute a source of resilience for generation of ecosystem services while counteracting ecological illiteracy.

Without such physical sites experiences of stewardship of ecosystem services, or “social-ecological memory" could easily dissolve. Now when we are entering the so-called urban millennium, with more than 50 % of the global population living in cities, planning for sustainability needs to take these green spaces – and the social-ecological memory they maintain – seriously into account.

We need more such green spaces where people can grow their own food and interact with the environment in a beneficial way; beneficial to themselves in that they obtain some of their produce that way and beneficial to the environment in that the people, and here also and especially children and young people, connect back with the Earth. In addition to the above allotment gardens also can and will contribute to food security of the individual, families and the neighborhood.

So, let's hear it for allotment gardens.

© 2010