Community Gardeners Unite!

This summer, we have been following the fight to keep the Arbutus Community Gardens in Vancouver, Canada. We had the privilege of living just around the corner from the threatened gardens, which was our favourite evening walk from spring to fall.

A community garden, or allotments as they are called in the UK, is a plot of land made available for individual, non-commercial gardening. It is a place where neighbours and residents come together to learn and grow edible and other plants, foster health, creating green urban environments and cultivating vibrant, caring and SHARING communities. The gardens are usually located on vacant public or private land and are generally donated, lent or leased by city councils, foundations or private landowners to neighbourhood associations and other community groups. The plots are formed by subdividing a piece of land into smaller parcels, which are then assigned to individuals or families. Our community garden has 30 plots, 2/3 rented by people from the community and 1/3 donated to Red Cross families, sponsored by the paying tenants.

The concept of a community garden is far from new. Though some people may believe that the gardens emerged in the nature-loving 1970’s, communal gardening has been around for centuries: In Russia, the first allotments appeared during the rein of Peter the Great (1672-1725), as the Tsar offered small country estates to local (or loyal…) vassals. In Denmark, land outside the fortified Fredericia was designated for allotment gardens in 1778. Today, the Danish Allotment Garden Union is more than a hundred years old, representing 400 allotment associations in 75 municipalities. In Norway, Oslo’s largest community garden has around 600 allotments and is so popular that there is a waiting list of over a decade! In the UK, a 1732 engraving of Birmingham shows the town encircled by allotments, some still in existence today. At the time allotments and ‘potato grounds’ were promoted to provide the labouring classes or the parish poor with a small portion of land, as a way to help the hungry help themselves.

Allotments supplied much of the vegetables eaten by the poor in the 19th and early 20th century. Particularly noticeable is the increased numbers of community gardens during wartime: In 1873 there were 244,268 plots in England, compared to 1,500,000 plots in 1918. While numbers fell in the 20s and 30s, they increased to 1,400,000 during World War II. The number has declined since, likely due to the limited availability and rising cost of land, increasing general prosperity and competition from other leisure activities. Never the less, community gardens have become an important part of today’s urban landscape from the Philippines to Texas. They are an innovative, healthy and sustainable way of growing food. The gardens bring together people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Our own community garden has active gardeners aged between four and probably 84. The gardens are a hub for learning, sharing and socializing. We have communal clean ups, compost-building days, workshops, seed-exchanges, food ‘give-aways’ and BBQ’s. Communal gardens foster a cross-generational, engaged and physically active community, which is especially important in today’s society.

Back in Vancouver, the owner of the community garden grounds, the Canadian Pacific Rail, has not run trains through the area since my 19-year-old son was in a baby-daycare that was bordering the tracks. That the company now, over 1.5 decade later, is intending to banish the gardeners – and the unique, well established and well kept, most necessary green lunge in an otherwise primarily concrete urban environment is an utter shame. Clearly powerful real-estate interests are at stake, but how many condos does a city really need? I seriously doubt that they will reconstitute a train, which no longer is a feasible way of transporting goods through an urban area, nor a realistic alternative to driving for the people in one of Vancouver’s wealthiest areas. The gardens can obviously not compete when it comes to financial gains, but expanding and keeping public urban green spaces should be a MUST for 21-century city planning. Community gardens offer a vision of sustainable living in urban and in our case, rural environments. Is that why they are seen as a threat to developers?

Here in southern Spain, our own Community Garden experience is simply a joy. Oh, and just a bit of hard work. We started out last year as complete amateurs and have grown in the ranks to become Learners with capital L. A southern European climate is very different from a BC rain-forest, so some trials and many errors are to be expected. Thankfully some of our retired co-gardeners are willing to share their organic plague treatment and growing advice. With their help we have created a veritable vegetable horn-of-plenty in our 10 m x 10 m plot, with zucchini, peppers and herbs by the bushel and soon more tomatoes than our entire neighbourhood can safely consume.

We quickly realized that we needed to search for beaked and four-legged assistance in eating our vegetable surplus. It became known to us that our neighbour, María del Mar, has chickens, that now happily eat the tops and tails of our radishes, melon peel and other compost delicacies. This spring her son found a baby sheep on the highway, so ‘Bo’ the speckled sheep is now helping us devour the zucchini and squash behemoths we keep finding under dinosaur-sized leaves in our plot. Hence all benefit and with the kind assistance of friends, neighbours, co-gardeners and miscellaneous critters, we manage to not drown in our green bounty!

All things sadly being equal, we do not know if our Community Garden will be allowed to remain either. The plots were leased to Silvema from a Madrid landowner for a preliminary two years, which gives us until May 2015. After that, we have no guarantees. Seeing that his abandoned, dry grazing land has become such a lovely green space, he may allow us to remain. But then again, he may, like the CP Rail, insist we get out by the end of the month – lock, stock and barrel.

There are uncountable reasons why community gardening and turning unused plots of land into productive social hubs, makes sense. First of all, they allow neighbourhood groups to work together to learn and share knowledge of growing one’s own food. More so they help minimize food waste, reduce family food budgets and provide opportunity for exercise, recreation and new friendships. And last, but not least, community gardens can be a safe heaven and a place for peace and contemplation.

Had we still been in BC, I would have chained myself to the rusty CP rails to fight with the Arbutus community for its special gardens. For now, we are supporting the cause from 5385 miles away in the bountiful Andalucían south.

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