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Back in the day, urban gardens everywhere

In the eighteenth century, villages, towns and cities had almost as many gardens as buildings.In the eighteenth century, villages, towns and cities had almost as many gardens as buildings.

Have you ever walked through your neighborhood, noticed a vacant lot, and wondered why nobody had bothered to plant a garden there, instead of just letting the land sit around empty?

Now, of course, plant and insect people will tell you that no land is empty. Even the humblest weedlot plays a role in urban ecology.

But I’d wager that few vacant lots are under the control of a wildlife manager or urban forester. Instead, it’s clear that most empty lots just sit there, waiting for the the real estate market to improve. Hardly the highest and best use of scarce urban land.

In the past, people never would have let good land in a well populated area go to waste. Just take the example of the UK town of Guildford, 27 miles southwest of London. Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins recently unearthed an 18th-century map of the town showing how yesteryear’s version of smart development revolved around maximizing in-town photosynthesis:

We see, for example, that the hospital has its own vegetable garden. The Free School has its own orchard. While many of the houses have their own gardens, others appear to have allotments out the back, large pieces of land divided into plots. In the center of the map is a cluster of coaching inns, each of which have yards full of vegetable gardens. Behind every house, on every piece of ground, food is being grown. It is an extraordinary snapshot of a time when food production was the principal form of urban land use after roads and buildings.

Down with lawns!

Hopkins isn’t trying to romanticize the bad old days when life was harder and standards of living were much lower, but instead, “to marvel at what a really local food culture looks like in reality for those of us who have no living memory of such a thing.”

And of course to suggest that, if we’re smart now and lucky later, maps of our towns in the future might show just as much urban space under cultivation as Hopkins’s 18th-century map of Guildford does.

Today, I wince when I see a wide expanse of expensive urban land going to waste. And I cringe when I see, even worse, some status-conscious property owner subjecting God’s own sun, rain and soil (not to mention the devil’s own petroleum products) to the insult of producing fodder for a riding lawn mower.

But if the sight of huge toxic lawns, acres of parking lot or neighborhoods blighted by brownfields sprouting broken glass and rusted shards of beer cans is repulsive, then, with apologies to Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff in The Fugitive, the vision of a garden behind every warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse, is sublimely beautiful.

And planting mini-orchards of apple, pear and cherry trees in every median strip, on every sidewalk and in every public park could help our cities and towns provide a new kind of prosperity to their residents.

Gardening our cities would be easy, cheap and fun for all. Why wait? Volunteer citizen efforts are a great start, getting neighbors together to make sure everybody’s planted their own backyard. But to really spread, you have to start gardening some of those vacant lots.

It may be time to re-work local property tax. Instead of taxing parcels that have a building on them at a higher rate, why not tax vacant lots more — unless of course, their owners plant food gardens or allow someone else to do it. Then, reward that civic-minded property owner with a big discount on her property tax bill.

Call it the Food Security Tax Break.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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