the future of our food system?
Where does your food come from? If you live in a city, like me, you probably rely on farmers near and far to produce your food. But have you ever thought about what would happen if the food chain suddenly broke down? If, say, a natural disaster hit or transportation of food was unavailable for some time? Even with the current Corona-virus outbreak, some people are facing anxieties of food shortages. Are we, as urban inhabitants, able to supply ourselves, even if everything turns against us? It can be scary to think about it. But it doesn’t have to be like that! Even if we don’t have gardens of our own, there is an array of ways to grow food right in our cities! This concept is called urban gardening or urban farming. And it’s got a surprisingly rich & interesting history… Could urban gardening, along with community supported agriculture, be the next food revolution?
Where my inspirational trip started…
Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden and quite a lively place to explore, to live and to work in. From modern libraries to extravagant art galleries, from excellent cycling paths to an array of beautiful cafés and restaurants: there is something for everybody’s taste. Much to my delight, Malmö is quite a green city, too. Many parks, lawns and gardens provide space for sitting and reading, chatting or just relaxing in nature.
In the very heart of the city, on the fortress island behind the castle of Malmö, I spotted a vibrant oasis of life: Slottsträdgården. This is an urban gardening project that was established back in in 1997 by an association called “The Friend’s Association”. It operates entirely on organic principles.
Malmö’s urban gardening area. Photo by Naomi Bosch
Here, members can rent one of the 60 small city allotments of around 6-8 sqm. One of the fields is solely for use as a school garden for Malmö’s schoolchildren.
Besides the gardening allotments, Slottsträdgården includes various educational allotments, like a perennial garden, a garden with plants adapted to dry climate, and one with plants that could become more relevant for food production with climate change.
Different educational gardens in Malmö. Photos by Naomi Bosch
Little paths lead to the allotments and create opportunity for exploring, admiring the lush plants and photographing. Furthermore, the air vibrating with these tiny, flying creatures, the garden is a true haven for insects, birds and butterflies. This place is truly a treasure in the midst of a busy city.
But, as if things couldn’t get better, the Association also runs a lovely café. More precisely, it consists of a sunny terrace and tables in a secluded greenhouse beautifully decorated with colourful pillows, a grapevine and other plants hanging from the ceiling. As a relaxed end for a tiring workday or as a fresh start into a city-tour, this is just the perfect spot for sipping coffee and enjoying some freshly baked cake.
The Friends’ Associations’s garden style café. Photos by Naomi Bosch
… and where it took me
For those living in Malmö, these city allotments are a source of home-grown fruits & vegetables, and a place for recreation and rest. For tourists, this project might serve as a source of inspiration to bring to their hometowns.
Urban gardening is indeed a very popular trend among city-inhabitants in late times. While Sottsträdgården has over 20 years of experience in urban gardening, this concept is actually anything but new.
Urban gardening in the past
Right after the establishment of the first cities, people were beginning to grow fresh food supplies wherever space permitted it. In times of poor storage capacities, this was even a necessity! With no fridges for storing perishable groceries, people had to grow some of their food near to them.
This became increasingly important in rapidly growing urban areas in the 19th century, like Paris, as well as in the forcedly self-sustainable communist states of the 20th century, like East Germany or Cuba. For example, the 3rd and 4th arrondissement of Paris used to be city gardens, where approximately 8500 individuals were growing fruits and vegetables for their own need on 1/6th of the area of Paris.1
In times of war, the urban population was even encouraged by state authorities to grow vegetable, fruit and herbal gardens at their home or in public parks.
“Victory Gardens”, as they were called by Washington Carver, were popular in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Germany during both world wars. They were used along with rationing stamps to reduce pressure on public food supply. Besides indirectly aiding the war effort, these gardens were also a civil morale booster. In this way, gardeners felt empowered by their contribution of labour and had their own self-grown produce as a reward.2
The communist heritage
After World War II, importations from other countries were rather restricted in the newly formed communist states. So, for them, it was especially important to grow as much food as possible inside the country boundaries.
In East Germany, so-called “Schrebergärten” continue to be a beloved form of gardening. Here, many city-inhabitants possess a small allotment in the town, usually along with a tiny lodge, where they can grow their fruits and vegetables and spend their free time in the garden, working and relaxing.
In Moscow and St Petersburg, both cities that at times have difficulties with providing their population with enough groceries, 50 – 65 % of the population grows part of their own food themselves.3
Cuba is an extraordinary example: during the time of the Soviet Union, their most important trade partner, it exported sugar at high prices to the Soviets. Respectively, Cuba was able to finance the import of 2/3rd of its food supply and oil for agricultural machines. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became necessary to change the system from large farms heavily dependent upon oil and machinery, to small allotments in the outskirts of the cities, called “organopónicos”. In the beginning of the 21st century, 90% of fresh produce sold on the markets of Havana originated from such “organopónicos”.4
Modern urban gardeners
Many people living in cities today don’t know much about how food is grown, nor where it actually comes from. Farming is happening somewhere far away from them. And with everything always accessible in sufficient quantities & at low prices, there doesn’t seem to be much need to ask any questions about farming.
But things are slowly changing.
Every free space can be used for gardening! Photo from Unsplash
In our modern world, more and more people find an interest in where and how their food is grown. People living in the cities are not only inquiring into these matters more, but increasingly love to put on hand, too. Urban gardening, or the growing of plants for food in the city, is a trending movement. It’s also a very sustainable way of growing food, since the transportation paths are significantly cut, and with it, the greenhouse gas emissions.
And there is still enormous potential in our cities! Every empty patch, every tiny balcony, every lawn can be transformed into a lush garden growing healthy, fresh food right at your doorstep!
The edible city
One example of a city where this worked out excellently is Andernach, Germany. Nicknamed the “edible city”, Andernach has transformed its green space into gardens where everybody can have a taste of the fruits and vegetables grown in them.
Urban gardens for everyone! Photo from Pexels
Since 2010, long-term unemployed citizens, along with professional gardeners, take care of the gardens scattered across the town. You can even find some sheep and chicken by the city walls! And a nearby vineyard and permaculture garden invite Andernach’s citizens and visitors to rest and enjoy its fruits.
In addition to educational activities for schoolchildren, the municipality also offers guided city-tours of the first Edible City in Germany. At each step, one is invited to see, smell and taste some of the hundreds of plant varieties cultivated across the whole city!5
My urban gardening project
These stories have sparked my enthusiasm, too. Since I don’t own any land property in the city where I live, I inquired my lessor for the use of a small gardening patch in the courtyard of my apartment. My lessor turned me down upon my first request. Only after insisting for a second time was I given permission to plant something.
My first urban gardening efforts – kitchen herbs for me and the neighbours!
Photos by Naomi Bosch
Sometimes, one must be persistent in asking, but lessors usually won’t have good enough arguments to prevent you from using space that’s wasting away without being used.
And the benefits of urban gardening are clearly convincing: beautiful, productive spots of green that supply our ever-growing cities with fresh produce, transforming our cities into green havens for humans, bees and other animals alike.
And indeed, there is no meal more delicious than the one prepared from self-grown fruits and vegetables! You just have to try it out yourself…
Could urban gardening be the next food revolution in your city, too? Do you have any experience with this?
1 Jennifer Cockrall-King: Food and the City – Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, p. 82-83
3 Jennifer Cockrall-King: Food and the City – Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, p. 107
4 Jennifer Cockrall-King: Food and the City – Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, p. 285-286