August 30, 2015

The value of our allotments

The month of August is one I cherish on our beloved  3 year-old boutique allotment because it is a time for calm & reflection.  The rush of getting everything in the ground & careful  nurturing has subsided whilst the weeds are growing slightly less rampantly and crops are being lovingly harvested, producing a wealth of fresh fruit and vegetables.  It is a wonderful time on the plot!  But all is not well in the world of allotments ( the Jaws theme tune maybe an appropriate one here).   The last few years has seen an ongoing increase in people taking on allotments to grown their own food, with 350,000 plot holders in the UK and a waiting list of 800,000, but as their demand rises, so too does the pressure on Councils to release brownfield land for housing and there have been several well known battles between plot holders and the council over land.  Earlier this month, coinciding with my usually chilled attitude to the allotment,  another article was published in the Guardian entitled: We must resist the great allotment land grab; again raising the concern that valuable allotment land is being lost.  It states that Watford has launched a third bid to build on Farm Terrace Plots despite having lost 2 previous bids.  It goes on to mention that the government has turned down only 4 requests of 99 to use allotment land between 2007 and 2013 and the National Allotments Society warns that the 2011 Localism Act could be a perfect chance for allotment plots to be identified as housing land!   Now the stereotypical allotmenter might well be a Tom and Barbara look alike from the Good Life with the sole purpose of becoming Self Sufficient, but there are many many reasons why allotments have such importance.


Here are my top 10 reasons that allotments are hugely valuable and worth fighting for, although I am sure that you can think of many more:

- They provide a means of growing your own food and this is especially important when you don’t have a garden space at home.   As urban living becomes more and more popular, so the amounts of private garden space available diminishes.  Whereas in times gone by we had more access to gardens, for those in their 20’s and thirties, especially in cities, they have no green space they can call their own, so a  generation is growing up with no access to green space. There’s an increased remoteness about it all and gardens can connect us with life that goes beyond the physical growing of vegetables.
-General education.  Having an allotment and growing food leads to a better  awareness of where food comes from and of important issues around buying locally, the value of organic products and of different methods of cultivation such as permaculture ; forest gardening; sustainability  etc.  How many times do we hear about children that have no idea where and how different foods grow and this is a tragedy!
- Connection with Nature.  We are becoming very disconnected from nature yet it is a fundamental human need to be in touch with the soil & nature & the pleasure from growing your own produce; its about being human and seeing our place by awareness that we are part of a wider universe (not one that resides in tower blocks and sci-fi films).  On many occasions when I go to my plot, I sit, sometimes for just a few minutes on a stone bench and I immediately get a sense of the wider nature that I am a small part of.
To help assist with Mental and physical health and well-being  At a time when our need to look after our mental and physical health couldn’t be greater, it is ironic and sad that we are in a situation of constant battle to protect allotments.  Being out on the plot helps people to destress and gather themselves as well as providing useful physical and productive activity such as the digging of beds, weeding, watering or any manner of other activities.  Beyond general well-being, allotments are also sources of assistance to those with greater mental health needs not being met by mainstream social care and the isolation that goes with such conditions.  The social interaction aspect of allotments cannot be underestimated.
- Value as multifunctional green spaces & important green infrastructure  In urban areas in particular, we need to ensure an adequate and interconnected network of green spaces is provided and allotments are an important component.  Multifunctional green spaces are important for us to tackle some of the climate change issues around effective management of water and heat including mitigation of flooding and drought.  Allotments are a useful part of this green infrastructure story.
- Wildlife value particularly for bees  The benefits of allotments for wildlife cannot be underestimated.  They are teaming with beneficial insects including bees and often hives are located on allotment plots.  Allotments provide that critical combination of habitat and food for wildlife.  Flowers and herbs in particular provide useful nectar and pollen for bees and the range and wide variety ensure food sources throughout the year .
 – Community & connection with others, uniting people of different backgrounds and cultures.  Most often, when we visit the plot, there is an opportunity to interact with other plot holders, either just to exchange greetings or often, to discuss the latest crop successes and challenges. There are also plot get togethers, monthly meetings and twice yearly plant sales as well as a shop that opens each weekend during season.   This opportunity for connection shouldn’t be underestimated as it contributtes to community cohesion and participation: it can help integrate individuals and families into their communities as well as providing friendships; all things that shouldn’t be taken lightly in today’s increasingly isolating and technologically driven society.
- Heritage  I wonder how many different varieties of vegetables and fruits maybe lost to us without the hand down and community demand for specific varieties?  These fruits and vegetables are our heritage and we should be growing and protecting them, not contributing to their demise by limiting what we can grow and source by the demise of allotments.
- Development & awareness of craft skills  there are close links between allotments and craft skills such as coppicing and coppice craft, creating herbal remedies, creating dyes, willow and willow weaving etc.  Although these are not linked to allotments, there value and potential on allotments becomes so much greater.  I am a great fan of coppiced hazel and use locally sourced sticks for climbing plants including beans and sweet peas. Since having an allotment I am much more in-tune with ethical sourcing and how to manage and use these products into my own plot.
-To connect with your past and bring it into the present  Only this morning on the plot, a group of us were taking about our individual family connections with food growing and provision.  Most of us had stories to tell about our families.  My mum and dad always grew their own fruit and vegetables in the garden and I still ask my dad for advice on my tomato growing, whilst my grandfather reared pigs and vegetables to feed the family during wartime and beyond.  To associate with those family traditions and learn the skills to hand on to the next generation is, I believe, a good thing!
 Nobody is arguing about the need for more housing (although I think we should be being a lot more creative and inventive about it!) but perhaps we should be questioning the need to build on such valuable allotment land and the long term consequences of such an approach; both to us human beings & to the environment!  Here is a selection of stories and images on The Guardian Witness from allotments across the UK, explaining what having an allotment means to them.
I am a landscape architect with experiences in contemporary design and green space management. My practice includes the design of interesting urban spaces including roof terraces, courtyards, kitchen gardens and other green oases. I provide both design services as well as project management and green space consultancy across a wide range of urban projects.

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