Friday, 23 October 2020

Allotment Community Outreach: 2 Community Land


We often forget that the land that most allotments are on is owned not by the Society, or its plot holders, or in fact by the local authority, but by the community. It may be the local parish council, a local council, or a metropolitan borough whose name is on the freehold, but it remains community land and open space.

So how do allotments integrate and work with the community? In this short series of articles, we look at some of those communities and opportunities. There is no right or wrong approach, just opportunities.

2. Community Land

The allotment acts were set in statue at the beginning of the 20th century to encourage, protect and give impetus to the development of allotments for communities grappling with urban sprawl, industrial pollution, an unhealthy lifestyle, no land on which to grow and general polarisation of society. Today we can change the labels, but the messages are similar. The laws as set out intended that allotments were to be available for a percentage of the population has long gone. The allotment movement went in and out of fashion during the 20th century and the space within urban areas disappeared rarely to return. The Thorpe Report in 1969 put forward the case again, but got short shrift against the materialism, consumerism and social change of the day and the decline in allotment demand continued until the 21st century.

'We also believe that boroughs that have unmet demand for allotments should consider using s106 agreements to compel the developers of high density housing to allocate a portion of land for use as allotments.'  -London Assembly report: A Lot to Loose: London's Disappearing Allotments, Oct 2006.

Today many now seek a return to the health and well being on offer through allotments. The environment, biodiversity, and all things green and healthy may be spoken of by all, but the reality is that concrete and glass development still dominate in a world of exploding population growth. Perfect supermarket vegetables with ‘sell by dates’ are deemed to be better than ‘wonky veg’ and no so perfect vegetables. Allotments continue to be low in the prioritises of local authorities. 

‘The lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives.’ Gertrude Jekyll.

How do we accommodate the children, their parents, community social groups, those less able and effectively create a virtual circle of opportunity to grow? Allotments are only part of the answer and they can help encourage and educate, but they are not the solution but merely part of it.

‘…it must be capable of being applied equally to land used for all forms of recreation, since the only land use criterion distinguishing the allotment from the playing field and the park is the number of people who can be accommodated on it. Those who use this argument – and they include many local councillors – are thinking of ‘value’ purely in commercial terms, whereas the planner, values cannot always be stated in such terms…’ item 654 page 261 section 7 Thorpe Report 1969.

Community gardens are often sighted as the answer, but these often have little protection in the law, are heavily dependent on a small handful of enthusiasts and often are torn between being fully voluntary and requiring funding. Again, they are only part of the solution and not the solution.

Housing Associations (HSA) could provide extremely useful and productive areas within their estates. The major drawback here is that they often can only allocate land to the specific estate’s residents, so again are highly dependent on individuals. Here the HSA will often also require a visually acceptable and managed area which sounds easy but may not be so easy to maintain.

The bottom line is that the land is often owned by a body whose interest may be long term and in conflict with those of those seeking to work it.

'At a time of acute land scarcity, it is not surprising that envious eyes have been cast on urban allotment sites. They are almost invariably to be found within the perimeter of the town, where land is most urgently required. They often lie close to heavily built up areas, where the need for ancillary services is the greatest. As little or no demolition is necessary, they are usually simple to develop. Since the closure of an allotment site affects the lives of only a small minority of the town's inhabitants (and electorate) no great clamour of protest occurs. Finally, many sites, because of their untidiness and neglect, are looked upon by the public primarily as horticultural slums, whose disappearance would add to the attractiveness of the town and would provide space for more homes, schools or playing fields. It follows that if a planner proposes that a site should be developed, he is usually assured of the support both of the local authority and the majority of its ratepayers...' - item 88 page 32 section 1 Thorpe Report 1969.

‘I could put up a nice block of flats there and help meet the housing demand and targets,’ says the developer to the local authority who has steep targets to meet and little land and money to achieve them.

Should planners look to the provision of allotments and community gardens in the same way they look at schools, medical centres, parks, playgrounds? After all, allotments aid education, they can provide prescriptive medicine and health and wellbeing, are the best ‘five a day ’promotion and assist both physical and mental health.

For many allotments are still seen as shanty towns, overgrown wastelands and day care centres for the old.

Is this where we have to think seriously about rooftop gardens, sky gardens, urban growing on industrial sites? 

It is all about balance and as land scarcity increases and housing demand continues to grow, there is perhaps a need for a different approach to planning and provision of open space.

‘I support Alice Waters in her desire that there be a vegetable garden at the White House. I don’t think they should rip up the Rose Garden, because that’s something that I love. They should probably grow some vegetables there.’ - Martha Stewart.

The allotments also need to look beyond their fences and outreach to their communities and engage with them and perhaps alter their food supply and perception of growing and their perception.