Urban Gardening: Every City Has Its Own Story

Petra Očkerl

By Petra Očkerl, on August 17th, 2015

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Urban gardening is one of the most widespread collaborative spatial practices in Slovenia. It is not a new phenomenon as it has been present in Slovenian cities and towns for decades, most extensively since the end of World War II.
Urban gardens are everywhere – on municipal gardening plots, in schools and kindergartens, nurseries, and in the neighbourhoods. There are well-arranged gardens and gardens on temporary occupied plots in parks; there are gardening communities and traditional garden colonies, gardens on rented and lent plots. And this is the case in most cities in Europe and all around the world.
The phenomenon of urban gardening is much more than just about food production. Members of the global urban gardening community seek for a retreat to nature, an opportunity to socialise, to stay outdoors and work on the fresh air, and for self-realisation. More than the plots it is the communities formed around these that encourage citizens to cultivate their own gardens. According to Christa Müller, a German sociologist, urban gardens are the new centres of social solidarity and a tool to fight the feeling that we are the subjects of industrial production and consumption. The do-it-yourself and self-harvest concepts of urban gardening symbolise the search for self-expression, and imply a transition to post-modern values and lifestyles. Moreover, new gardening practices and growing communities are spurring local economies and new forms of commodity exchange. In Slovenia, a local initiative in Ljubljana Zelemenjava developed to a national movement, where seeds, saplings, and harvest surplus together with gardening knowledge are being exchanged regularly all over the country.

What Is The Role of Cities and Municipalities?

The needs of gardeners and the attitude of the cities towards urban gardening are constantly changing; the relationship between gardeners and city authorities is always rather tense. The authorities sometimes tend to regulate gardening and push it to the outskirts of the city, while gardeners are quite innovative in finding possibilities for gardens close to their homes, also in the city centres and in areas not planned for gardening.
How to respond to the needs and improve the regulations so that they will fulfil the expectations of both parties and how this is done in other European cities were the questions for a round table or-ganised in the framework of the Chelsea Fringe Ljubljana in May 2015 by Zelemenjava, Mreža za pro-stor, and IPoP. Guests from Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Vienna were invited to present their experience and exchange.

Ljubljana

Ljubljana, the national capital and biggest municipality in Slovenia, has a long tradition in garden planning and a great variety of gardening plots with a lively community life. Several studies that analysed gardening locations and changes trough time together with the opinions of gardeners proved that gardeners prefer the possibility to have a temporary garden in the city and close to their home over having a long-term arrangement in the outskirts of the city. This seems to be the crucial problem of urban gardening in Ljubljana and one of the causes for the development of widespread illegal/informal gardening in the city. While in the past the authorities assumed that gardening will eventually disappear from the city, urban gardening community was getting stronger and new gardens are being set all over the town.
After the introduction of more restrictive policies in 2007, the gardeners at least at some of the locations withdrew their regular gardening activities while waiting for what is going to be offered by the municipality. However, the measures taken by the municipality – some new locations and solutions – did not meet the needs, and several abandoned urban gardens made a comeback few years later. Although the municipality supports and plans garden plots, these are mainly located out of the city and established top-down with a lack of public participation in planning and construction. Until today, the municipality has not managed to meet the high demand for gardening plots. Nevertheless, gardening has proven to be highly resistant to urban planning and a lively scene remains in the very centre of Ljubljana.
Other municipalities in Slovenia tend to follow the example of Ljubljana. This means that since 2007 many of them have dealt with urban gardening with the intention to eliminate illegal gardening and to plan newly organised municipal gardening areas. While many of them are preparing new gardening ordinances and plans, some managed to start experimental projects or even succeeded to totally rearrange the gardening practice like Slovenj Gradec. In Maribor, the first community garden in Slovenia was organised during the European Capital of Culture and another one Beyond the construction site started as a cultural project in Ljubljana that became well known for its vital gardening community.

Zagreb

Eko ekipa Pre-ìko Zagreb
In Zagreb, urban gardening emerged as a political issue in 2013 when the mayor announced that the municipality would arrange urban gardening plots. The communal garden for organic production and permaculture Eko Ekipa Prečko was organised by the citizens, who voluntarily cleaned an abandoned area owned by the city. Despite their struggle to get an official permission, they could only obtain a tacit approval. The city does not oppose their activities but also does not formally support them and consequently carries no responsibility.
In Croatia, it is hard to define the general sentiment the local authorities have towards urban gardening. Some are offering strong support (cooperative Gredica in Varaždin) and some are ignoring the requests of the citizens, as the above presented case in Zagreb. There are also many cases of cooperative bottom-up urban gardens that gained some kind of support from the local authorities, such as cooperative udruga Zona00 in Rijeka, cooperative Kopriva in Koprivnica, and cooperative Zelena spirala in Split.

Vienna

Vienna has a long tradition of municipal garden planning and strong political support for urban gardening. There are three different types of urban gardens in Vienna: allotment gardens, community gardens and self-harvesting. The traditional gardens at the outskirts (Schrebergarten) are predominantly used by senior citizens, whereas the community urban gardens in the city centre are popular with the open-minded young generation. The city supports gardening in several ways, most importantly through financial support for basic facilities and management.
In addition, there is an online information platform and a telephone line where all questions are answered instantly. Gartenpolylog, an NGO promoting the urban gardening culture with a record of gardens and awareness raising activities, is also partly funded by the city. Urban gardens in Vienna are located in 50 different spots all around the city, including the very city centre. Some of them have been organised by the city, others are a result of local initiatives. All of them are treated in the same way by the city and get the same support; there is only one difference – the community gardens can only be used by one person for a limited period of three years.

Soft Measures Rather than Facilities

Although planning is important and regulation should not be ignored, what has proven to be of substantial importance for urban gardening practice is the capacity of municipalities to cooperate with the gardeners and react to individual requests and cases. The examples of good practice are always a result of fruitful cooperation between gardeners, landowners, and authorities rather than perfectly managed facilities and strict regulations. Therefore, the cities should focus on soft measures and support, which is in either case the better deal in times of austerity cuts. The municipality could deal with urban gardening by providing information where urban gardening is allowed and supporting the development of gardening practice on updated grounds – treating gardening also as a temporary land use and socially important practice. Physical support on the other hand such as water facilities at the plot is not as important to gardeners.

By Petra Očkerl and Maja Simoneti, IPoP. This article is an adaptation of the articles Vrtičkarstvo – vsako mesto ima svojo zgodbo and Vrtičkrastvo – med subkulturo in novo prehransko politiko by Maja Simoneti and Što žele vrtlari, a što nudi lokalna vlast? by Vanja Radovanović

Photos: Jutarnji list, Prostori sodelovanja, Gartenpolylog

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