What is the value of allotments to a community? Recently a survey of London’s allotments has been completed which identifies 5 main areas of benefit. The survey was commissioned by the Environment Committee and the London Assembly.Londons disapearing allotments (Link to london assembly pages, scroll down for A lot to lose)
Allotments are found within often densely populated urban areas. Living in cities can create a sense of isolation because the size of the city makes social networks difficult to establish. In Greenwich one association told the London Assembly
“Many firm friendships have orgininated here – the first question to any new allotment neighbour is not ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what are you planning to grow?’”
The mix of people with a common interest makes for interesting friendships which break age, religious and ethnic divides.
In his book Allotment Folk, Chris Opperman interviews many different allotment enthusiasts and their take on allotmenting is as diverse as they are. Stan, who is 26 and had just taken a plot says “if I hadn’t had people around me to show me what to do and encourage me I think I might have given up. Those people have become friends, good ones.”
This mirrors my own experience when, 6 months pregnant, I first looked at the grassy area which was my allotment. Two old timers, George and Jim provided advice, encouragement and lots of practical help. In my first growing season most of my produce was gifts from other plotholders as I struggled to tame the weeds and clay soil that I had inherited.
The allotment is social but it is also a place of solitude and peace.
One of the most frequently cited benefits of allotment gardening is health improvement and the impact of ‘green exercise’ on physical and mental health is of increasing interest to the medical professionals.
Research such as the Cultivating Health project illustrate the advantages to older people of allotment gardening.
The health benefits were also recognised by the Government in its response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committees report The Future of Allotments (September 1998)
In which the government recognises the health benefits of allotment gardening and agrees that “allotments will often form a component part of healthy neighbourhoods”
The health argument is more compelling when you add Government predictions that over 12 million people will be obese by 2010. (Forecasting Obesity to 2010, Department of health August 2006).
The health values of gardening are not disputed, and in a period of extensive house building where new homes are often built with very little outside space, the demand for allotments can be expected to rise.
The London Assembly report A Lot To Lose cites an association in Barnet
“At any one time here there are up to a dozen plotholders who are chronically ill, often with cancer, for whom the allotments are a positive lifeline, a source of physical and spiritual refreshment that keeps them going from day to day.”
My husband was made redundant 9 months after our daughter was born. I think that working the plot, producing our own food, helped us through that very low point. It was 18 months before he found another job.
The Medical Foundation for the care of victims of torture has found gardening effective in its work with torture survivors. Those involved in the charities natural growth project find it easier to talk about the past outside, on one of the projects allotments.
There are long term health benefits from eating a diet high in fruit and vegetables. I grow fruits that we all love but that are too expensive to buy in large quantities, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, rhubarb, those sweet peas in the pod and plums.
In May 2006 The Majors Food Strategy Healthy and Sustainable food for London identified as a priority action the expansion of individual and community growing, for example in allotments.
Allotments have been used by many councils to help to educate children and young people about food production.
Allotments have a special status as green areas within often heavily built up urban centres and they can make a valuable contribution to biodiversity.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, London, says
“House sparrows and starlings are among birds disappearing from our streets but its noticeable from our annual Big Garden/Big Schools birdwatch campaigns that areas around allotments fare much better…. To some an untended plot may be an eyesore but these wild areas are home to a wide range of birds and insects. Bramble and ivy provide both food and shelter all year round and are favoured by wrens, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes.” (p.11 A lot to lose, Londons disappearing allotments)
These arguments are supported by many plotholders. See my previous blog on biodiversity
Allotments also greatly reduce the transport costs of food. They have the shortest distance from field to plate. A government report The Validity of Food Miles as an indicator of sustainable development in July 2005 put the environmental, social and economic cost of food transport at £9 billion annually. 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in the UK in 2002 as a result of food transportation.
Food packaging is also a major issue facing todays government. It is estimated that UK households produce the equivalent of 245 jumbo jets worth a week of packaging waste.statistics from waste online
The actions of individuals have been increasingly highlighted by government as vital to reducing landfill and to becoming ‘carbon neutral’. One way for local communities to help to achieve this is by providing allotments for all those who with to cultivate them – friends and neighbours benefit too- and to promote this lifestyle as vigorously as possible.
The original purpose of allotments in the General Inclosure Act of 1845 was to provide a source of fresh food for the landless poor. Some plots are productive enough to reap real savings for individuals. My own plot means I am self sufficient in fruit and veg for two months of the year, and do have some crops all year round.
In the past allotments were a vital part of a families income – John Stuart Mill claimed that allotments were a contrivance to compensate the labourer for the insufficiency of his wages by giving him something else as a supplement to them. (J.S Mill Principles of Political Economy Volume 2 1848)
Having a plot though, means you always have something to give, always part of allotment life. This is a market where you can give and take – share – with pleasure.