Urban Agriculture is not a new phenomenon. Allotments have allowed citizens in the UK to grow food in and around our cities for over 100 years. In order to understand how this traditional British past-time fits into the world of 2019 and beyond, we need to start at the beginning.
In 1908, the ‘Small Holdings and Allotments Act’ came into force in the UK, that made it a priority for local councils across the UK to create new allotments according to demand - which originated from the country’s basic need to produce more food. By 1918 there were over 1.5million allotments plots in Britain. In 1922 and 1925 two new ‘Allotments Acts’ were sequentially passed which helped strengthen the rights of plot holders.
Today there are still over 300,000 allotment sites across the country, with the nation’s capital accounting for at least 1000 locations by itself. From the outset, those might seem like some healthy stats, but when we realise that London contains 13% of the country’s population but a mere 0.3% of the allotments - the picture becomes a little clearer.
So why would this be an issue? Well aside from the various problems revolving swelling urban populations and lack of sustainable food infrastructures covered in our introduction to this series, allotment numbers just aren't as healthy as we think. To elaborate more, let’s focus on London as a case study.
Waiting lists between 3 and 40 years
Although having an allotment might seem like a traditional past-time, growing trends in sustainable eating and the desire for local food means that waiting lists for them are as busy as ever. Depending on where you live in London, ‘waiting’ around for an allotment could mean anywhere between 3 and 40 years. If that tells you anything about the number of people in line for an allotment, think of all the socially conscious young professionals in the city that don’t stay here longer than 5 years: the current numbers are soft. Falling into this category myself, I can testify to the closed waiting lists and the fact I’m not getting a plot anytime soon whilst I live in the city.
So what’s holding up the process, the first ‘Allotments Act’ made councils responsible for creating new plots didn’t they? Well in London, the value of land has always been at a premium when compared with the rest of the country, and in 1963, the government knew this was going to continue. As a result, the ‘London Government Act’ was passed which changed the wording from 'shall' to 'may' with regards to the ‘Inner Boroughs’ requirement to investigate new demand for allotments.
Whilst the legislature hasn’t always been in place to help allotments in London thrive, it’s important to note that there are other forces at work in the country that have always supported the growth and stability of the culture. Namely, the National Allotment Society. I caught up with long standing member and mentor from the NSALG, Diane Appleyard, to discover how the organisation is facing new challenges heralded by the dawn of the digital age of the 21st Century.
“At the moment (our biggest challenge) is probably membership retention, although we are currently thriving, membership organisations nationwide are struggling to retain members. We consult with members on a regular basis in order to stay relevant and adaptable.
The decline in membership organisations is probably down to quite a few issues such as volunteer recruitment in a busy world; information is much more accessible, at one point specialist organisations could be gatekeepers and hang on to their USP much more easily. Also not keeping up with the way that people communicate- social media etc.”
Since it’s inception in 1930, the NAS has always helped to sustain allotments in any number of ways: from legal support, and hardship grants for families, to initiatives such as the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign or food distribution drives - however it’s interesting to hear that perhaps the focus for the modern world might be more to do with communication rather than hands on efforts. Through all the wholesome benefits that a traditional pastime like a allotment farming brings, perhaps a less traditional approach to promoting and preserving allotments is required.
New tribes of allotment farmers are emerging
Despite the tradition of poorly maintained websites and enthusiastic but over-worked volunteers, in 2019, new tribes of allotment farmers are emerging. Just over a year ago, during the embryonic stages of my interest on the subject I stumbled upon a Facebook group called ‘Allotment and Vegetable Growers’… I joined immediately in order to get a sense of the tone and sentiment amongst allotment holders of today’s world. If ever there was a doubt in the swell of enthusiasm behind DIY food production, cast it aside now.
The group boasts a whopping 32,000 members and counting, with questions and topics posted thick and fast covering anything from sowing; cultivation; identification; to build-your-own planters and more. It reassures me to know that despite all of the pitfalls and potentially destructive drawbacks that the digital age of social media brings, it also offers the means to connect and foster community. Whilst many 20-something’s flock to Instagram to avoid getting tagged in quizzes from their mothers on ‘which Game of Thrones character are you?’… a new flood of activity is emerging.
If you want to paint a picture of why all this is important, or why so many are now sharing in the culture, it’s best to go right to the source. I posted the following question directly to the Facebook group: ‘how has having an allotment changed your relationship with food?’ Below is one of the answers that stuck with me the most:
“A few things changed for me when I began growing, not just with the food itself. Firstly, I felt I became connected… I appreciate the weather more and don’t hate rainy days. I began to realise what goes in to the supermarket fruit and vegetables to keep them pest free. I also feel a huge sense of achievement when i have my own home grown food on the plate at dinner time or see my daughter happily eating something she’s never tried before because she helped grow it.” - Lauren P (admin to the ‘Allotment and Vegetable Growers' FB group)
When you read this, you might think it sounds too good to be true. It paints an image that harks back 10 or 20 years to a time when our lives weren’t as solipsistic or smart phone-centric… and yet this is from a young mother in 2019. When we tout the idea of growing your own food as a sustainable and more healthy way to live, we often forget that there is merit in the simplicity of the pastime itself. Whilst my generation looks to practices such as meditation and yoga to fulfil our sense of wellbeing and mental health, perhaps it’s time to get back to basics and think of growing as something for both the body and mind.
How we can create more food growing spaces
Whether or not allotments can solve the problems we face in sourcing our food in the future remains to be seen. What is clear is the impact that growing your own food can have. The pastime may not have the legislative infrastructure going forward to make a dent on the increasing urban population, but the growers within the community aren’t going anywhere. Allotments may have risen to wide-spread use through government action, but perhaps the future of growing in the city will rely more deeply on the community that supports them.
If you're area is crying out for some new allotments, and you aren't sure what to do about it, fear not! At AllotMe we've outlined a simple step by step guide to leverage your local council into investigating the need for more plots. Head over to about.allotme.co.uk/with-my-community to find out more.
There's no doubt that the above process will be slow and arduous. So if you're on the hunt for a plot in your area, you can always head straight to app.AllotMe.co.uk to see what's already on offer. We've made it our mission to turn as many pieces of idle land as possible into thriving vegetable gardens. If you don't see a plot in your area, you can always join our Greenfinger Waiting List at AllotMe.co.uk/greenfingers and you'll receive a notification as soon as a plot is listed near you.
As this blog series progresses, we'll be investigating other ways that individuals and groups are coming together to take the question of how we source our food more seriously. Next time, we’ll look at how guerrilla movements that aren’t waiting around to get an allotment, but instead are building their own - taking new forms, and challenging old ideas.