ALLOTMENTS AS (OPEN) GREEN SPACE

The few references that are made to design issues in Growing in the Community (Crouch et al., 2001) focus on the conflicting aesthetics of the public gaze and the spontaneous vernacular landscape of the allotment. Far from appealing to the onlooker as an open green space, allotments sometimes present a closed, ramshackle face to the world, an issue which underlies the citation as good practice in Kennet District Council’s planning requirement for sites ‘to avoid detrimental impact on landscape character and landscape features’ and the need for self-built sheds to be subject to ‘some degree of sympathetic regulation… to prevent the site from appearing too untidy. . .’.

The roots of the vernacular tradition in allotment structures, in making do with recycled and refash­ioned materials rather than splashing out on the ornate pinewood cabins so readily available in garden centres these days, lie in the origins of allot­ment gardening as a subsistence activity rather than a leisure pursuit, and in an inherent insecurity of tenure which is often compounded by planning blight, be it real or imagined. In rewriting the purpose of allotment gardens, Growing in the Community (Crouch et al., 2001) heaps praise on the use of recycled materials on allotments as a practical contribution to local sustainable devel­opment and the achievement of Agenda 21 objectives, a clear illustration of how aesthetic con­siderations can jar with other logics deployed to sustain the plot. At a deeper level however, the opportunity to self-build can be counted as part of the value of allotments to plotholders, a mode of self-expression beyond the reach of consumerist values and the instant TV designer garden, and a path to realising identity on an intimate, private scale, without reference to publicly authorised norms. For some observers this vernacular land­scape has an enormous appeal of its own:‘It’s the tumble-down bricolage that is utterly seductive’ (Midgley, 2000). While this neatly captures the aes­thetic sense required to appreciate the allotment vista, the fact that it is an aesthetic not always shared in the cultural mainstream helps explain the subsequent appearance of the quotation in Private Eye magazine’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’.

The contested aesthetics of the allotment as viewed open space intersect with design considera­tions in the arena of planning policy guidance, and specifically in the current reformulation of PPG17 (Sport, Open Space and Recreation). The draft PPG17 calls for the creation of ‘good quality’ open space, and emphasises the need to ‘apply design criteria in order to maintain or enhance the quality of the public realm’ (Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 2001, p. 22). There is scope for anxiety here, about the criteria to be employed to define ‘well-designed’ spaces (and their aesthetic assumptions), about who controls these criteria, and the sensitivity with which they may be applied.

A related and significant issue is the extent to which allotment sites, however visually seductive they might become, can actually be made into ‘open’ spaces, in as much as access conflicts with both the security of private property and the sense of owner­ship that are part of the value of the allotment to the plotholder. Although allotment land is often publicly owned, the crops and gardening paraphernalia required to cultivate them belong to the gardener, and are vulnerable to theft and vandalism. Complaints about inadequate fencing and unlocked gates are frequently heard, and throw the contradic­tion between openness and security into sharp relief.

Access isn’t just a matter of interrupted views and freedom to gaze, however. Allotment tenancies establish rights of exclusive occupation, which can in practice last for decades, restricting the right of access to the gardening land itself to a fortunate band of early comers, particularly when individual plots are large. Through this process, allotments are transformed into semi-closed, semi-privatised public open spaces. Cultural expressions of the local ‘ownership’ that results can promote further exclusion, when young women, children, minorities, permaculturalists are made to feel unwelcome on the plots. Implicit in Growing in the Community (Crouch et al., 2001) is the need for good design at the site level to help overcome this unhelpful form of exclusivity, and realise latent demand for allot­ments, through simple measures like making plots smaller and sites safer for people of all ages and abilities. Fortunately, Growing in the Community (Crouch et al., 2001) does identify instances of good practice around the country of both local authorities and allotment associations working hard and in diverse ways to promote social inclu­sion on and around the allotment site – good prac­tice which careful design could reinforce.

The role of design, in site layout and exposure to the public gaze, is to maximise the numbers who feel they have a positive stake in the survival of the allotments, as gardeners, observers or passers-by. Where exclusion persists, however, it is legitimate to inquire whether many of the benefits that are common to allotments and other forms of open space – such as healthy exercise in the open air, might not be more effectively delivered to larger numbers by assigning allotment land to other recrea­tions: a threat to the plot from alternative green space uses. This is a strong rationale for the plotholders to take site design issues very seriously.