It can certainly be argued that allotments make a unique contribution to urban landscapes, a contribution which challenges conventional notions of both the urban and design. Urban allotments are a paradoxical echo of the countryside as it once was – a peopled landscape, yet accessible in the heart of the city, a space to construct the illusion of being in the ‘countryside,’ more friendly and accessible to people who wish to work with the land than the genuine contemporary countryside of agri-business, the social exclusivity of range-rover culture and the ‘rural way of life’ out in the green belt, the green lung that constricts the city’s breathing. A peopled landscape, but one with a settled and quiet feel, a shared space with a hint of gathered silence. And, in common with other urban agricultures, allotments challenge conventional notions of town and country as productive urban growing spaces. This conflation of urban and rural has been a consistent source of difficulty for urban designers, because it contradicts imposed categories of what urban landscape is – or should be, expressed in particular notions of order and control, purity of form and clean edges. Yet it is just this contradiction of norms that people who are not professional designers appear to value (Crouch and Ward, 2002). Surrounded by urban Handsworth in the west of Birmingham, a plotholder named June captures a value in going to the allotment that feeds off its distinctive landscape: ‘We come here for peace and quiet. . . It’s like being in the country in the city. To come here on a nice summer’s day you feel you’re in the country’ (Crouch, 2002). The regard felt by many people living, working, walking and cycling by allotments is testimony not only to their aesthetic value but also to the need to engage a wider population in discussion of the future of sites. Well-kept but chaotically landscaped sites provide a landscape otherwise unavailable, a diversity of human and biological culture that unsurprisingly means that they are valued amongst both ecological and cultural circles.
The allotment also provides an escape that the town park and other open spaces cannot deliver. However designed for informality, the park remains for recreation and is not a producing the landscape where people can grow, create and adapt their own ground, producing the landscape themselves. The organic growth and the feckless dynamism of the seasons and human attention provide relief and variety to the regularity even of row cultivation. And of course, the allotment space is both public and private (Crouch, 1998): individual plot holders invest in the ownership of their plot, but people who pass by or visit for a chat are part of its public display. Here is a landscape marrying regulation with disorder, an anarchic invention, a never-ending work in progress.
How at odds these values seem with Lord Rogers’ brave new world of the (inedible) urban renaissance (Wiltshire, 1999). The report of the Urban Task Force (1999) reverts to the professionally self-serving model of an architecturally-led better city. Its diagnoses for obtaining good quality, high density urban living seek to revive a fifties style modernism that works from built form rather than human lives, communities and their actions and interactions. Such an approach would seem to fly in the face of the excellent work of community architects over three decades. High density living is assumed to be achievable through well-designed structures that respond to the built-form lessons of the middle of the last century. Where open space (including allotments) is acknowledged, it is afforded only a supporting role. Advocates for allotments must contest this reading of the city, and argue the evidence of value to human life and community identity that can emerge from the ways in which open, as well as interior space is used by individuals and groups. Exterior open spaces, like interior ones, offer the potential of shared and individual selfexpression, involvement and commitment. Of course, the opposite can happen too, creating moments in which facilitators, including professional designers and community architects, can play an important mediating role. The lesson of the allotment landscape is that spaces can be enlivened through human activity; their use can engender feelings of ownership through investments of time and energy, as well as commitment. This approach to ownership both deviates from and complicates notions of ownership that refer only to legal or financial investment. Allotment landscapes offer one means of making high density urban living both humanely tolerable and compatible with the achievement of sustainable cities, environmentally, culturally and socially.
The contemporary friction between allotment landscapes and the new urban modernism echoes an earlier, failed attempt to give allotments a designer makeover, instigated by the Thorpe Report of the early 1970s and its advocacy of the ‘leisure garden’ concept (Thorpe, 1975), a designer-imposed solution to allotments in Britain. Borrowing ideas from some very successful models of allotment (leisure) garden design in other European countries, Thorpe’s designer advisors were persuaded that these models would work in the UK. The report proposed spiral paths and ‘fans’ of plots and concrete blocks rather than the familiar individual sheds. In this respect these designs went further than those in other European countries, where the main format remains one of rectilinear plots in the familiar British style. The key characteristic of many sites across Europe is the presence of a large shed or chalet in which the law allows individual plotters to sleep. Wide trackways are provided on these sites in order to assist access and to become part of a more open design, although the landscape is softened by encroaching trees and plants that holders plant along the plot perimeter (Crouch and Ward, 2002).
Of course, the cost of redesigning sites on Thorpe’s basis proved prohibitive, save for a few showcase projects. But there was another key reason why allotments a la Thorpe were never realised in Britain. Their culture was alien to the ways in which the culture of British allotments had developed. This is not to deny change, and the last three decades have shown that there is increasing diversity in the ways individuals want their allotments to look and the ways they want to use them. Moreover, there is little support anywhere for allotment spaces that are neglected. However, it is a mistake to confuse the loose-fit character of allotment landscapes with neglect. Redesign of allotments had been a persistent feature of manuals and government-inspired advice since the 1930s, and even before that garden city design included neatly arranged allotment plots, although on the traditional layout. But the gardeners persist in softening the edges, disrupting the lines, etching their culture into the landscape.
The lesson of these unhappy marriages between allotments and imposed design is that it would seem eminently sensible and practical to work from where people actually are in terms of using allotments. The application of design principles to allotments requires an acknowledgement of the way individuals work their plots and an understanding of the meaning allotment-holding bears for people within these gardening communities; in short, a respect for the landscape of allotments as an autonomous expression of culture alive in the city.