THE FUTURE FOR ALLOTMENTS IN. URBAN LANDSCAPES

Professor David Crouch and Richard Wiltshire

The allotment garden is uniquely privileged as a form of urban agriculture and open space land use in Britain, in as much as local authorities have a statutory duty to provide land for present and future cultivators to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Moreover, the majority of allotment sites cannot be disposed of without explicit consent from central government, the granting of which depends on cri­teria relating to the supply and demand position for allotment land within the locality, not on the alterna­tive designs authorities – or developers – might have on the land. This protection helps account for the continuing existence of these productive, peo­pled green spaces in urban landscapes throughout the country, despite the obvious commercial pres­sures to convert the land to other uses and realise its underlying monetary value. The original logic for providing and protecting this land was rooted in the poverty of manual workers over a century ago, however, and while allotments still provide for sub­sistence needs in many deprived communities, here as elsewhere the availability of cheap super­market foods and the claims of work time and alternative leisure pursuits have undermined the revealed demand for allotments, which has declined markedly since the high point of the wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns. Not only is the land under pressure from commercial developers, but also from other green space users, jostling for room to accommodate those alternative recreations. The future for allotments depends on the creation of modern logics to justify their retention and on com­promises between allotment cultures and alterna­tive claimants on the land – as property but also as landscape and leisure resource. In this chapter, we explore the role that design might play in securing that new future – within rationales for protecting allotments and in mediating change.

Most of the key arguments in redefining allotments for the twenty-first century were aired in the 1998

Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into ‘The Future for Allotments’ (House of Commons, 1998), which discussed arguments about wholesome food in an era of deep concern over the quality and safety of diets, about healthy exercise and relaxation in the open air for the elderly, the discarded and the dis­turbed, about biodiversity and the support for urban nature which allotments provide, and about inclusive communities with a shared interest in a direct rela­tionship with the land. It is notable, however, that design considerations received very little attention either in the Inquiry’s report, or in the subsequent good practice guide Growing in the Community, which the present writers co-authored (Crouch, Sempik and Wiltshire, 2001), and which has a clear advocacy tone. The low profile afforded to design in discourses on allotments is a consequence in part of a chequered history of past encounters, as well as the difficulty of reconciling design concepts with the legitimate needs of allotment holders and the cul­tures they have spawned.

The design challenges that allotments present can best be understood by focusing on three distinctive contributions which allotments make to the urban scene: their role as part of green space (open or otherwise) in urban landscapes; their distinctive contribution to urban landscapes as sites of overt autonomous and creative activity; and their role as sites of negotiation – between land uses at the micro scale, but also between people from diverse backgrounds finding ways to reconnect as commu­nities of propinquity and interest.