Urban Gardens

During the last few months, many people have reconnected with the natural world. Lockdown has shined a light on how vital having green space is to our health and well being. For weeks our worlds shrank to the size of our homes and having a daily walk became a welcome respite. Inequality has arisen in that poorer neighbourhoods often have a smaller provision of green space that is accessible to them. Nationally, 440,000 people live in “grey deserts” and have no access to green space at all [2]. This article will explore how urban gardens and growing food can improve quality of life for people living in cities in the global north.

The UN predict that by 2050, 68% of the globe will be urban [1]. With greater urbanisation comes greater disconnect between residents and their food sources, and an increased dependency on imported and processed food [3]. Larger cities also have a higher proportion of poorer people who may struggle with food insecurity and cannot afford to buy the recommended ‘5-a-day’ fruit and vegetable intake. Despite this, land allocated to allotments has declined by two thirds in UK cities which makes them less accessible to the families that would benefit most from them [1].

Image Credit: Christian Guthier (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During the 2008 economic crisis, staple foods such as rice tripled in price and in Alicante, Spain, the use of allotments was re-evaluated. The economic crisis halted growth in construction and urbanisation and people turned to urban agriculture as a way to supplement their family’s food shop with fresh produce [4]. Urban gardening and allotments have a small role in food production are unlikely to reach the scale and breadth needed to displace the current food system. However, food gardens in the UK are very significant to the individuals and communities who tend them.

“There is a degree of separation between bought and grown produce. There is also a strong seasonality to what can be grown in this country, which selectively changes demand and might encourage more community trading.”

Professor Philip Warren, University of Sheffield

Up to a quarter of allotments that had fallen out of food production in the UK could be reconverted back into allotments [1]. A study showed 13% of these ‘lost plots’ in Leicester were undeveloped [3]. This shows that there is the opportunity to provide more garden space to city dwellers. However, re-conversion of these ‘lost plots’ needs to be assessed on a case by case basis and if the previous allotment land is providing a similar value to the community as part of a park or similar, it wouldn’t be practical to reconvert. Similarly, if the land has been contaminated or degraded it would no longer be suitable for allotment use.

“An increased push on land values, where green space is seen as low value, coupled with high densification of urban land shifts the priority to infilling. In the worst case scenario, green space gets squeezed out by those commercial pressures.”

Professor Philip Warren, University of Sheffield

Around 25 – 30% of urban residents participate in agriculture and there has also been a rapid increase in participation by young people aged between 18 and 35 [3]. The motivation to undertake urban agriculture is there and many allotments have long waiting lists so it is in the interest of councils to provide spaces for this.

Recent developments in soil free agriculture have opened the door to development of grey infrastructure such as flat roof areas for cultivating for people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to undertake urban gardening [5]. In a study of Sheffield, if all suitable areas were cultivated, there would be enough land to grow fresh produce for approximately 709,000 people per year on their ‘5 a day’ diet. This is 22% more food than is needed to feed the entire population of the city [5]. While the actual production figure is likely to be much less, the benefit of the increased vegetable diet and the positive influence of green spaces on mental health would remain [6].

 “Best case scenario is a combination of valuing green space for all the things it does and therefore because it has value it allows us to create growing spaces and allotments and community gardens, not eroding the gardens we have by building on them or making them smaller.”

Professor Philip Warren, University of Sheffield

During this time of green recovery it is essential that we consider meeting the health and happiness requirement for gardening spaces. This is especially true for deprived areas, as not only are the people living there most in need, they also have the least access. A good approach to take would be small but frequent provision of urban allotments scattered throughout cities. These must also be accessible and potentially subsidized for low income families.

What are your thoughts about urban gardening and how has it helped you? Let me know in the comments!


[1] Dobson, Edmondson & Warren (2020) Urban food cultivation in the United Kingdom: Quantifying loss of allotment land and identifying potential for restoration Landscape and Urban Planning. Volume 199, July 2020, 103803 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103803
[2] Vivid Economics and Barton Willmore (2020) Levelling up and building back better through urban green infrastructure: An investment options appraisal. Commissioned by the National Trust
[3] Edmonson et al. (2020) Feeding a city – Leicester as a case study of the importance of allotments for horticultural production in the UK
[4] Ana Espinosa Seguí, Barbara Maćkiewicz & Marit Rosol (2017) From Leisure to Necessity: Urban Allotments in Alicante Province, Spain in Times of Crisis. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 16(2): 276-304
[5] Edmondson, J.L., Cunningham, H., Densley Tingley, D.O. et al. The hidden potential of urban horticulture. Nat Food 1, 155–159 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0045-6
[6] Francis et al 2012 Quality or quantity? Exploring the relationship between Public Open Space attributes and mental health in Perth, Western Australia. Social Science & Medicine. Volume 74, Issue 10, May 2012, Pages 1570-1577. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.01.032