Friday, May 6, 2016

Allotment Gardens: A Lesson in Sustainable Urban Renewal

In most major American cities, the land adjacent to expressways and railroad tracks is more often than not peppered by low income housing, scrap yards, fast food restaurants, bill boards, porn shops, vacant lots and litter. That’s not the case in many European countries which have a legacy of allotment gardens.  An allotment garden is a piece of land leased from the local government on which city dwellers yearning to be outdoors can cultivate gardens.  Some of these gardens contain structures; some large enough to spend a weekend or even the entire summer.  The gardens are as varied as the gardeners who lovingly tend to them. 
Such is the case in the Netherlands where I visited Tuinpark Eigen Arbeid on the outskirts of The Hague[i].  Eigen Arbeid is sandwiched between major thoroughfares and open fields, where wild flowers bloom and cattle lazily graze. For an annual fee of 800 Euros, Eigen Arbeid offers its gardeners a large lot on which they can construct a shelter no larger than 20 square meters or 66 square feet.  While the shelters are more akin to cottages, overnight stays are not permitted at Eigen Arbeid, although that is not the case at all allotment gardens.
Eigen Arbeid, which also serves as a public park, evokes a feeling of peace, tranquility and being one with nature. There was a quiet buzzing around the garden’s beehives, the silent paddling of ducks around the reeds and lily pads in its corridors of canals, and the sing-song of birds merrily chirping.  Gardeners were seen biking through the Eigen Arbeid; pushing wheelbarrows bursting with plant material, riotous in color; quietly tending their vast array of plants; and relaxing or entertaining on patios made of pavers; some of which were elaborate in pattern. 
It was so charming that I felt as if I were wandering through an enchanted world.

Some of the gardens were dedicated to vegetables, others were more floral, with the majority being a combination gardens.  A few of the gardens were reminiscent of formal English or Italian gardens.  As unique as the gardens, were the cottages and their owners.  For instance, Gotfriedt and Anneke Meer had a floral garden, where the plant material included anemones, peonies, forsythia, daffodils, tulips, butterfly shrubs, coral bells, ferns, cherry and apple trees.  A focal point was the gently gurgling water fountain.  Behind their garden was a canal and across from the canal, was an open expanse where cattle were spotted grazing off in the distance. 
The Meer’s were gracious enough to not only show me around their garden but also invited me into their cottage.  Gotfriedt explained that such cottages cost between 2,000 and 20,000 Euros to construct.  The cottage’s interior was constructed of all natural, unstained wood and contained everything anyone would need for not only a pleasant but, a most comfortable day.  There was couch that opened into a bed, in case the need for a nap arose, cozy pillows, floral curtains fluttering in the breeze, a small table topped with thick novels, wicker arm chairs for guests, a small refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave, propane powered stove and a half bath.  All this without gas or electricity.  Rather, the cottage was powered by four solar energy panels, used rainwater collection, and had a propane stove.  I would be remiss if I did not say that it would mean the world to me to have such a haven to retreat.
After promising to return later in the year, I next met Harry and Reit Burgh.  While their garden and cottage differed, their willingness to share their private world and its history with me was equally humbling.  They acquired their allotment garden in 2006.  Framed on the wall of the cottage was a photo collage showing the garden as it existed in 2006 and the process by which the new cottage was constructed by Harry and their son.  It was rightfully a source of family pride.  The inside of Burgh’s cottage had many if not all of the same amenities as the Meer’s.
Their garden was divided between florals and vegetables.  Reit seemed to be in charge of the flowers, which as the pictures reflect, were already blooming profusely in early May. 
The vegetables were already in the ground and thriving due to a series of greenhouses and cold frames.  There was endive, Bibb lettuce, radishes, two kinds of beans, cucumbers, cauliflower and tomatoes.  Harry also had cherry, plum and apple trees; with the apple tree adorned with delicate white blossoms, a promise of the fruit to come. 
As the area receives an infinite amount of rainfall, moss and algae growing between the patio’s pavers is problematic.  I know, because my patio in The Hague suffers the very same problem.  Reit showed me how to eliminate the problem using only azijn or vinegar, as only organic gardening is allowed; commercial pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited.  Harry had used a bit of beer in a tin can, its edge level with the soil, as that’s how you catch plant devouring slugs!
At the back of the garden, the Burghs had two compost barrels guaranteeing a continuous supply of nutrient rich soil; a natural fertilizer.
The Burghs told me that during the summer months they often entertained friends and family at their garden oasis.
At Groenewoud Gardens in nearby Utrecht, office buildings are interspersed among the green surroundings of the allotment gardens; some of which are even maintained by the business owners.. The architecture of the shelters was specified to compliment that of the commercial buildings.  The combination created a better office environment and eliminated ground maintenance costs[ii].
Allotment gardens or volkstuinen are by no means new in the Netherlands.  In 1911 the Netherlands passed its first national law on allotment gardens.  There are now over 240,000 allotment gardens in the Netherlands covering 0.12 percent of the Netherlands’ total land area. The average size of an allotment garden is 2 hectares or almost half an acre[iii].  Allotments without a shed or shelter may be as small as 15 square meters or 7 x 7 feet.  Each allotment garden has its own rules, such as whether overnight stays are allowed.  Every spring, the Dutch queue for their chance at an allotment.  Once an allotment is leased, that lease continues indefinitely; a family death often results in the garden being passed down to the next generation.
Allotment gardens not only facilitate social cohesion but, research shows that spending half an hour in an allotment leads to a 22 percent drop in the stress hormone cortisol, twice the amount reading a book[iv].
Agnes van den Berg, from Wageningen University and Research Centre, the Netherlands, said: "Taken together, our findings provide the first direct empirical evidence for health benefits of allotment gardens. Having an allotment garden may promote an active life-style and contribute to healthy ageing[v]."
Allotment gardens can be found in many European countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Hungary and Sweden.
Allotment gardens are consistent with many of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and serve as a model for both developed and underdeveloped nations.  Goal 1 is to reduce poverty.  Allotment gardens provide a way to not only grow food but to sell any surplus.  Goal 2, Zero Hunger, is closely related.  The organic gardening techniques further Goals 14 and 15; 'Life Under Water' and 'Life on Land', respectively.  Groenewoud Gardens is an example of SDG 13, 'Sustainable Cities and Communities'.  The use of solar power exemplifies SDG 7, 'Affordable and Clean Energy'. The documented positive health effects further SDG 3, 'Ensure Healthy Lives and Well-Being for All at All Ages'.  SDG16 seeks to 'promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development'; a benchmark met by the social cohesion facilitated by allotment gardens.
About the Author
Cynthia M. Lardner is a journalist, holding degrees in journalism, law, and counseling psychology. Her blogs are read in over 37 countries.  As a thought leader in the area of foreign policy, her philosophy is to collectively influence conscious global thinking. Living in Den Hague or The Hague, she is currently looking for a challenging position in foreign policy, journalism, or social justice.
[ii] Stekelenburg, Erik "Garden Shed as Architectural Assignment", June 17, 2003, as found on the www at
[iii] "Over 200 hectares of allotment garden liquidations within a decade", September 17, 2009, as found on the www at
[iv] Adams, Stephen, "Allotments really are good for your health", November 23, 2010, The Telegraph, as found on the www
[v] van den Berg et al, "Allotment gardening and health: a comparative survey among allotment gardeners and their neighbors without an allotment", November 23, 2010, BioMed Central Ltd. 2010, as found on the www at

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