Imagine a cosy cottage with an apple tree or two standing on the yard providing a welcome shade from the hot summer sun, talking to your neighbours about the development of this year’s strawberry crop, then go inside and cook those delicious home-grown new potatoes to go with the smoked salmon – after which you can walk a couple of yards to the tram stop and head home. That’s not just a wild product of the imagination of yours truly: Helsinki is actually full of garden allotments and patches that can be rent for cultivation; there are nearly 40 different sites listed on the Helsinki Public Works Department website. It seems that you really can fit town and country with all of their dualities into the same, neat package.
It is not only elderly people that use this opportunity for the purpose of killing time; it is a growing trend among the young, environmentally aware people of cities throughout the global North. Kata Martikainen, a 24 year-old Helsinki University student in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, has been an active home grower of vegetables for years now. She started off with growing salad and herbs on the windowsill, and during summertime on the balcony as well. This summer she will get to try her wings as a farmer in a larger perspective, that is, on her rented 100 square metre patch of farmland.
“Last year I tried growing vegetables in buckets on the balcony, but for example the potatoes were left seriously undersized. I’ve been dreaming of a farming patch for years, and now, with a few friends who are willing to participate in the maintenance of the allotment, I finally get to realise it.”
Local & Organic
Locally produced food is appreciated for various reasons: freshness is one of the key words, as is sustainability. People care more and more about the ethicality of food, and the carbon footprint of an imported Spanish tomato is beginning to look far too ugly.
“Ecological aspects are important to me, but unfortunately organic products and a student budget don’t go hand in hand. By growing my own vegetables I know exactly where they come from and what kind of fertilizers have been used”, Martikainen says.
Organic food production is still in its infancy in Finland, and as there are still no noteworthy plans for improving the situation in sight, people have been stirred to act on their own. In Herttoniemi a bunch of neighbours decided to rent a whole field for farming purposes and hired a gardener to cultivate it – it is completely independent of institutional or governmental help, it employs one person and provides over a hundred people with organic, locally produced fruit and vegetables. There are a bunch of local food circles in the metropolitan area through which one can place orders to various smaller food producers, whose products cannot be found on the shelves of the two big K and S because the amounts they produce are too small. Those lucky enough to get their hands on a rental piece of land to grow their own veggies often get hooked on the activity and won’t give the patch up without a fight. According to Martikainen, some of Helsinki’s farming sites have over a hundred people queuing for an opening patch.
Community Gardening & Decayed Cities
Gardening and farming in an urban environment can also have a stabilizing affect: in the constant flow of people, goods and information that crowds the city it offers a long-term, productive activity; instead of dealing with everyday abstractions there is something concrete – something that produces results the eye can see and the mouth can taste. Doing together and making things happen – being activist– is in every way rehabilitating to the soul as well as to the city itself.
Jane Jacobs, a New Yorker and a community activist started a so-called garden renaissance in New York in the 1960s, a time when the workers’ suburbs had been emptied as the employees followed the fleeing manufacturing jobs to the South. The big industrial cities of the North were all facing decay as the urban sprawl drove people from city centres to the suburbs, and authorities were eager to bulldoze the empty blocks from the way of huge expressways. Jacobs and the committee she gathered single-handedly prevented the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was to be a ten-lane elevated highway going through Soho and Greenwich Village, to name a few.
For Jacobs, the city is a living and breathing organism – not a machine – whose lifeblood consists of its inhabitants and their innovativeness. The grassroots project of establishing community gardens on the yards of deserted buildings ultimately contributed in attracting people back to the derelict areas of the city and helped revive the vitality of NY. Laura Lawson, the author of City Bountiful, says that at the time, “gardening became a venue for community organizing intended to counter inflation, environmental troubles, and urban decline.”
Lungs of the City
Unfortunately, cities’ green areas are often first on the list to go when big construction projects take place. For the London Olympics 2012, the Manor Garden Allotments were ‘temporarily demolished’ from the way of the Olympic village in 2007. The phrasing sounds ridiculous – how could over a hundred-year-old farming patches be reinstated after the Olympics are through? Apple and olive trees won’t grow fruit for decades, and the tight-knit community that was torn apart will never be restored; some of the members had been present in the allotments since the 1920s.
Parks, allotment gardens and farming patches in the city area should be conserved, as they add to the quality of life of the citizens. Martikainen says that there is room for more innovative solutions in ‘greening up’ the city, for example transforming roofs of buildings for farming purposes, and taking courtyards into better use. “The green areas create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the city, and they are also important meeting places for people”. Gardens and parks are not called the ‘lungs of the city’ in vain, they offer an escape from the hectic urban life for a moment. Or can you imagine anything more relaxing than to take off your shoes, close your eyes, and slowly dip your toes into the soft, new grass?
For more information on community gardening and farming, check out these websites: