Today sees the start of Community Garden Week 2023. Across the UK, communities will be celebrating the many and varied types of community gardens, from children’s and neighbourhood gardens to therapy gardens and allotments.
The benefits of community gardens are almost endless. Evidence suggests that spending time outdoors in green spaces has positive effects on mental and physical health. Community gardens are also social spaces, bringing volunteers from different backgrounds together, which can reduce loneliness and help people of all ages learn more about nature. Community gardens have numerous positive environmental impacts, including improvements to air, soil and water, as well as increasing the biodiversity of plants and animals.
Strong roots, vital functions
Community gardens have their roots in agrarian societies dating back thousands of years. Later, as people moved into cities, many of them transformed plots of urban land into green spaces. These have been especially important for growing food in times of crisis. During World War II, the government’s “Dig For Victory” campaign transformed Britain from a food importer to a largely self-sufficient economy. By the end of the war, 75% of food was homegrown and there were 1.4 million allotments across the country.
During the post-war years, the UK’s reliance on food imports has risen, and by 2020 almost half of our food came from overseas. At the same time, supermarkets have overtaken shops selling local produce, and there has been a steep rise in consumption of processed foods, with subsequent impacts on the nation’s health.
Back to the land
But in recent years, things have started to change. The Covid-19 pandemic underlined the value of green spaces for improving our health and wellbeing. In addition, greater attention to healthy eating, environmental protection and rising food costs has attracted more people to the idea of growing their own fruit and vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Governments have taken note of these trends, and at national and local levels they have introduced measures aiming to make it easier to establish community gardens. One such example is the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act. Passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2015, the aim of this law is to support communities in doing things for themselves. Part 9 of the Act concerns increasing the accessibility of the land to those who wish to grow their own food.
The Act requires every Scottish local authority to prepare and publish its own food growing strategy. These strategies identify land for allotments and other community growing and describe how the authority will meet demand. While preparing their strategies, local authorities have consulted a wide range of stakeholders, including allotment associations, community councils, current allotment holders and existing community gardens.
Planning departments need to be involved in the preparation of food growing strategies, and will also require consultation about consents for community garden projects. But there is a clear shift towards official encouragement of community growing. The Scottish Government’s most recent National Planning Framework specifically mentions the importance of land for community food growing as an integral part of placemaking.
Food Growing Strategies: diverse ideas in action
The food growing strategies published so far demonstrate that Scotland’s local authorities have enthusiastically embraced the responsibilities placed upon them by the Community Empowerment Act.
Scottish Borders Council’s Food Growing Strategy includes ideas on getting started in growing activities, guidance on available support and information about existing community gardens and orchards in the region. It also features case studies of successful community gardens, including the Greenhouse Project in Galashiels, which provides home-grown produce for food parcels distributed to local families. The project also provides live cookery classes for children and recipe bags to support home cooking and healthier meals.
Argyll and Bute Council’s Food Growing Strategy features examples of good practice, including a case study of the Kyles Allotment Group, which was set up after the community purchased Acharossan Forest. The group rents plots to local people who grow a variety of fruit and vegetables, and there is also a community orchard.
Falkirk Council’s Food Growing Strategy explains how the council plans to increase space for allotments and community growing, including using some of the 632 parks and open spaces across the area for new growing sites.
The preparations for Glasgow’s Food Growing Strategy included a series of community engagement meetings across the city at which people were asked to identify any potential growing sites in their area. As a result, the strategy provides a map of existing and potential allotment sites in Glasgow.
The increasing popularity of home-grown food has underlined the shortage of growing spaces. Last year, local authorities in Scotland reported high numbers of people were waiting for an allotment. In Edinburgh, the figure was 2,637, with a similar number in Glasgow. In some council areas the waiting list dated back 10 years.
In response to the significant demand for allotments, the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee launched an inquiry to scrutinise the delivery of local authorities’ responsibilities concerning community growing under the Community Empowerment Act. The Committee published its findings in 2022.
Among the challenges identified by the inquiry was the difficulty in gaining access to land for growing. Some witnesses giving evidence to the Committee expressed frustration about large amounts of vacant land that had the potential as growing spaces being unused by developers. The Committee also repeatedly heard that limited resources in planning departments were holding up applications for new allotments.
Among its recommendations, the Committee suggested that the Scottish Government might explore whether the provisions of Part 9 of the Community Empowerment Act could be extended beyond local authority owned allotments to other sites, such as those offered by the NHS, or to private allotment sites.
Beyond allotments: community growing opportunities
The shortage of allotments doesn’t mean people can’t get involved. Volunteering websites advertise numerous opportunities to join community garden projects. While previous experience is welcomed, most community gardens are just happy to receive help of any kind. And for the volunteers, enjoying the fresh air, meeting new people and learning new skills are just some of the rewards of taking part.
Food poverty, climate change, health inequalities and social isolation are among the big challenges of our age. No-one is suggesting that community growing projects can solve these problems on their own. But in their own modest way, community gardens are improving the lives of individuals, enriching communities and doing their bit for the planet.
Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash
Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on green spaces