Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This has also been published on Scottish Land Action Movement.

The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

xxx

Recent news that Edinburgh City Council are planning to increase the rental prices of allotments by an average of 105% – and up to 500% for some renters – has caused serious backlash from the city’s allotment owners. This news comes at the same time that new research has shown city allotment soils are far healthier and more productive than much of the United Kingdom’s depleted farmland. Globally, around 30% of the world’s arable land has now been abandoned as poor farming practices leave soils depleted of nutrients and exposed to the risk of erosion.

Food security is one of the most serious concerns we currently face: from depleted soils, to the threat of climate change, to corporate agricultural practices that force small farmers from their land and leave the global food system vulnerable to market fluctuations. With over half of the world’s population now residing in urban areas, food production in cities is an increasingly essential development if a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 is to be sufficiently nourished.

Edinburgh City Council’s plans to increase the rental prices of allotments pose a serious threat to the accessibility of land that city dwellers can use to produce their own food and build the skills and capability needed to survive an increasingly unstable food system – not to mention the educational, nutritional and health (both mental and physical) benefits that come from growing food. People on low incomes, such as those more likely to live in housing where there is no garden access (particularly in tenement-dominated Edinburgh), will once again be those who are priced out of the means to create a sustainable lifestyle for themselves.

However, allotments are not the end of the story for urban food production and land access. Allotments themselves were originally created following the Enclosures Acts which forced many people off the common land which they had worked for centuries – they were an offering to the poor who were suffering from lack of access to productive land for food production. Today, however, allotment provision is simply not enough – a system created to placate people following the Enclosures is not a system that will ever create a radically different, community-focused form of urban land ownership. Not only can the waiting time for an allotment be anything from 4 to 10 years in Edinburgh, the very nature of individual plot ownership means that anybody who is short on time, physical health or even just gardening confidence makes allotments a luxury that are increasingly available only to the middle class, and not to those most in need of healthy, accessible, free food.

It is clear that a radical shift in urban agricultural land access patterns must therefore take place to create food-growing systems in cities that are accessible and egalitarian. In Edinburgh and throughout the UK, one way in which this is taking place is through the creation of community allotments such as The Grove at Fountainbridge, or Granton Community Gardens. Community food production such as these sites allow people to contribute as much time and skills as they are able without the pressure of being solely responsible for caring for the plants themselves. They act as sites of knowledge and skills exchange, friendship and community-building, and of course provide their members with food.

In cities where residents are denied access to land through the system of housing provision itself, priced out of access to allotments, and detached from food production systems, increasing the amount of land available to community groups must be a key tenet of any strategy looking to increase the resilience of cities against climate change, increasingly unstable global food markets, and urban poverty.

But this is a broader issue than food security or even an egalitarian land ideology. This is about maintaining – and in some cases, reviving – a direct connection with the land in an urban society where people are increasingly distanced from the soils they depend upon for life. If people are unable to access land, unable to experience the total dependence that we have on the soils and plants of the world to provide the means for continued survival, how can we really expect to foster a deep care for the earth in an age where disregard for planetary health has led humanity to the brink of a tipping point where our very survival hangs in the balance?

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