The underutilised potential of vegetable gardens to foster equality and empowerment

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet


Publication date

July 22, 2021

What better way to kick off the summer season than to watch a garden flourish? July is the beginning of the abundance of summer that rewards gardeners’ hard work.

The first ‘French Vegetable Garden Cup’ has just been launched by the Landestini Foundation, bringing together teams in over 500 schools aiming to put food and agriculture at the centre of teaching, and as a way to reconnect with life. This great initiative is only a small part of a huge trend of going back to nature, to the ground. This need to go back to basics and to get a handle on our destiny by helping produce part of the goods we need to live, directly where we live, is one of the major changes that has been further accentuated by the pandemic.

This trend started a few years ago, with cities developing food projects with schools, thinking about the roles they play in agricultural policy and attempting to safeguard arable lands in urban areas. These local production areas are often at the centre of debates and sometimes even opposition to urbanisation projects. The pandemic has accelerated the trend. The restrictions on movement we have all been faced with have changed the way we perceive what is ‘local’ in our environment. I can only imagine that the urban vegetable gardens that have been popping up everywhere in recent years are just the first of many to come. A large number of abandoned lots might yet be de-polluted with vegetation and become fertile land. I recently found out that the primary purpose of workers’ allotments in the North of France was to regenerate soil that had been polluted by mining activity (Ensemble pour mieux se nourrir” by Frédéric Denhez and Alexis Jenni, domaine du possible, Actes Sud, 2021).

Cities have taken on a new role, ‘garden organisers’ – some have even created their own municipal farm companies. Agriculture has become a major part of remunicipalisation. But the problem of equality of access to these gardens remains. A shared garden can become a powerful way to bring communities together and a melting pot. But the urban agriculture trend can also foster new restrictive ‘communities’ that would make access to a garden just one more form of privilege. This means municipal policies will need to be rolled out, along with methods and practices to ensure true equality of access to producing and consuming high-quality food.

Food, just like energy, is a fundamental need. It is needed for life itself. The approach to community gardens is very similar to that of energy communities, which are also becoming increasingly common throughout Europe. I would love to see a ‘Best Energy Community Cup’ held throughout Europe! Both food and energy are areas that can be very empowering, by offering people an opportunity to grow their own food, to produce their own energy – to have a say in their own destiny. This is why the practices being developed in these two areas can feed into one another, although they may occasionally be in conflict simply due to space considerations. Indeed, land occupancy in urban areas is often a source of tension.

Perhaps the ‘Community Land Trust’ model in Brussels, (and in particular their latest land use co-op initiative, which reuses an existing model in France) which was created to produce affordable housing, based on the principle that land is a shared asset, could be explored further to help cities control land use and make it a way to empower the local inhabitants, who could decide which lands would be used for energy production, for growing food, and for housing.