Creative solutions to 100-year allotment wait

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The council says there is a one-hundred year waiting list for allotments in Islington. Alexa Phillips and Rhiannon Edwards find out how the lack of free space is forcing residents to find creative solutions in order to grow their own food.

The diggers are rolling in to the old car park off Pollard Close, turning a wasteland of concrete into a wasteland of rubble.

But this is not the start of a new housing estate or retail project. Instead, the reclaimed land is to be transformed into 27 new allotments, to help cope with the demand for growing space within the borough.

This replacement of tarmac with topsoil seems highly symbolic. Islington has a powerful green movement, with groups such as the Islington Gardeners, the Islington Environment Forum, Islington Cyclists and the Islington Organic Grower’s Network representing an increasingly environmentally-conscious population.

“People are more interested in food growing now,” says Chris Ashby, who stood as the Green candidate for Islington North in the 2001 election, winning 6.2 percent of the vote. “There are a lot of programmes on the TV and radio, with a ‘dig for victory’ message. It’s become quite fashionable, and there are so many benefits: physical exercise, fresh air.”

Lack of space

The council’s campaign for community food growing, Edible Islington, has a pool of £1m to support sustainable projects in schools and housing estates. But as Islington has the second highest residential density in England and Wales it is not a lack of money, but a lack of space that is the problem.

“I tell people they’ll have to wait about 100 years for an allotment at our current rate,” says Jerry Gutwin, who is in charge of allotments at Islington Council. “There are 300-odd people on our waiting list, so we have had to close it.”

The Pollard Close site will increase the number of allotments within the borough from 37 to 66; good news for those at the top of the waiting list, but not enough to seriously address the shortfall in sites.

“I live in Islington but gave up all hope of getting an allotment here years ago,” says Jo Murray, the secretary of the Islington Gardeners. “So I got an allotment in Haringey. I do think it’s sad that there are so few allotments in Islington, but there’s simply no land.”

“Fields for pasture and open meadows”

Historically, this was not the case. William Fitzstephen’s 12th century account of London describes Islington as having “fields for pasture and open meadows, very pleasant into which the river waters do flow… beyond them an immense forest extends itself, beautified with woods and groves, and full of the lairs and coverts of the wild beasts.”

Islington remained a rural paradise within the city until its urbanisation in the 19th century.
The answer to the space shortage in Islington seems to be to turn previously barren, concrete sites into places for food production.

At City University, this is exactly what is happening. Many students there are ditching crammed supermarkets and inflated prices for their very own allotment, which will eventually provide them with free home-grown food in return for their time.

Long term plans

alolloThe university received £3000 from Edible Islington to create a vegetable garden from a previously derelict site. Both staff and students will cultivate the garden, which should be ready for planting in the summer of 2010. Imogen Riley, co-ordinator of ‘Food in the City’ says the scheme has attracted lots of attention from students and staff.

“The long term plan is to maintain the garden well and start producing lots of food, but also to maintain interest from the students,” says Imogen. “We have a lot of interest, but it is a long term project that needs long term commitment.” The site for the allotment will have to be transformed from a concrete site to something that is ready for food production in around three months.

Mini allotments

St Luke’s Parochial Trust, on Lever Street, are also expanding their horticultural efforts. They have recently opened their own mini allotments, and have 71 voluntary gardeners tending them. According to Matthew Loveday, food growing officer for St Luke’s, they have at least the same number of people again on their waiting list, hoping to get involved.

They also offer support to people trying to start gardening in their own space, including tenants on the Stafford Cripps, Peabody and Gambia House estates.

“I think the main issue is people who want to grow food need skills and resources to do so. The estates have the space but not the skills,” says Matthew.

Food-sharing cooperatives

The tenants have received grants from Edible Islington to help them start cultivating their land. They are also forming food-sharing cooperatives amongst themselves.

At Culpeper Community Gardens on Liverpool Road, the emphasis is on using as little space as possible to grow food rather than creating new space. “We are focusing on square foot gardening,” says Scarlett Cannon, who runs a voluntary food growing project which aims to teach people the skills to grow their own.

“The idea is to see what we can grow in as little space as possible. Most seed packets say you need at least three square feet, but we don’t have the luxury of space here.”

Scarlett’s tutees vary in experience of food growing. 25-year-old Ariana Mouyiaris, originally from New York, has no experience with growing but is going to use the skills learned from the workshop to grow herbs and tomatoes on her balcony.

“I didn’t think I could get involved with food growing without a garden,” she says. “Now it seems I can grow food anywhere as long as I have a little space and some time”.

Tom Holdsworth, another member of the class, is already doing just that. He is currently preparing 10 pots on his roof garden to grow tomatoes, herbs and strawberries this spring. He is attending the session to pick up some extra tips about food growing in small spaces.

Be creative with your space

“Allotments and green space are so rare nowadays, that you have to be creative with your space” he says.
Scarlett agrees: “30 years ago you couldn’t give an allotment away. Now they’re like gold dust – every bit of land is important”.

Chris Ashby, former Green party candidate, summed up the outlook for Islington’s green spaces in the future.

“As long as our priorities for land use remain the same, we’re never going to have enough allotments,” he says. “We value building houses and stadiums over growing spaces, but I hope the activities we’re seeing are the beginning of a change.”