Urban gardening in Saint-Petersburg: a hobby to be rebranded?

Urban gardening is a social phenomena that is increasingly attracting public attention in the context of sustainable city living. Its impact on urban sustainability is manifested in improved environment quality and higher level of biodiversity, but urban community gardens also provide people with cheap food, thus increasing local food security (this is especially important in developing countries) and create a favorable environment for public cooperation and experiments with sustainable lifestyle.

Urban agriculture is traditionally popular in small and mid-sized towns worldwide, but since few decades megalopolises such as London, Paris and especially New York also witness a substantial increase in number of public gardens, including those situated on exotic sites, such as roofs, old industrial sites and parkings. (This last case is called “guerilla gardening”, as it is usually considered as a form of activism or protest against unsustainable urban policies. Guerilla gardeners even have arms of their own – they make and throw so-called “seed bombs” to spread verdure on the surfaces they cannot reach.) Gardening has definitely become a popular, trendy pastime for young townsfolk in world capitals and therefore has a bright future ahead.

The perspectives for urban gardening in Saint-Petersburg are, however, a bit less clear for several reasons. Besides the lack of clear policy on the city level and of easily accessible surfaces, there is a rather well-established image of this occupation that hampers its development.

Historically, since 19th century, urban gardening on the outskirts of St Petersburg was an important source of cheap food for the underprivileged city dwellers. In the first half of 20th century, however, urban agriculture and gardening almost disappeared, as new urban policies of Soviet authorities didn’t favor growing food in the urban environment. Land plots were restricted to few privileged social groups, such as prominent government officials, scientists or servicemen. In the post-war period, however, private land cultivation became widespread and a large part of city dwellers became owners of land plots, or “dachas”, in numerous gardening cooperatives scattered in the countryside around the city (most of them were, however, easily accessible by public transportation). This has let the inhabitants of Saint-Petersburg realize their agricultural pursuits far from city walls and has resulted in lack of interest to the land near their houses. By the end of Perestroika, more than 2,5 million people were involved in seasonal activities on their dachas, and the total volume of produced vegetables and fruits was comparable with the annual production of large agricultural firms in Leningrad region. Children and pensioners were the two largest groups of “dachniks” (periurban gardeners) thanks to subsidies on public transport costs. As a result, urban gardening was generally reduced to rare balcony pots with spicy plants or yard flowerbeds.(c) borutskiy.livejournal.com

Shortly after the fall of Soviet Union, periurban gardening became much more than leisure: during the first half of 1990s, the income of most part of the population reduced drastically, and food expenses often exceeded 60% of an average family budget. The contribution of this self-production to subsistence of thousands of families was important, but since then, for many people growing one’s own vegetables became more associated with dire need than with a pleasant, healthy and eco-friendly pastime. This tendency had, however, some exceptions: one of them is a community garden planted on the roof of a multi-storey house on the south of Moskovsky district of Saint-Petersburg. Started in 1994 on the initiative of Mrs. Alla Sokol, Head of condominium, the project united a few dozen habitants who installed earth boxes and greenhouses on a flat roof. Thanks to competent management and good media coverage, this project succeeded and became widely known in the city. As Mrs Sokol noticed, this project is not only self-sustaining, but also has a positive impact on social climate in the neighborhood. “People who didn’t even say hello to each other before this project started are now working side by side on the roof, and their children play together” – Mrs Sokol says. Several urban farming projects with a strong social orientation have also been realized in a couple of detention facilities and orphanages. Despite this relative success, few were those who managed to replicate it: such initiatives were encountering strong resistance of municipal authorities and lack of support in the neighborhood.

(c) trud.ru

It is only since the end of 2000s that the portrait of an average “urban gardener” and public attitude towards urban gardening starts to change: a new community of urban gardeners is formed among the clients of LavkaLavka Cooperative, a private company distributing fresh food produced by local farmers. LavkaLavka’s clients (mostly young people or families with small children) are interested in healthy food and lifestyle (it is important to note that the prices for LavkaLavka’s products are far above the average, compared to conventional food in markets and shops). Their first public gardening plot opened in 2011 in The New Holland, a popular open-air cultural centre inaugurated in Saint-Petersburg a few years ago. © www.newhollandsp.ru

Even if they are few in number, these new urban gardeners mostly belong to young, well-educated and rather comfortable “creative class” of Saint-Petersburg. They do not necessarily have a strong commitment to the ideas of sustainable development, but if properly used, their enthusiasm, communicative skills and interest in new social trends may spur the popularity of urban gardening and sustainable urban lifestyle in general. Proximity to Helsinki, one of the most green world capitals with a strong community of “locavores” and urban farmers, may also be an opportunity for developing urban gardening in terms of knowledge transfer and joint projects.

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