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Charles Holland and Elly Ward

Demand outstrips supply of allotments more than almost anything else. There’s a reason they are so popular

'…a sordid picture of a monotonous grid of rectangular plots tended by an older stratum of society…assemblages of ramshackle huts from the corrugated roofs of which sagging down-spouts carry rainwater into a motley collection of receptacles.'

So wrote the authors of the Thorpe Report, a study of allotments commissioned by the late 1960s Labour government. In its emphasis on the supposed monotony of the grid of individual plots, it reveals a very English preference for picturesque planting and aesthetic neatness over messy but productive landscapes. It also typifies a once-prevalent attitude that allotments are unsightly blemishes ready for some tidying up. Or redevelopment.

Since then, the number of allotment plots has steadily decreased from some 530,000 then to around 300,000 today. But despite the Thorpe Report’s characterisation of allotment owners as a dying breed, enthusiasm for allotment gardening has grown and the demand for plots now far outstrips supply.

The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act contains a crucial commitment for local authorities to provide land for plots where there is demand.  But the unclear mechanism by which this happens, coupled with the intense pressure for housing, makes new allotment plots increasingly unlikely.

In their pioneering social history The Allotment, Colin Ward and David Crouch describe them as a ‘…real popular culture, which we make ourselves, in what we do in everyday practice and in the imagination that alights’. The appeal of allotments lies precisely in the qualities of ‘do it yourself’ and self-determination that Labour’s report decried. Those same ramshackle huts – elaborately constructed from the detritus of discarded buildings – are vivid examples of folk architecture. 

Allotments have a radical dimension, overturning existing hierarchies of production and consumption, land use and ownership

Allotments offer escape, not just from the city but from the pressures of our own lives. The ‘otherliness’ of the allotment can be romantic, a secret meeting place perhaps or simply a shared pastime with a loved one – think of Mike Leigh’s couple in Another Year sitting under a leaky tin roof sipping hot tea from a thermos. 

Allotments are interesting too in the way they blur the distinction of city and countryside. They are a hybrid of urban, suburban and rural. One can chart a line between their organised egalitarianism and the garden city movement: Ebenezer Howard with a healthy dose of anarchistic self-determination thrown in.

Allotments have a radical dimension, overturning existing hierarchies of production and consumption, land use and ownership. For an anarchist such as Colin Ward, they are a spatial manifestation of his political belief in self-governance, a place where mutual-help and community organisation replace the controlling structures of both the state and big business.

We should of course be wary of what the architecture critic Owen Hatherley refers to as ‘Favela chic’, a queasy appropriation of the aesthetics of poverty and decrepitude.  Not only that but Ward’s interest in the political value of the small-scale and the local has become co-opted by localism, a political fig-leaf on planning deregulation.

In recent years urban agriculture has become something of a cliché, the subject of a hundred optimistic thesis speculations. Such visions draw on concerns about urbanisation and our alienation from nature. The green city is both utopian and dystopian – urban farming is usually made possible by either economic collapse or wartime dereliction. London in the 1940s for instance was covered with allotments occupying bomb-sites, parks and public spaces.

Allotments have always occupied left-over spaces, the cracks between new infrastructure or housing developments. Their importance lies in providing spaces of community and social cohesion that capitalism can’t, as well as their obvious benefits to a healthy life. They are practical and vital parts of our cities. But they are beautiful too. It is a beauty that allows for the contingent and accepts individual inventiveness. They are – as Ward and Crouch put it – a form of folk-geography, a landscape momentarily released from the usual patterns of settlement and control.

Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture