In today’s economic climate the urban garden is an endangered species. Real estate developers regard the open green spaces greedily, square foot by square foot, visions of co-ops dancing in their heads. In millennials’ magnet cities—Boston, San Francisco, Seattle—housing advocates view the garden plots warily— they take precious space where young families could grow instead.
The city is the worst site imaginable for agriculture. Urban soil, laden with centuries of ground pollution and polluted air often requires remediation or replacement. Getting ample fresh, clean water to keep city gardens flourishing is challenging and expensive. Sunshine is in ever-shorter supply.
It’s a growing problem, you might say. I have a plan on how to take the urban garden to the next level: by creating the exurban garden, taking urban agriculture away from high-density, premium real estate to where there’s plenty of underused land, nourishing soil, boundless water, and unfiltered sunlight. In other words, get out of town.
Within a short drive or train ride from metro centers, there is plenty of unused land: former farms, abandoned military bases, and deserted mental hospitals.
I envision new meta gardens as breeding grounds for collaboration and human connection—as well as a bounty of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits.
The fabric of American community life is frayed, with two working parents, the siren of the Internet, and the evaporation of cohesive urban and suburban neighborhoods. Chain stores and big box retailers have also played a part in suctioning the easy-going collegiality—friendliness!—that was long a signature trait American life.
The shared gardens I propose offer a vibrant antidote to the decline of in-person civic participation in the U.S.: the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Designed with generous open spaces for picnicking and play, the gardens provide opportunity for a totally diverse array of city dwellers to jump-start communities.
Just as farming formed the basis of nearly all communities right up to the 1900s, the new community garden will engender fresh social ties that bind. If you wish to encounter a hive of happy, engaged, and expressive people, get thee to a gardening event.
The community metagarden I envision offers a forum that transcends distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or politics. Socialists can celebrate the egalitarianism and collective nature of the project. Capitalists will admire the arrangement’s spirit of enterprise and self-reliance—not to mention the delicious dividends paid in fruits and vegetables.
What I am proposing is no garden variety utopian dream. In Russia—no one’s idea of a land of opportunity—one-third of the population own dachas, extraurban plots of .15 acres, just large enough for a 6,000 square foot garden, and a small, rudimentary habitation that serves as a second home. In the outer reaches of greater Moscow there are over a million of these miniature farms.
In shortage-racked Soviet times, dacha gardens furnished up to 90% of the country’s produce. Nowadays, under the Putinocracy, dacha garden plots yield almost 45% of the national harvest, including 80% of fruit and berries as well as potatoes. Back in town, dacha owners routinely sell or barter produce with their neighbors. An underground economy, you might say.
Amidst Germany’s thriving economy, there are 1.4 million thriving allotment gardens. Nearly every European country has an allotment garden program, with waiting lists of up to 20 years.
Here in the U.S., there is a sprinkling of allotment gardens, often descendants of the World War II victory garden movement in which 20 million Americans participated, helping to supplement skimpy food rations.
How does this garden grow? Capitalized by private and public money, currently desolate stretches of exurban land can be transformed quickly and inexpensively into vibrant, gardening communities, each with a distinctive spirit and character.
For stressed-out inner city residents, the gardens offer a sanctuary and refuge where families experience an open-air setting, where time is reckoned by the rising and setting of the sun, and the changing seasons. There is the singular joy of growing fresh, pure and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and herbs, to be savored fresh or cooked. The harvest can be enjoyed year-round: the fruits rendered into jams, the vegetables pickled or preserved in jars.
Americans of all ethnic origins are descended from farming ancestors. The American Allotment Garden or “American Dacha” is a chance to renew and recapture our shared agricultural heritage and savor the simple life lost in the urban bustle.