Located 10 minutes’ walk from our house, my parent’s allotment has been an important part of our family for as long as I can remember. As a child it was the place where I learned about where food came from, spent hours building dens, creating mud sculptures, making bonfires and having water fights. More neglected during my teenage years as I graduated to self-conscious, independent socialising, the allotment still filled our house through the food we ate, the seedlings raised in the living room, the flowers on the kitchen table and muddy boots at the door.
Throughout my life in Edinburgh the allotment has been a safe space, somewhere to escape to when family member’s mental health was low, a loosely woven community of people existing in a patchwork of plots and who seem to understand the balance between peace and human connection. On warm summer evenings I can remember walking with my mum along the cycle path, the paniers of her bike bursting with bunches of French beans, marigolds tied with garden twine and plastic pots filled with raspberries. On our way home we would often stop in on neighbours, using gifts from the garden as an excuse for a chat.
In the middle of a busy, polluted city filled with strained and uneven environmental connections, our allotment seems like a place where the socio-natural world has found a harmonious balance. This contrast has been thrown into even sharper relief in recent months as Covid-19 swept across the world. The result of unsustainable anthropocentric relationships with nature, this virus has changed our communities in unimaginable ways.
As levels of movement plummeted and the death toll soared, our little rectangle of land in the middle of Edinburgh evolved into something precious, a safe, socially-distant patch of normality in a world that seemed to have turned upside down. While working from home during this time, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about venturing onto the busy parks and walkways around our house. I’ve never been a fan of busy places and having to negotiate crowded public spaces and judgmental passers-by just to get some exercise was not a fun experience. The allotment gave me a reason to leave the house, somewhere quiet where I could breathe fresh air, have socially distanced human contact and harvest fresh food.
The value of urban green space and gardening is well documented in academic literature both from a physical and mental health perspective. In a rapidly urbanising and crisis-prone world, urban green space is an increasingly vital entity and one whose value has never been so widely recognised. This crisis has highlighted the privilege of access to green space and allotments are not exempt from this. In Edinburgh the average waiting list for a plot is 5-10 years, while in larger cities such as London it can be up to 100 years, making access to these spaces unobtainable to the vast majority of people.
Our allotment is a place that taught me respect and kindness for the natural world that supports my existence. It has shaped the human communities around me and developed a resilient foundation based on strong socio-natural relationships. As an urban geographer, researcher and environmental writer I am sustained by the hope that perhaps this crisis will change things, that it will help to re-centre our cities and rebalance our connections with the world around us. As we start to look beyond this crisis and question how we can develop healthier, fairer and more resilient societies, urban gardens provide a tool through which foster resilience, prioritise wellbeing and forge healthier relationships with the natural world.