cultivating on allotment sites has always been so much more than ‘growing your own’. As Crouch and Ward put it, ‘The allotment is a different kind of place in which different values prevail.’ These different values often seem paradoxical to the non-allotmenteer, but are precisely what ensure that allotment sites survive. In this book, one gardener tells Crouch and Ward: ‘The allotment is 51 per cent hard work, and 49 per cent disappointment.’ So why on earth do people carry on allotmenteering? When I carried out my research across numerous sites in Oxford, the words that people use to describe allotments tell us why – ‘paradise’, ‘magical’. Allotment sites are utopias. […]
This love and generosity spills off individual plots, through the allotment fences and into the wider city. On every allotment site, there is usually a place where people put their excess crops for anyone to help themselves. This is deliberate. Gifts carry obligations, and by being able to help oneself without being seen, the taker doesn’t owe anyone anything. They can also pay it forward, placing their extra produce at another time when they have it. I met a woman who survived on this gifted food – she lost her job during the lockdowns, and because she had only just secured an allotment, didn’t yet have her first harvest. Other allotmenteers grow cut flowers with the sole purpose to give them to people (often strangers) across the city, to spread joy. Even allotment fences that have been steadily erected around sites over the last few decades, to keep produce safe, break the normal rules of a city. Instead of keeping people away, allotment fences are often social places where passers-by strike up conversations with allotmenteers about what they’re growing, as well as to get a glimpse of the inviting chaos inside.
The idea of a “banal utopia” strikes me as a really powerful one: in some small and everyday way to “repair the world” and to, implicitly or explicitly, invite others to join you. Maybe everyone can find a place to make a banal utopia.