Allotment gardens in Athens

Last month, residents of a Los Angeles community staged a protest against plans to build a warehouse on a site where about 350 local people had been growing flowers, fruit and vegetables for over a decade. The demonstration was given wide media coverage due to the presence of celebrities such as Daryl Hannah and campaigning by Joan Baez. The story drew attention to a phenomenon that is unknown in Greece – the popularity of urban allotment gardens, an established feature of the landscape in many cities around the world. Unused municipal or privately owned land is let to individuals who want to grow their own food as a hobby, or, in poorer communities, for survival. Everyone benefits: the owners, the users and the microclimate of the area. According to Orestes Davias, who trained abroad as a botanist and ecologist, these allotment gardens would provide a solution to much of what ails Athens’s environment. «I don’t like using the world ‘environment’ as if it is something outside of myself. For me, people are part of the environment. ‘Nature’ is a word that includes us as individuals and our relationships as well as what we call the environment,» he said in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Davias believes that under the present circumstances, the only way people can improve the world they live in is by acting on their own, or at a very local level. «In Greece, it’s only possible to do something yourself. The people who are in charge – ministry general secretaries, ministers themselves – don’t really care. The only thing that interests them is their political position,» he said. He cites the example of attempts to begin a large-scale recycling scheme. «A lot of money was spent but nothing was done,» he said. «A lot of the recycling bins are being used as garbage dumpsters. And the recycling plant has never got under way.» At neighborhood level, Davias thinks that allotment gardens are not an unrealistic approach to the problem of greening what has become the most built-up urban environment in Europe. «There are so many empty plots of land, municipal land which has been abandoned, private plots whose owners have not claimed them,» he said. «The municipalities could sublet them to people who would like to grow their own vegetables and who love to spend time at weekends tilling the earth. «By renting out a 30-square-meter plot for around 50 euros a year, the municipalities would increase their revenue as well as the amount of green space in their neighborhood. Isn’t it better to see these plots cultivated than just left bare? But if I suggested such a thing to most mayors, they’d look at me as if I were speaking Sanskrit,» he added. There are exceptions to the rule, however. Davias was part of a group that set up a garden in front of the new town hall in Peristeri, a heavily developed district in western Athens. «Two months ago we created a large flower garden for the town hall opening, with two greenhouses,» he said. «One was full of indoor plants that can absorb pollutants emitted by carpets and paints, and another on the theme of growing vegetables on a balcony. The greenhouses will be given to local schools in September. People were very keen to know more about these kinds of things, particularly in densely built-up places like Peristeri.» In other less high-density municipalities, there is more scope for allotment gardens and for local authorities to encourage people to grow things in all available spaces. «These are not crazy ideas,» Davias said. «They have been put into practice for 150-200 years in developed as well as developing countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization has an urban self-sufficiency program throughout Africa. In Toronto, for example, 40 percent of the city’s fruit and vegetable supplies are grown within the city itself. This used to happen in Athens, but not any longer.» Balconies, terraces «Sometimes when I go through Athens, I see balconies overflowing with plants, even in inner parts of the city such as Patissia. Things are being done, but unfortunately everyone is on his own,» he said. He believes municipalities have a role to play in encouraging people to grow plants on apartment roof terraces and balconies, no matter how small. On older buildings that were not designed to bear the weight of beds of soil and gravel, pots can be used. Davias suggests that 50 euros a year from every apartment would be enough to create a small garden on most rooftops «Even if the residents don’t have time to cultivate vegetables, all they have to do is put out a few shrubs, a table and a couple of benches and they would have a place to go and drink their coffee in a pleasant atmosphere,» he said. «The reason it doesn’t happen, of course, is people’s difficulty in agreeing on anything. They can’t even agree on times to turn on the heating in winter. The only way it can happen is if incentives are given, because apart from the aesthetic and environmental benefits of green roofs, the building would be better insulated and therefore require less heating and air conditioning, a saving of around 5-10 percent in some cases. There could be a corresponding tax deduction on fuel for those who create terrace gardens.» Factories and other commercial buildings could also be given incentives to green their roofs. School gardens are also important. «Children should be able to see where their food comes from. Gardens don’t need to be in every school, but there could be pilot programs in one school in each municipality,» Davias said. For this to happen, there must be people willing to take action on applying for funds from the EU for relevant programs. «You have to have the right people; there aren’t many of them but they are out there,» he said. «A mayor can’t expect someone who was in charge of putting up campaign posters to be responsible for a program like that. I use strong language here because I have bitter experience of these things.» Davias, who develops new lines for a major manufacturer of natural products in Greece, has created a large garden on the terrace of his home in a suburb of Athens. His varied collection of plants, all in pots, includes 20 different varieties of basil, a large collection of other herbs such as marjoram, purslane and rare Salvias, as well as exotics ranging from South American pumpkins to hot peppers, guava and decorative plants such as a frangipani tree (these latter go into a greenhouse in winter). As for the bigger picture, he feels the only hope for the future is if enlightened people are given enough scope in decision-making centers. «I hope that one day, a few people with some knowledge and awareness, as well as love – because it can’t be done without love; nothing can happen by force – will find themselves in influential positions.»