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Construction casts shadow over city gardens

Watering time at a Zurich allotment garden Keystone

Garden allotments are vital community hubs in Swiss cities, but they are increasingly losing the battle for space to new housing projects.

Basel and Bern city authorities recently approved new building projects that will force the closure of dozens of allotment gardens.

These green spaces are a colourful addition to urban landscapes, with vegetable and flower patches, garden sheds and national flags. The gardens are so popular in bigger Swiss cities, that there’s often a waiting list.

But the picture’s not all rosy. A team from the University of Applied Sciences in Geneva has published one of the few studies on the topic, entitled “Combining business with pleasure: allotment gardens and popular culture”.

The gardens are under threat, despite their clear popularity, as was demonstrated by recent – unsuccessful – protest movements in Bern and Basel to save them from the diggers.

Although the land belongs to the municipalities, it’s occupied by individuals. But with cities typically short of space, especially for housing, these green spaces soon attract interest for their building potential.

In Zurich, a new arena is being built on one of the city’s largest allotment areas. Overall Zurich has 5,500 garden plots, covering a total of 132 hectares, the equivalent of 185 football fields.

“Garden allotments are under pressure due to the growth of the city,” Ruth Genner, city ecologist in Zurich’s public works department, told “They certainly have a function in being a green space, which we want to preserve, but they are also spare land. They have to give way to bigger interests.”

Social laboratory

It’s a problem worrying all allotment associations in Switzerland. “It’s one of our biggest concerns,” said Priska Moser, secretary of the Swiss garden allotment federation, which has around 25,000 members. “Building projects are threatening our gardens everywhere.”

Gardeners in cities are very attached to their plots and sheds because they represent “something that belongs to them, an ideal of home and, at the end of the day, an ideal of small ownership”, sociologists and research authors Arnaud Frauenfelder and Christophe Delay told

“Allotment gardens are a real laboratory of social observation,” they said.

“As other studies show, in Geneva and elsewhere, allotment gardens are occupied by people on modest incomes. Commonly, either they or their parents have moved away from the countryside. Cultivating your garden has served as an antidote to urban migration from the late 19th century to today, and that’s especially the case for foreigners arriving in our cities today.”

Gardeners interviewed by the researchers explained that their plots represented their “social fabric”. Families go to the plot on weekends. They help each other, rediscover family traditions, swap products and take pride in their plots.

Integration tool

Garden allotments could even be called “the best instrument for integration”, according to Moser.

“A foreigner arriving in Switzerland will not try to join a jass [popular card game] group, which can be intimidating. In a garden, someone may be on their own for one or two weeks, but very soon they’ll be having conversations with other gardeners, even if they make very little effort with the language.”

For Frauenfelder and Delay, who are currently working on the second phase of their study, looking at various authorities’ positions on allotment gardens, “the authorities tend to overlook somewhat the social purpose of allotment gardens. But with inequality growing and the [current] unemployment rate, these issues have again become relevant.”

While in Geneva garden allotments mainly attract the over-50s, in Zurich they’re trendy with many young gardeners. This is not without its problems however: some plots have expanded into what the city calls “dachas”, oversized sheds where noisy gatherings take place on weekends.

Zurich has since decided to put a stop to this and introduced tougher rules. But young people are still encouraged to come and plant vegetables.

In their study of garden allotments, Geneva sociologists Christophe Delay, Arnaud Frauenfelder and Laure Scalambrin explain that “allotments, which were once called workers’ gardens, initially represented a means of social control over populations, and have their origins in the changes provoked by the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century”.

“The vegetable garden and shed was the result of a particular philanthropic device aimed at tying down mobile and rootless populations, agricultural workers, immigrants, who no longer lived in the countryside”.

Zurich: 5,500 allotments, (one for every 69 inhabitants), over a total surface area of 132 hectares.

Fribourg: 293 allotments (one for every 120 inhabitants)

Lausanne: 549 allotments with sheds covering a total surface of around 11 hectares, distributed over ten sites.

Canton Geneva: More than 2,000 lots on 26 sites.

In Geneva, the sociologists found that “80% of the occupants of these allotments have a modest revenue and working class roots”. The majority are workers (53%), trades people (35%) or small business owners (6%).

The Geneva allotments federation comprises 55% Swiss and 45% foreigners, amongst whom Italians are in the majority (21%), followed by Portuguese (15%) and Spanish (6%).

Men outnumber women by almost two to one, which led the sociologists to describe allotments as a place for “male reaffirmation”.

The majority of occupants of the Geneva allotments are over 50 years of age, but in Zurich, for example, allotments are fashionable amongst young people who rent them in groups.

(Translated from French by Jessica Dacey)

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