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Claiming the Common Ground

Swedish architect and researcher Lena Jarlov looks at the history and value of creating gardens in the grounds of apartment buildings. She says that these forgotten areas can be transformed into places of rich human exchange. Also, by cultivating food gardens, the tenants reconnect with the earth and can harvest chemical-free vegetables, fruit and berries.

Our towns and cities are full of unrealised gardens and it is important and urgent that we bring them to life. Everywhere in the towns and cities of the industrialised world there are areas with asphalt, unused lawns, thorny, ugly shrubberies or nothing at all; areas which seem to be calling out for somebody to occupy them and make gardens.

Many of these areas are situated on grounds belonging to blocks of flats. The official garden culture in such sites is aimed at making management of these areas as ‘rational’ and effective as possible. The tenants are supposed to use the grounds for play and recreation but not for their own gardening. The result is barren and monotonous environments, which adults only pass on their way to and from home, or in which they stay to look after their children.

It seems that either a famine or a garden cultural revolution is necessary to make the inhabitants in these areas get out, occupy the grounds, and cultivate them. Perhaps we can avoid the famine if we can start the cultural revolution!

The present garden culture in areas with blocks of flats indicates the planner’s view of the tenant as a lazy, passive creature. In reality the environment, by its design and by its current rules for use and management, focuses many creative people to move to a self-contained house to find an outlet for their thirst for activity. But not everybody can afford to do this. Sometimes those people can be offered a plot for cultivation or an allotment garden, but in many towns there are no such possibilities. They have to remain with their garden-less living.

In Sweden a research group at the Division of Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology has worked with this issue for two years. We have studied the meaning of gardens for people living in blocks of flats by interviewing people with different types of gardens, either outside the ground floor in plots of arable land, or in allotments.

It seems the strongest reason for people to garden is the urge to be joined with the earth in some way. For some people the work itself is the most important aspect – they cultivate, harvest crops, and build cottages. We found many of these to be unemployed, retired or sick. People who were outside the ordinary work life needed a goal for their creativity. For others the result – the produce – was most important. They enjoyed their own vegetables, fruits and berries, cultivated without poisonous chemicals.

Some people only grew flowers and by that found an existential joy – creating beauty. Others enjoyed the very experience of being there – just staying in the garden in ‘nature’ together with plants, birds and insects – made them happy.

Such behaviour gets little encouragement in modern areas with blocks of flats. But the tenants’ own garden could make these environments more beautiful, varied and socially richer.

The idea of apartment gardens is not new but has almost been forgotten. It arose in the 1920s when the Garden City movement spread through Europe. In England, the terrace house with its garden was the obvious solution. While in Germany blocks of flats with gardens on the courtyard were built in many towns and cities. Unfortunately the housing ideal of functionalism developed in another direction – towards large scale industrial solutions – where people’s own gardening did not fit in.

In order to revitalise the idea of apartment gardens we have written a book showing existing examples in Scandinavia and Germany. Most of the examples are from the 1920s, but still in use, although there also are projects from new housing areas. In Germany some housing companies now seem to have discovered that tenants’ gardens can be a cheap way to manage the environment.

The first and vital step is to encourage people to take hold of the ground outside their apartments and use it as individuals and in common. A future step is to promote permaculture principles in these gardens.

It is important to develop a garden culture that accepts the individual and collective aspects of gardening. Perhaps we ‘radical’ planners often have too great an expectation of collective processes in the environments of multi-family housing – always waiting for the inhabitants to get out and create one beautiful, fertile garden together. Sometimes it works (especially if the relations between the inhabitants are very familiar), but often it is problematic. Like painting a picture, too many people gardening together can spoil the creative process. What can be better is lots of small plots side by side, which give rise to many talks and to exchanges of seed, plants and thoughts. A common objection to taking over open space for gardens is that the children and those who do not want to have gardens have nowhere to play. Of course it is important that these groups too have places, and feel welcome. But often narrow paths, small sheltered spots to sit on, and small playgrounds near gardens where grown-ups are working, are more pleasant than big open areas of wide footpaths and playing fields where adults rush along. Of course there also must be some large lawns for play, meetings and picnics, but many of the lawns are just an emergency solution in the absence of imagination.

In Sweden now it is becoming more common that refuse is sorted in the housing estates, and composting organic waste is growing popular among owners of one-family houses. Composting and cultivating work together to create common interest and I am optimistic that co-operation will change our cities and towns into green, more varied and humane environments.

It is important that the philosophy of permaculture does not become a luxury philosophy, applicable only for those who have the opportunity to settle in the country. We have to take care of our towns and cities and renew and develop them and make them more livable.



  1. Great article… and don’t forget the benefits of planting a tree. If we all just plant a few we can really make a difference, each one will soak up 20kgs of CO2 every year and put enough Oxygen back in the atmosphere to support 2 people.Peace

  2. Hi treeplanter and everybody!
    in about five years,i have planted
    about 250,000 trees (Canada),but they
    were just replacing the old trees cutted before.
    It does not replace all the forest, in fact…
    I would suggest more than “plan a tree”,it would
    be more like plant 100 trees!
    Au revoir,goodbye,!peace!

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