Hidden landscapes in the city: the world of urban gardens and allotments...by Jon Stubberfield

Preparing for a day down at the allotment
Dale allotments in Sneinton, Nottingham
Hi, my name is Jon and I am a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. The demand for urban gardens and allotments is on the rise as is the pressure for space in our towns and cities. But is it possible to re-invent urban spaces for use as gardens and allotments or should we look elsewhere? Are urban soils suitable for the everyday gardener’s needs and is gardening as healthy an activity as everyone says it is?

The urban allotment: a place of tranquillity and peace

From my first few visits to allotments in Nottingham I can see the immense value of these great spaces. Often up a neglected side-road or avenue, on first sight it’s clear that they offer something completely different to the hustle and bustle of city living. The effect of ‘Vitamin G’ or greenspace as it has been termed by some authors[1], is readily apparent here with birdsong replacing the sound of city traffic. Add in the outcomes from eating fresh produce, the range of activities required in maintaining a garden and it is not surprising that much has been written about the health benefits of gardening. Indeed, although not yet recognised directly with funding by the NHS[2], gardening therapy is not uncommon as a treatment for a range of illnesses including recovery and rehabilitation from chronic illness and depression to war injuries. Allotments also offer safe, inclusive, social communities for a wide range of individuals that would perhaps never otherwise meet and often cater for some of the most vulnerable in society. The first part of my PhD aims to quantify these benefits through the use of a gardening and health survey and provide some insight into the routines of allotment life.

Handing out surveys at the Grow Your Own event in Woodthorpe Park
The pressure on urban space for public growing

Despite the many benefits of allotments and the long waiting lists to get a plot[3], the limited availability of land and cuts to council budgets make it increasingly difficult to do so. I owe a considerable debt to the allotment team at the City Council in Nottingham for allowing me to visit allotments, meet with plot holders, and take soil samples as part of my project work. They have been incredibly supportive of our research and are keen on any information they can find which supports the value of public gardening spaces in the city. However, as more local authorities face budget cuts and are required to house a growing population, the creation of new spaces for gardens and allotments is likely to become less of a priority.

Taking soil samples at St Ann's allotments, Nottingham
A further issue is finding soils that are appropriate for gardening in towns and cities in the first place. Many urban soils in large cities in the UK have a history of misuse from the industrial revolution to the present day[4] and can contain high concentrations of toxic elements such as cadmium, arsenic and lead which could pose a health risk to gardeners were they used for this purpose. The second part of my PhD involves determining and quantifying the potential health risks from toxic elements in urban soils and comparing these with the health benefits of gardening. Soil samples taken from existing allotments will help to give us an idea of the physical and chemical composition of soils and how they may be altered through gardening activities. Improving the process of assessing the impact to health from gardening in this way, could help policy makers make better decisions over the re-development of neglected urban spaces as gardens and allotments in the future.

My thanks go to my sources of funding which come from the University of Nottingham, the James Hutton Institute and the British Geological Survey and for the continued support of these institutions. I would also like to thank the many plot holders who have taken the time to be present on their plots to allow us to take a soil sample and for returning questionnaires and all the other people that have made this possible. It has been great to meet you all and I hope you continue to enjoy your gardens and allotments for many years to come!

Thank you for reading,

Jon Stubberfield

PhD student, with the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Division, University of Nottingham (supervised by Prof Neil Crout, Dr Scott Young), James Hutton Institute (Dr Rupert Hough, Dr Mads Troldborg) and British Geological Survey (Dr Louise Ander). 

1 Groeingroenewegen P., Van den Berg A.E., De Vries S and Verheij, R.A. (2006). Vitamin G: Effects of Green Space on Health, Well-Being, and Social Safety. BMC Public Health 6, 149

2 Royal Horticultural Society science-blog post last accessed May 5th 2015. Should Gardening Be Available on the NHS? Available at https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/science-blogs/science/november-2014/should-gardening-be-available-on-the-nhs 

3 Campbell M. and Campbell I. (2009). A Survey of Allotment Waiting Lists in England. Transition Town West Kirby with the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners. Available at http://ww.transitiontownwestkirby.org.uk/files/ttwk_nsalg_survey_09.pdf 

4 Nature Conservancy Council. (1991). Soils in the Urban Environment. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 0EL