Above: Advertising for Victory Gardens during World War I in the US

History Time! Urban Agriculture – Let’s look at some roots

Welcome back to the second installment of our small series. Since it’s mostly grey outside at the moment, we’ll inject a little color into your lives by looking at a mostly green phenomenon: Urban Gardening, also called Urban Farming or Urban Agriculture.
Nowadays, in many big cities you can find projects operating under one of these or similar names. In Vienna, there are plenty: just a couple of minutes away from where I live, there is the Gemeinschaftsgarten Donaukanal; there’s the project run by our friends, the Salat Piraten, and soon there’ll be a gargantuan roof-garden setup called Erntelaa in Wien Liesing. And those are just a few examples.

Just like with clothes-swapping in our last entry, we‘re dealing here with a practice that has been going on for thousands of years, but became associated with certain ideas and values in industrialized societies. Before the transport revolution in the 19th century (railroads, steam ships,…) it was usual for big cities to contain areas where some of the food for the population was grown. Ongoing urbanization and increasing population density made this more difficult, and the easy availability of crops from far away literally distanced people from their food.

Still, already in the mid-1800s, when industrialization really got going in Western Europe, urban planners were concerned about keeping big cities sustainable, as well as keeping the inhabitants connected with nature.
In Paris, urban gardens in the 19th century were a continuation of older practices. They followed the currently still practiced, so-called Marais system (marais in French means swamp – the name comes from the swamplands which had dominated the areas before they were cultivated, also giving name to today’s Le Marais quarter). The crops in these gardens are raised beneath a glass roof and protected with straw from harsh weather conditions. What impressed me was their approach to sustainability: these gardens were supplied with tons of horse manure from the city’s then still animal-based transport system, which they used mainly as heat generator in these covered plots or as fertilizer. Maybe urban gardeners in Vienna can strike a deal with the Fiaker associations? Anyhow, at its height at the end of the 19th century, one researcher estimates that the Marais gardens covered one sixteenth (!) of all of Paris’s area.

Also very prominent was Sir Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City Movement, conceived at the end of the 19th century. His vision was to stop the seemingly uncontrolled growth of cities and the increasing separation of living space and green space entirely. His ‘garden cities’ were symmetrically designed conglomerates of seven towns, separated by large green belts. This should lead to short commute times, self-sustainability in terms of food, and small distances to green spaces. His ideas became influential all over the world, notably the United States and South America. Even in Vienna we have a small-scale example of the concept in the shape of the Karl-Seitz-Hof, earlier called Gartenstadt Floridsdorf.

Above: Concept of a Garden City, aka “Group of Slumless Smokeless Cities” (taken from http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gartenstadt#mediaviewer/File:Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard.jpg)
Above: Concept of a Garden City, aka “Group of Slumless Smokeless Cities”
(found here)

Speaking of which, what about Vienna? In general, people here were a bit late to this particular party (I’m sure you share my surprise). In Germany, urban agriculture had appeared mostly under the guise of allotment gardens (or Schrebergärten) since the 1860s. Austrian associations were beginning to push the concept at the beginning of the 20th century, but their real expansion came with the two World Wars, when food availability became a real problem. This was also true for English-speaking countries, where ‘victory gardens’ popped up during the war to increase food supply.
Urban gardens were also essential in the Viennese settlers movement (Siedlerbewegung) of the inter-war period. Reacting to the scarcity of housing space and food after the First World War, self-acclaimed settlers built their own residences and gardens targeting autarky and sustainablity, first illegally, and later with the approval of the magistrate.

Above: Advertising for Victory Gardens during World War I in the US
Above: Advertising for Victory Gardens during World War I in the US

Allotment gardens still dominate the landscape in various parts of Vienna. Other forms of Urban Gardening are younger, however. The rise of community gardens such as those I have listed in the introduction is a rather recent phenomenon. While they’re often very similar to the efforts of hundred or two-hundred years ago, they belong to the Community Garden movement that goes back to the US of the 1970s. After many companies had left the cities for locations were producing was cheaper, many economically poor areas were turned into community-driven garden projects. Here too, city governments at some point saw the positives and endorsed the projects. The city government of Vienna has arrived on the same track since 2010, supporting and funding neighborhood and community garden projects, and in the case of the Erntelaa project in Wien Liesing, even planning them. Opinions on government involvement in all this will of course vary, but with projects like this and the private initiatives still being created, it looks like Urban Agriculture will play an important part in Vienna’s future.

Hungry for more?

*About urban agriculture in American cities in the past century
*UN publication about food, jobs and sustainable cities
*Short piece about urban gardening in NY and Berlin
*Why urban gardens are nothing new
*On the phenomenon of Schrebergärten (in German)
*Leandre Poisson and Gretchen Vogel Poisson. 1994. Solar Gardening. Growing Vegetables Year-Round the American Intensive Way.

By: Jakob Jorda