Allotment Gardening in an Affluent Society

IFPRA-conference. Stavanger 17. juni 2003

I am going to talk about allotment gardening, but since the English word “allotment” refers to two different types of gardens – and sub-cultures – I would like to emphasis that what I am going to focus on is allotment gardens without a shed or a cottage – what we in Norwegian call “parsellhager”. While the “Kolonihager” have a strong membership organization, the allotment gardeners have no membership organization and represent a more anarchistic type of land use.

Up until now, Oslo's allotment gardens have not been taken into account in area planning and land use in the city. In fact, very little has been known about allotment gardening as a leisure activity, in the city's administration or among its citizens. During the last few years, a number of allotment gardens have been downsized and some are under threat from new developments. As of today, this type of gardening is not considered a recreational activity on par with other leisure activities, and no public agency has overall responsibility for the future of the allotment gardens.

In 1999 I took the initiative for a questionnaire survey among allotment holders in Oslo, as a first step towards putting this type of recreation and land use on the agenda. The aim was to document how many allotment gardens there really are in Oslo (nobody knew), what characterises the city's allotment holders and what motivates them to use their allotment.

I would like to emphasize that although the number of allotment plots may be small (in Oslo today it is about 800 plots spread over in 24 groups), they embody certain principles concerning allocation of land for communal usage and for health promoting activities. And I believe the allotment gardens are of great sociological interest.

For many years, sociological research concentrated itself on work as a source of information on identity. Today, there is a growing awareness that it is what we do outside the working hours that has a greater influence on what we are. As commercialisation makes deeper inroads into our spare time activities, we tend to spend more and more time in places like shopping centres, health studios, etc. Moreover, this commercialisation has also opened up a vast number of recreational possibilities for the public, and in recent years, sociologists and other investigators have devoted much of their attention to recreation.

As they are a communal area untouched by the current consumerism and market trends, it is easy to overlook the allotment gardens and dismiss them as obsolete and of no sociological importance. However, they exist in spite of the consumerism in the affluent society. They make an important contribution to the quality of people’s lives, and they are important social assets.

Before I am going to say more about what characterises the city's allotment holders and what motivates them to use their allotment, I would just present some facts about the survey:

A questionnaire with 49 questions was sent to all allotment holders in Oslo for whom a postal address could be obtained; hence the data presented are based on the whole population of allotment holders, not on a sample.

A total of 650 questionnaires were sent out (at the time I only knew about 700 allotment plots), and the response rate of 69% should be seen as highly satisfactory, given the fact that some of the respondents have a modest command of the Norwegian language and may have had problems filling in the questionnaire.

I am not going to present many numbers from the survey (those who might be interested will find an English summary of the main findings on the allotment gardening webpage: Instead, to say more about what characterises the city’s allotment holders, I have made this figure to summarize some of the different types of allotment gardeners that I “discovered” in my research:

To summarize my findings:

1. A landscape shaped by the personality of the individual


  • The allotment gardener works for himself within a communal framework. Unlike those who own their own gardens, he leaves his stamp on a piece of public property.
  • The allotment plots form a man-made landscape, a patchwork quilt of individual personalities and creativity.
  • The varied landscape, shaped and coloured by active use, stands in sharp contrast to city's public recreational areas designed by landscape architects to conform to the current fashions in aesthetics and utility.
  • Tilling the soil ties a man to a plot of land as nothing else could. It leaves his stamp on the landscape, and unlike the tourist and the 'consumer of public recreational areas' who are there in passing, he is a part of his plot of land.

2. Not for subsistence but for the body and soul

  • Today, allotment gardens are a haven for individualism, an outlet for the creative spirit, and a meeting place. What matters is not the size of the harvest, but the chance they afford one to be creative and to work the land.
  • Not the least valuable aspect of the allotment gardens is that they provide one a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, where time seems to stand still.

3. It satisfies several different needs

  • There's an astonishing variety among what's grown there and among the growers; stock brokers, waiters, playing children, and elderly people, coming from 30 countries, they all are there. As far as I know, no other recreational activity in Oslo includes such a diversity of age, professions, and cultural backgrounds.
  • Those who work together talk together. If one wants to, it is very easy to start a conversation at an allotment garden ( you also have slugs on your salad?) It is a place where one can freely choose the degree of friendship one wants to extend.

4. A carpet-sized plot, a magic carpet!

  • 75% of the allotment plots are 50 m2 or less (in UK the average is 200m2).
  • 8 out of 10 are satisfied with the size of their allotment, and contrary to what one might expect:
  • 75 % those who have an allotment of less than 20m2 think that their allotment is an adequate size.

    => which supports the view that allotment gardening is not for subsistence but for body and soul.

5. They all are city dwellers happy to live in Oslo

  • Work on an allotment garden does not reflect any discontent with the city life, nor a longing for the country. In fact, 98% of those who have allotment gardens say that they like to live in Oslo, and the majority of them enjoy it very much. There is nothing mutually exclusive about going to a cafe and having an allotment garden, rather they are two enjoyable parts of a city life.


In recent years, allotment gardening as a recreational activity has met with increasing recognition internationally; the time has come for public agencies in Norway to realise that this type of use of the city space is of considerable value in a modern city.

The allotment gardens provide one means to satisfy man's deep seated urge to be active and creative, enable one to engage in a health promoting activity with other qualities than the traditional physical activities can offer, and enable one to be a part of a communal life seldom possible elsewhere in the city.

Who has the courage to give political priority to these small, green, and idiosyncratic plots of land, which may seem an anachronism in a modern city?

A public parking place for a car is nearly as large as the smallest of the allotment plots.


© Siri Haavie