In the UK in the years before Margaret Thatcher whipped things into shape, there was not very much that the Battery Rooftop Gardener, then an American graduate student first discovering England, found worthy of emulation. But I remember being deeply impressed by my first glimpse of an allotment garden.
My hostess in suburban London, having been on a waiting list for several years, had just been allocated a plot in a fenced garden area located at one edge of the town commons, where, for only a few pounds sterling per annum, she had exclusive use of a generously sized plot to grow food. The allotment, as it was called, was the vestige of an ancient practice whereby the sovereign, when making common land available for private development, set aside small plots for the use of the poor. Allotment enthusiasts claim that allotments provided much of the produce for impoverished Englishmen during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They peaked at about 1.4 million allotment plots during World War II, and now are made available by town councils to gardeners of all income levels.
Fast forward to the condominium building boom in New York and other American cities in the first decade of the 21st century. The high-rise condominium buyer, in addition to exclusive use of his or her living space, is now offered, as separate units of real property, a storage room, a parking space, a bicycle storage slot and similar allocations of scarce space for things that are important to contemporary families. Oddly, to my knowledge, these offerings have not yet included rooftop space for growing food. They should.
Contemporary city residences – driven in part by LEED points, but in larger part by what the marketing department tells the architects the buyers want – feature ample rooftop space, most of it communal, for sun-bathing, barbequing and the like. What will be the first building, I wonder, to change this model and offer individual rooftop allotments?
Developers need to rethink what contemporary urban dwellers will regard as the most-valued “amenities.” I wager that access to fresh, home-grown food, and the chance for families to spend some quality time with their hands in the dirt, will soon rise to the top of the list. It’s time for New Yorkers to put on their wellies and head up to the allotment.