Creative collaborations in allotments

Allotment gardens can be seen as special urban spaces where the whole spectrum of creative activity of the inhabitants can be observed: from gardening and horticulture, through ornamental plant cultivation, to small allotment architecture and ecological “do it yourself” solutions. The garden is one of the classic forms of culture, associated with the creative activity of human, based on cooperation with nature. Different solutions are prototyped in gardens, often resulting from individual expression and passion of their users. They can also be seen as intergenerational spaces stimulating the building of trust and solidarity that strengthen the sense of community and the level of social capital. Allotment garden colonies are also the reason for increasingly frequent discussions, not only between local residents, but also among cultural institutions, town halls and non-governmental organizations, about the availability and how allotments function in cities. Can these spaces also serve a wider group of people? Can gardens become multifunctional places, turning their initial purpose strongly connected with gardening, into a place of creative collaborations and prototyping new solutions for communities?  

Some gardens are open to such experiments. Looking at some examples from allotment gardens in Poland we can grasp different approaches. In ROD  “Pratulińska” (Warsaw) the collaboration took the form of cooperative building a composter in a common area of the garden by activists and allotment gardeners, which then becomes a meeting point, establishing relationships and devising new ideas for doing something together. In ROD Obrońców Pokoju (Warsaw) the idea was to develop an intergenerational activity that would trigger the process of opening this space to a wider group of people and, at the same time to integrate the garden into the public space. In ROD Berlinga (Białystok) a participatory activity was held as an accompanying programme to the exhibition at the city art gallery. 

Another lens to look at potential platforms for creative collaborations in allotment colonies is ethnography. The gardens seem to be a perfect place for an ethnographic observation, that over the years has developed a unique culture, from visual sphere to linguistic, through habits and customs. One example was a popular practice seen in the 60-80’s in Poland People’s Republic where, due to the lack of materials, gardeners would engage in acts of creativity. They would bring found objects to gardens, reversed their meaning and tenderly create a new world of the archetypical garden of Eden. These and other observations can serve as a starting point for designing collaborations and devices – the facilities or artefacts stimulating such cooperation. These in turn influence the process of opening the gardens.

In the three projects described, different devices were used – a map, website, composter and an artwork that have become a way of achieving a certain collaboration, not a goal in itself. 

Pre-war map of ROD Obrońców Pokoju, 2015 ©Agnieszka Dragon

A subjective map of ROD Obrońców Pokoju was a part of a long-term participatory project Warszawscy Działkowcy, in collaboration with Polish-German practitioners from the project Kolonien 25. A few months of being in the colony, interviewing gardeners, collecting pictures and documenting the iconosphere of allotment gardens, became a way to develop a device – a map and another one – the website that gave an “interface” and “conceptualize” the fieldwork (Waltorp, 2018). The website turned to be a tool which, apart from documenting the stages of the project, became a knowledge base about the Obrońców Pokoju garden, finally about allotment gardening in Warsaw.  

The map was made on the basis of a pre-war map brought by one gardener, then points were marked for about 6 months, through various techniques and sizes. It applied objects: alleys, trees, plant specimens, architecture, metalwork, landmarks and stories. The map was planned as a subjective map of the colony, which is constantly created and prototyped. It became a device that enable gardeners to interact, talk or express their ideas and something physical to show to the people and something simple that every plot holder could put their own garden on. On the other side it created new conditions for the field of ethnography by doing something together and developing common actions as a result of improvisational process trigger character of the place. The website with gardeners’ stories and the concept of the map, along with later collaborations between artists, practitioners and gardeners has become a tool for explorations.  

Subjective map of ROD Obrońców Pokoju, 2016 ©Nina Scholz

In summer 2019 a meeting of gardeners and community practitioners from himmelbeet (Berlin), SaluTerre (Bordeaux) and SAM Rozkwit (Warsaw) was held as a part of international exchange project On-Y-Va (Bosch Stiftung). One part of the visit took place in ROD Pratulińska where participants, along with board members and gardeners were discussing potential solutions for the garden to make it more inclusive. The meeting was a starting point for implementing the possible activities in the garden. One of the ideas was to build a sample compost box on the common space of the garden. One month later, with a support of the municipal programme ‘Naprzód Działki’ for allotment gardens, the cooperation between practitioners and gardeners has started.  

The process of building the composter took three days, starting from dismantling the old garden benches to designing and looking for materials and tools. The project of the composter was a prototype, something designed for this activity – it contained three chambers with sliding rungs at the front for easy opening. It used as much recycled material as possible – euro-pallets, partially broken planks from old garden benches and materials donated by gardeners. The idea was to design a composter as something that could be duplicated and improved over time. People involved in the construction were: gardeners, carpenter, community practitioners, and several people from outside the garden who spontaneously joined the construction. For three days of being in the garden and working together different people could get to know each other, often being invited to gardener’s plots, offered cakes, crops and stories. The process of collaborating, negotiating solutions and learning from each other began. The production of the composter itself was not the most important thing. Everything that happened in between – negotiations, design, improvisations – made the composter a mere tool to achieve the goal. It can be seen as an ethnographic method by taking the form of experimentation and hands-on involvement. A certain environment of cooperation has been produced.  

Through the combined forces of allotment gardeners and those from the new established community plot “Zasiejówka” were constantly developing the way how to compost and what; what should not be in the composter; how and where to dispose of the organic matter. Again, the relationship between design, nature and community becomes something exceptional and comes down to sustainable and creative collaboration and prototyping new solutions. The garden became a safe platform for experimenting and a way of observing social cohesion from within, while being part of that community.  

Compost workshop with Sławek Sendzielski, 2020 ©Agnieszka Dragon

‘Visit the Allotments’ in ROD Berlinga was first part of the accompanying programme of ’Spring in the Józef Bem Housing Estate’ exhibition in Arsenal Gallery in Białystok. The title of the exhibition refers to one of the Białystok housing estates gathered around General Józef Bem Street where ROD Berlinga is situated. The project in the garden aimed at inviting practitioners to conduct a participatory based collaboration in the allotment garden. It contained two parts – ‘Visit the allotment’ with mapping the garden (June 2020) and common creation of an artistic installation with allotment gardens on their plots (August).  

Visit the Allotments, 2020 ©Agnieszka Dragon

The starting point for the collaboration in ROD Berlinga was ‘The Visit’ that began with walking and getting lost in the garden, watching carefully with the outsider’s eye the visual sphere of gardens. The next step was to invite gardeners to share their stories which became an excuse to enter the plots and document the individual stories, underline their importance for the prototyping sustainable solutions, DIY culture, design of huts and horticulture techniques. Based on the gardener’s stories, as in the case of the project in ROD Obrońców Pokoju, a map with moments of interest and important objects was an outcome of ‘Visit the allotment’. The mapping process and collecting stories has become a platform of get to know each other, a way to express interest in particular gardens and the work of their owners.  

Visit the Allotments, 2020 ©Agnieszka Dybowska

The second part of the project was to invite gardeners to create a site-specific sculpture – a complementary half of an installation Półprawda/Half-truth by Pravdoliub Ivanov  shown at the exhibition “Spring in the Józef Bem Housing Estate”. The idea of Ivanov’s work is the conviction that the truth is as much as its contexts, draws attention to the relativism of historical memory. The work of art moved into the allotment garden and has appeared in a completely new context in which one forgets about history and builds something new together. Each letter was created using a technique chosen by the gardener, reflecting the individual preferences of its creator. At the same time, only when they were put together, the word ‘Half-truth’ could be read. The individual letters created by the allotment holders showed in a symbolic way that the allotment garden is a collection of micro-worlds, but only together they form a biodiverse community. The map created in the first part of the project was used again during the presentation of letters spread all over the garden.  

The project shows the role of artistic institutions in the opening of allotment gardens by using community art practices. Firstly, being a practitioner represented of a well-recognized city institution inspires trust and reduces suspicion among members of the community. Secondly, the use of artistic practices brings new contexts and is a good basis for creating an original devise rooted in some broader discussion (an exhibition). And finally, where art practices can meet community practices that can be introduced into an ethnographic site, as Tomasz Rakowski would argue in his article on collaborative practices in rural Poland (Rakowski, 2018). However, the exchange based on gardening practices and designing with nature give it another dimension where people include the invisible – things, materials, weather or landscape (Ingold, 2013).


Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: New York. 
Waltorp, Karen. 2018. “Fieldwork as Interface: Digital Technologies, Moral Worlds  and Zones of Encounter.” In Experimental Collaborations, edited by Tomás Sanchez Criado and Adolfo Estalella. Berghahn. 
Rakowski, Tomasz. 2018. “A Cultural Cyclotron: Ethnography, Art Experiments and a Challenge of Moving towards the Collaborative in Rural Poland.” In Experimental Collaborations, edited by Tomás Sanchez Criado and Adolfo Estalella. Berghahn. 

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