Whether we envision ourselves as a part of nature, separate from it, or something in between, has a profound effect on how we treat the planet. As the consequences of climate change increase, it has never been more important to understand our relationship with the environment.
Research in the humanities and social sciences are leading the way in making sense of this relationship. Social scientists have already expanded scientific ideas, such as coevolution, to illuminate the ways in which plants and other species have changed human behaviour and development.
My research is based in urban environments. According to the UN, 68% of the world is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. At present, Africa is the only continent which has more people living in rural rather than urban areas, but this is predicted to change. There is a simultaneous urgency on maintaining biodiversity, whilst finding ways to make sure cities of the future are sustainable and able to feed themselves.
Urban gardening is being touted as a solution to problems as various as increasing food sovereignty, biodiversity and improving physical and mental health in cities. What research in the humanities and social sciences does is to investigate the assumptions on which these promising claims are being made.
The term 'urban gardening' tends to conjure up images of futuristic vertical or underground gardens, however my research is on an everyday type of gardening that takes place on spaces that legally came into being in the U.K. over a century ago – the English allotment. These enduring sites of English cultural heritage are important places to examine the ways in which we imagine how nature affects our environment, through the ways allotmenteers practice their gardening.
Allotments in cities are useful places to examine the imaginations of nature and culture because by their existence, they already blur the boundaries of what is ‘purely’ natural or cultural. Many aspects of gardening are a form of culture practiced on or with nature.
Particularly in this time of environmental crisis, it is critical to understand what allotmenteers (and by extension city dwellers) conceive of and imagine when they speak about nature and culture. On every site, there are many choices that allotmenteers make that give insights into how the cities around them view, and consequently interact with nature.
These are choices that lead to actions that can have wide reaching ecological and political significance. Interventions such as the use of pesticides and choosing what plants to grow, all stem from the imaginations that allotmenteers have about nature and themselves as human beings.
As well as working on allotments in the present day, delving into their history complicates some of the commonly held beliefs about nature in urban areas. Cities are increasingly sites of great biodiversity (sometimes they have higher biodiversity than in the immediately surrounding countryside). Many allotmenteers actively encourage this through the experimentation they carry out with seeds and growing practices. There is also a rise in wildlife friendly gardening, with pollinators in some cases being given as much consideration as the fruit and vegetables that are grown for human consumption.
In this time of environmental crisis, allotments offer spaces of hope and possibility, as sites of super diversity, whether it is by way of those carrying out the urban gardening, or in the variation of the practices that are being carried out. Their rhythms which both reflect and contradict the rhythms of the cities they are located in offer us opportunities to shift our viewpoints and so improve the actions we take.