Community gardening and resilience in Tallinn

Urban agriculture comes in many forms, varying in size, land-ownership, organisational aspects and level of administrative involvement, even to as much detail as what kind of produce is grown and how, and how these activities are communicated to people.

Private gardens, allotment gardens, community gardens, educational gardens are rooftop gardens are just some of the forms which urban agriculture takes. Community gardening on municipal land is one of those forms and while each city and the position of such gardens within that city differ, they still contribute in one way or another to urban resilience.

Tallinn has in recent years been actively promoting urban community gardening and in 2020 there were already more than ten community gardens in addition to educational and privately owned urban gardens. In total it is estimated that around 500 people are involved with the community gardens and approximately as much are connected through their networks as interested parties. The creation and management of these gardens is largely based on citizen engagement, enabling them to manage and organise themselves through their chosen platforms and, depending on the garden, they vary in their level of interaction. While many think that community gardens are just for growing food, it is vital to remember that perhaps even more importantly community gardens function as multi-functional space offering a large variety of services.

Photo: Flowers and bees in Pelguaed (Author: Martin Pennast)
Photo: Flowers and bees in Pelguaed (Author: Martin Pennast)

Any type of greening in urban areas can be considered as implementation of nature-based solutions, and community gardens are no different. As green spaces, they manage extreme weather events, mitigate climate change and serve as a natural resource to the community (Flax et al, 2020). Like any urban green space, urban gardens also combat fine particle pollution (Janhäll, 2015). In areas with low biodiversity, urban gardens are also enablers of more complex biodiversity – not only introducing more plant species but also influencing the selection of available food sources, shelter and habitats for other groups of organisms. For example, it has been noted that high plant diversity in gardens can have a positive effect on soil fauna and soil multifunctionality (Tresch et al., 2019) and it can offer refuge for pollinators especially when the gardens host more native flora (Fukase et al., 2016). These are just a few examples, as also urban ecosystems are inherently interlinked through food webs and nutrient cycles.

In addition to ecological aspects, urban gardens provide the option of engaging in different types of recreational activities that have also been shown to support mental and physical wellbeing. Urban community gardens are a part of public (green) space that can engage a diverse population of citizens, enabling community participation and social cohesion. Urban community gardens enable people to learn about their own impact on the environment both directly and indirectly, e.g. by planting a seed and watching it grow with the help of sufficient watering and soil nutrients and also by partly switching to locally produced goods as part of their diet. Therefore it carries valuable environmental education aspects. Engaging the community has been shown in many examples also to improve people’s attitude towards their physical environment (Flax et al, 2020), resulting in a sense of place and specific place identity, which in turn can lead to considering the community garden space as something that belongs to the community. Urban gardens act as a place for social cohesion and a location for various workshops and events, which offer cultural services to both garden users and may attract visitors who may later become garden users. 

Pelguaed was created through a bottom-up approach which was administratively supported. It is located within the Augmented Urbans Local Action site in Tallinn. It was established in 2019, and is part of the Insect Highway. They use an active Facebook page as their communication platform and have nearly 350 likes and 400 followers. The number of raised garden beds in Pelguaed has increased from 15 in the beginning of the first growing season to nearly 50 by the end of 2020, where various flowers and edible plants are grown. Some fruit trees can be also found. 

Photo: Seed bomb making workshop (Author: Martin Pennaste)
Photo: Seed bomb making workshop (Author: Martin Pennaste)

Pelguaed contributes to urban resilience mainly by ecological and social means. It hosts a diverse community of plants and probably also other biota, but the latter have not been documented after the garden was established. Because Pelguaed is located within an urban meadow, its ecological benefits are not as remarkably different from those services already provided by the semi-natural communities. Nevertheless, it offers an increased biodiversity and more diverse functionality that supports the surrounding biodiversity. The garden also provides added capacity to other city systems by e.g. retaining water, reducing stormwater discharges and reducing the heat island effect. In the urban community gardens of Tallinn, the heavy metal concentrations of garden soil and plants have been studied to some extent. The conclusion was that air quality is below ideal levels, but  not potentially dangerous, meaning that it is a sufficient precaution simply to wash the produce before eating (Kaldma et al., 2019). 

Pelguaed hosts several events throughout the year, most of which take place in the garden. These include concerts, board-game evenings, workshops, communal work days, brainstorming sessions and picnics.During these activities, several resilience principles are addressed, including participation, diversity and connectivity.

Resilience principles are often described through examples focusing on food system resilience. And in that sense Tallinn community gardens certainly also contribute to the resilience of a particular community. While the significance of locally grown food on the gardener’s tables is currently small, enabling mostly the provision of seasonal and fairly limited selection of produce, the role of Pelguaed lies more in other social and ecological aspects. The garden provides a new type of urban space, a meeting place, for people across ages and cultures, both through external activities and joint learning. Ecologically, the garden contributes to the Insect Highway, offering a diverse and alternating community of plants throughout the growth period and during the rest of the year providing shelter and additional food sources to other biota.


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