Urban gardening in the city of Sofia is “seen” and “understood” by city planners and policy makers through the lens of five myths. We found that these myths distort understanding of why urban gardening is taking places and why it needs to be supported at national and city level.
Myth 1: Urban gardening is predominantly practiced in the West (in more advanced countries like Germany, UK, the Netherlands);
Myth 2: Urban gardening is a new and fashionable urban movement;
Myth 3: Urban gardening is of interest to a small group of people;
Myth 4: Urban gardening is practiced as a hobby by predominantly affluent people for recreational and environmental purposes.
Myth 5: If urban gardening is for self-consumption only it is of no concern to the state or the municipality.
In fact, by examining the linkages between urban gardening, making zimnina and the provisioning of heat and electricity in the city of Sofia, the RESNEXUS project found evidence that:
Urban gardening is a traditional practice for Bulgaria and the capital city Sofia. It has helped people survive during the food shortages of the socialist regime; and the two economic crises during the transition period. And it is a means of sustenance for many in the city.
Urban gardening is very widely spread and is practiced by a large and diverse group of people, including those belonging to a ‘traditionally vulnerable groups’ such as pensioners, single parent families; families with multiple children, those with disabilities) as well as the working poor (those who are employed but who have difficulties covering some of their needs).
Rather than a just hobby to a small and affluent group of people, urban gardening is part of a bundle of interrelated practices in the city, including making zimnina and provisioning of energy and heat.
This is illustrated by a quote from one of the study’s participants: F who is 82 years old.
“I prepare the jars so that when I open one up it can last me the whole day. I put in everything, the seasoning, the salt, the vinegar, everything really, when I am stuffing the jars, so that I don’t need to add anything else…………..one half litre jar is enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes I even have it as a snack……if it’s really nice……… That way I don’t need to switch the fridge on………..If there is anything left I take it outside on the terrace, where it’s cold. ……… It is really important for the jars and their tops to be sterilised really well. You have to use fire so that you boil them at a high enough temperature, and you wash them really well. You can’t do that on the hob.…….. That’s what I do in the winter. Otherwise I can’t manage the heating bills” (F, 2018).
Bulgaria has the highest rates of fuel poverty among the EU member states, which in some estimates reaches over 60 % of the population. The interrelated nature of the three practices points to urban gardening and making zimnina as two key coping practices for managing fuel poverty in the city, which likely affect a substantial number of people.
The linkages that exist between the three practices are more direct, pronounced and prominent in the case of vulnerable people. For many vulnerable people urban gardening plays a pivotal role in surviving. Making zimnina is an important and accessible way for (re)distributing resources to last the winter months (usually between November and March).
Many vulnerable people practice urban gardening on private land, but those who are homeless or don’t have access to suitable land often have to make choices between energy services such as heat and hot water on one hand and food on the other. For example, a meal for a shower/or washing clothes.
At present there is only one communal urban garden in Sofia which offers an opportunity for vulnerable people to practice urban gardening in the city in solidarity with others. During the 2018 summer season the solidarity garden which started only in the winter of the same year is now feeding 50 to 100 people once a week on a solidarity basis, through the Solidarity Kitchen set up by Food Not Bombs. With making of zimnina, urban gardening produce can ‘travel’ much further (than the city) and affect a much wider group of people.
Saving the Urban Garden in Drujba is not only about one garden or a homogenous group of people. It has a much wider reaching impact and will help a much larger group of people than those who are working the land. It is the only running and successful at that scheme in the city which offers an opportunity for vulnerable people to take steps towards self-help or sufficiency, help others and engage with action towards sustainability.
Seeing urban gardening as one of a bundle of closely interlinked practices helps understand its potential and develop nexus thinking which builds on existing interdependencies on the ground rather than always seek silo solutions (for example, energy-based solutions to energy problems).
That’s why it is vitally important to enable the continued running of the urban garden in Drujba and to work with wide group of stakeholders for upscaling of urban gardening as a practice in the city.