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article imagePoland's love affair with allotments

By Maja Czarnecka (AFP)     May 28, 2015 in Lifestyle

Pitchfork in hand, Hanna Wielgus turns the dark, rich soil of her allotment on a major thoroughfare of the Polish capital known for its monster traffic jams.

Her little vegetable patch sitting on some of the most expensive land in Warsaw has long been eyed greedily by developers, but city authorities vow it will not be sold off.

"I don't know how I'd make ends meet if I didn't have this garden," says the pensioner, a tear streaming down her cheek.

"Soon I'll have strawberries, currants and cherries. There are apples and pears in the summer and Italian plums in the autumn," she said. "I use them to make jam and give away anything I don't use."

Her plot is part of the Defenders of Peace allotments, a utopian leftover of the Communist era where around 300 inner-city families grow lettuce and carrots and even raise chickens and goats.

Wielgus' plot measures about 300 square metres (3,200 square feet) in an area where land goes for a minimum 2,500 euros ($2,850) per square metre.

A garden allotment in the center of the Polish capital  part of the Defenders of Peace allotments  a...
A garden allotment in the center of the Polish capital, part of the Defenders of Peace allotments, a utopian leftover of the Communist era where around 300 inner-city families grow lettuce and carrots and even raise chickens and goats
Janek Skarzynski, AFP

"It would be more logical to transfer the plots out of town," property expert Jacek Bielecki told AFP.

"Warsaw is the only European capital with garden allotments in its city centre," he said.

It's "too bad" developers cannot buy it, he added, because it has "all the infrastructure you need for construction -- the metro, public transport, sewage lines, water, electricity and gas."

- Not for sale -

But Warsaw city official Marek Mikos is adamant the plots will stay exactly where they are.

"These gardens create green spaces. They play an important ecological role by lowering air temperatures during summer heatwaves and absorbing pollution," says Mikos, adding that the allotments form part of special "wind corridors" through the capital for natural ventilation.

Nor is Bartlomiej Pawlak, who raises goats "for fun... for my kids", ready to part with his plot either. "There are buildings popping up all around us, but here in our allotment, it still feels like we're out in the countryside," he said.

A Warsaw resident works in an allotment in the center of the Polish capital  part of the Defenders o...
A Warsaw resident works in an allotment in the center of the Polish capital, part of the Defenders of Peace allotments, a utopian leftover of the Communist era where around 300 inner-city families grow lettuce and carrots and even raise chickens
Janek Skarzynski, AFP

Warsaw has a whopping 190 gardens with plots covering an area of ​​1,200 hectares (3,000 acres). Poland meanwhile leads Europe on the allotment front, with 4,800 nationwide covering 44,000 hectares.

About one million families use allotments, a considerable number in the country of 38 million people and a lobby that no political party can afford to ignore.

- Eco bliss -

While the tradition of allotments started over a century ago, they flourished particularly during the Communist era.

Communist authorities wanted to indulge rural folk who flooded into the cities for work after World War II and to forestall food shortages.

At a time when private property did not exist, the gardens offered a desirable substitute.

But the former owners of the land and their heirs are now demanding restitution of the properties that the Communist regime confiscated.

A Warsaw resident plays with a dog in a garden allotment in the center of the Polish capital  but th...
A Warsaw resident plays with a dog in a garden allotment in the center of the Polish capital, but the former owners of the land and their heirs are now demanding restitution of the properties that the Communist regime confiscated
Janek Skarzynski, AFP

At least 22 such restitution claims are underway at Warsaw city hall.

Meanwhile, the gardens have become more of a pleasure than a necessity for most users.

For Warsaw's young designers, IT specialists or journalists, having an allotment is key to their eco-friendly lifestyle.

"There's no need to travel 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the Masurian Lakes if you're able to get some fresh air in the city in your own garden," says graphic artist Dominika Raczkowska, a 44-year-old mother of two who has a garden just five minutes from her apartment.

"It's fantastic, we live in the city centre and within minutes you can find yourself in nature."

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