10 January 2012

Urban Gardening in St Petersburg, Russia

Environmental activism in post-soviet Russia used to be the country’s most dynamic and effective forms of social activism. In contemporary Russia, however, activists face severe obstacles in promoting green issues. The Saint Petersburg Urban Gardening Club, founded as early as 1993, is still struggling with the authorities’ acknowledgments of its important work.  
St Petersburg rooftop.Image source.

Philipp Brugner from the Austrian radio broadcasting dérive – Radio für Stadtforschung produced an interesting comment on the urban farming initiative in the second largest city in Russia:  Urban gardening in St Petersburg often is a fight for survival. With 5 million inhabitants plus approximately another million illegal inhabitants, St Petersburg is the northernmost megacity of the planet. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, St Petersburg has been a boom town for jobseekers mainly due to its numerous construction projects. Nowadays the city is facing huge problems as a direct consequence to its boom. The city government is focusing on its own prestige with building projects like the Othka Center instead of tackling its socials problems: half of the population is living below poverty level, 6000 people are homeless and 1600 children are living on the streets of the tsar city. Furthermore the city is facing enormous ecological problems, where air pollution and insufficient garbage disposal are only the most apparent.
This is the setting the Urban Gardening Club (UGC) has to face. The history of urban gardening in St Petersburg dates back to the late 19th century when rural aristocrats moved to the city maintaining their rural lifestyle. During the time of the Soviet Union only retired and disabled persons were allowed to fulfil agricultural occupation for their own use. Gradually the rules had been relaxed and at least at the urban fringes gardens for personal use could have been maintained, a development known as the Russian dacha farming. After the collapse of the USSR, cultivating land has been a direct result of the following years of crisis. Many could have only survived through producing their own food.
Raised-bed gardening for horticultural therapy. St. Petersburg's Prostheses Center during the summer of 1996. Source.
Rooftop garden on top of a  school in 1996. Source.

The UGC’s first project suggested using the roofs of buildings as croplands for socially deprived groups, due to the tricky climate obviously a very challenging endeavour. The big advantage was that the roof grown fruits and vegetables were less polluted with heavy metals than crops from the ground. Further projects involved cultivating the roofs of city prison with involvements of the inmates, or cooperating with primary schools and the St Petersburg Prostheses Centre. 

Alla Sokol at one of the UGC's rooftop gardens against the backtrop ot the St Petersburg cityscape. Source.

Although the city government has recognized the value of the initiatives of the club, Alla Sokol, founder of the UGC, points out that the government frequently obstructs new rooftop garden projects, since it is very difficult to obtain the licence for using the rooftop as farmland. Especially in Russia, rooftop gardening has a huge potential, as many people in larger cities live in buildings with huge sturdy rooftops constructed to bear the heaviest snow load. But many apartment blocks still belong to the government. Moreover, in blocks with only homeowners, usually the staircases and the roofs stay the property of the government. Therefore it is vital for the success of the movement that the government is highly involved.
Furthermore the controls of the produce and composting plants of the institute of hygiene hinder the proliferation of the movement. Often they attest polluted crops although, as Sokol explains, the tests the UGC has commissioned, attest that the vegetables from the roof gardens are much less polluted than those that are grown on the ground.  Within these controls, Sokol senses just another administrative barrier.
Although low income, reduction of purchasing power, and high prices force people into subsistence agriculture in St Petersburg, urban farming has not proliferated over the city yet. Many still prefer the long way to the countryside, to cultivate their dacha. 
Russian dacha. Source.

Article and interview with Alla Sokol via dérive – Radio für Stadtforschung, an Austrian radio broadcasting.


Anonymous said...

amazing post! thank you!

Unknown said...

Does anyone know how to contact them? I live in St. Pete and I want to help.

Christian Haid SYNCHRONICITY said...

I don't have a personal contact to the Urban Gardening initative there but I can put you in touch with someone who has. Please write me an email if you are interested.

Philipp said...

..if anyone still wants contacts, i can provide you with!