Urban gardens key in times of crisis

In-depth analysis of management of ecosystem services in cities.

Allotment gardens have often been sources of local resilience during periods of crisis. During World War I the number of allotment gardens in Britain surged from 600,000 to 1,500,000, supplying city people with food and other ecosystem services. These gardens were established in parks and sports fields, and even Buckingham Palace turned over its lawns to grow vegetables.
Analysis of social-ecological memory
The story above is told in a new seminal article by centre researchers Stephan Barthel, Carl Folke and Johan Colding.
The article, which is in press in an upcoming issue of Global Environmental Change, investigates where and how ecological practices, knowledge and experience are retained and transmitted in allotment gardens in the urban area of Stockholm. It is the first study ever to really analyse in-depth the concept of “social-ecological memory" as the carrier of ecological knowledge and practices that enable sustainable stewardship of nature.

Linking back to the story of allotment gardens during the World Wars, the specific aim of the new study has been to explore how management practices, which are linked to ecosystem services, are retained and stored among people, and modified and transmitted through time.
- In the case of Stockholm, social-ecological memory in urban gardening is maintained and transmitted through imitation of practices, oral communication and collective rituals. It also resides in physical gardens, artefacts, metaphors and rules-in-use, Stephan Barthel explains.
Time to include citizens in stewardship
Barthel and his colleagues performed surveys and interviews with several hundreds of gardeners in the Stockholm urban area over a four-year period.
They found that the self-organised groups of allotment gardeners support critical ecosystem services that both underpin the production of crops and flowers and spill over to a much larger portion of the metropolitan landscape.
- This calls for policy-makers to appreciate and actively include citizens that engage in the actual stewardship of urban ecosystem services, whether it is about sustaining urban green areas or designing new ones, Barthel says.
Pockets of social-ecological memory
Today the city of Stockholm contains about 10,000 individual allotment garden plots, occupying 210 ha of land and involving about 24,000 people.
As concluded in the study by Barthel, Folke and Colding, these allotment gardens serve as “pockets of social— ecological memory" in the urban landscape and constitute a source of resilience for generation of ecosystem services while counteracting ecological illiteracy.
Without such physical sites experiences of stewardship of ecosystem services, or “social-ecological memory" could easily dissolve. Now when we are entering the so-called urban millennium, with more than 50 % of the global population living in cities, planning for sustainability needs to take these green spaces — and the social-ecological memory they maintain — seriously into account.
Source: Barthel S, Folke C, and Colding J. In press. Social-ecological memory in urban gardens — Retaining the capacity for management of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change.

See video interview with associate professor Ann Kinzig on how urban areas can contribute to sustainable societies:

Loading the player ...


Barthel S, Folke C, and Colding J. In press. Social-ecological memory in urban gardens — Retaining the capacity for management of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201