Vrtičkarstvo (Slovenia)

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Vrtičkarstvo 🇸🇮
Slovenia map.png
Location: Slovenia
Definition: establishing and maintaining garden-plots by landless urban households in order to improve welfare
food garden agriculture Slovenia EU CEE Yugoslavia subsistence governance neighbourhood housing-estate informal dwelling informal welfare urbanisation evasion
Author: Petra Matijevic
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

By Petra Matijevic, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

In Slovenian cities, vrtičkarstvo is the practice of establishing and maintaining household garden plots, detached from the main place of residence. Vrtički (singular vrtiček), meaning small gardens, are tended by residents of housing-estates or lodgers in urban family homes. Vrtičkarji (singular vrtičkar, female vrtičkarica, vrtičkarka) do not have regular access to farmland or a second home and either formally rent or informally take over a plot of land. Surveys suggest that 5 percent of all Ljubljanans (residents of Slovenian capital) keep an urban plot (Jamnik et al. 2009). Gardeners cultivate land of 50 to 500 square meters, temporarily or long-term, as formal members of an association or through an informal agreement with fellow gardeners. The diminutive term vrtiček (compare with vrt for garden, and vrtnar, vrtnarica for gardener) implies an amateur or inconsequential nature of the practice. Such a name, however, disguises its vital social role.

The type of land-use analogous to vrtiček is called an allotment in the UK, a Schrebergarten or Kleingarten in Germany, a community garden in the USA, a działka in Poland (Sulima 2000), a hobby kert in Hungary (Czegledy 2002), a bašta in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a dacha in Russia and Belarus (Caldwell 2011, Hervouet 2003, Lovell 2003). The forms of this seemingly universal human activity are locally specific. The practice is contingent upon a number of factors: geographical givens, land-tenure systems and agricultural traditions, rates of rural-urban migration and immigration, formal housing provisions, and economic climates. Urban gardening is contextual and highly adaptive.

View of a housing estate in Ljubljana from vrtički. Source: Photo by author. © Petra Matijevic.

In contrast to the out-of-town Russian dachas used as second homes, hundreds of small and dispersed vegetable vrtički sites can be found within walking distance of housing estates in both the inner city and the outskirts of Ljubljana. The geographic and environmental protection regimes have curbed the rate of urbanisation in Ljubljana and kept farmland within reach of residential zones. In contrast to allotments or Schrebergärten, vrtički are less likely to be organised by a formally recognised institution. Vrtičkarji most often cultivate land on the basis of an oral or assumed owner’s consent (Jamnik et al. 2009).

Vrtički in Ljubljana can range from a miniature vegetable garden on the side of a railway track to an enclosed plot that houses a second-home cabin. At times, they will serve as temporary first homes for homeless or immigrant urbanites. The majority of garden-sites contain dozens of intensively cultivated horticultural plots, accommodating a small shed, a canopy or a polytunnel. The tight proximity of plots encourages an internal system of governance, associated with supervision by an informal gatekeeper, commitment to hard work, the tidy appearance of the plot, a sense of accountability to your immediate neighbours, and the use of gossip as social bond and corrective (Matijevic 2018: 128-59).

Vrtički started to emerge near modernist housing estates in Ljubljana in the late 1960s, following the increase in intra-Yugoslav migration and urbanisation. Vrtičkarstvo developed as a private, individual and bottom-up initiative to compensate for the shortcomings in the quality of planned formal housing. Ljubljanans utilised residual and less favourable ‘social’ land (družbena zemlja) around the housing estates, forks of roads, areas under power-lines, former landfills or flood-prone fields. Such vrtičkarstvo served Ljubljanans in a number of ways:

(a) it supplemented a lack of variety of fruit and vegetable crops available through formal retail channels, improved the quality of the household food supply and contributed to the winter stores;
(b) it provided meaningful work that gave Ljubljanans a sense of control over their lives, and enabled them to express themselves and keep the products of their labour;
(c) it expanded insufficient dwelling-size with a space for hosting and vacationing or a private retreat in the event of domestic fights, and it provided a temporary housing option for migrants, refugees and homeless people;
(d) it facilitated socialising with the neighbourhood community, child-rearing and child-minding, and
(e) it enabled recycling food-waste and reusing clothes, household items and raw materials (see budženje).

Closer investigation of the dynamics of vrtičkarstvo in times of increased unemployment, poverty and uncertainty (in the late 1980s, the 1990s and again after 2009) suggests that the practice not only balanced off material shortages, but also made up for the lack of progress and social mobility. Working the soil mended the broken model of the good life by supplying a sense of continuity and certainty (Matijevic 2018: 211-35).

In the years after Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, vrtičkarstvo doubled in size (Simoneti 1997). On the one hand, the expansion followed the 1990s economic crisis and the increased number of migrants from former Yugoslavia. On the other, the land-restitution process threw property rights into a temporary limbo, making squatting easier. Media coverage of the spread of the practice acquired a disdainful tone and drew parallels with informal housing settlements (e.g. Bogataj 1999). Since Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, local ideas about Europeanness transformed vrtičkarstvo into a symbol of dysfunctional governance that characterised Slovenia’s Yugoslav past. Containing vrtičkarstvo became a key indicator of success of any city administration. Since 2007, the City of Ljubljana has used two techniques to restrain the practice: removals and legalisation.

The area covered by vrtički has been reduced to its pre-independence levels (Mestna občina Ljubljana 2018) in three steps. First, the local government acquired the land used for vrtičkarstvo from private owners or from the national state. Officials justified the removals by citing environmental, aesthetic or legal concerns. Second, bulldozers removed plot-holders’ property from the site. In a questionable legal move employed on one occasion, the city authorities instructed trespassers to remove their belongings themselves in order to avoid legal charges. When one such evacuation provoked an organised protest from the vrtičkarji, the news landed on the front page of the national daily (Petkovšek 2008). Third, the city authorities turned to ‘legalising’ vrtički from 2009, when the Eurozone crisis roused the interest in vrtičkarstvo and the public agenda of a sustainable economy and green cities started to win EU grants. This last policy recognised vrtičkarstvo as a form of household-food self-provisioning only (Mestna občina Ljubljana 2018). Implementing it entailed ordering the measuring and harmonising of individual garden-plots, selecting occupiers through an open call, and issuing tenancy agreements.

These formal procedures have replaced the informal organisation of gardening-sites and impeded the distribution of available plots. They have pushed vrtičkarstvo further into the corner: out of the public view, behind tall hedges, between tall buildings, into less populated areas. To hinder municipal attempts to identify, contact or close vrtičkarji, garden-supervisors on the remaining informal sites engage strictly in person-to-person contacts when considering new applicants, collecting rents or settling disputes.

Academic approaches to urban gardening and urban policies rarely see eye to eye. Researchers understand the practice as an indicator of broader trends and social issues, yet tend to disregard the multipurpose nature of urban gardening. Narrow comparative analyses of local forms often fail to capture the social role of the practice. To illustrate, Alber and Kohler conclude, on the basis of the reported harvest-size alone, that the more productive gardeners in Eastern Europe grow vegetables out of poverty, while their Western European counterparts cultivate gardens as a hobby (2008). While surveys and (historical) aerial photography (Jamnik et al. 2009) are valuable for assessing the spread of the practice, figuring out the particular urban problems to which the practice responds is best achieved with (auto-)ethnography and life histories (Caldwell 2011; Smith and Jehlička 2013; Matijevic 2018). In contrast, local governments are more likely to treat urban gardening either as a problem in itself, or as a publicly-administered panacea that can ameliorate any formal deficiency. What such approaches have in common is that they overlook the ambivalence of urban gardening – it is as much an urban problem as it is a solution. The challenge for policy, then, is to recognise urban gardening as a shadow companion to urbanisation and modernity and thus as a factor to include in formal policy-thinking.


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Matijevic, Petra. 2018. On the Fringes of the European Union: Food Self-sufficiency and the Eurozone Crisis in Slovenia (PhD Thesis). SOAS, University of London

Mestna občina Ljubljana. 2018. ‘Vrtički v Ljubljani’, https://www.ljubljana.si/sl/moja-ljubljana/podezelje/samooskrba-v-ljubljani/vrticki-v-ljubljani/

Petkovšek, Janez. 2008. ‘Padli prvi nelegalni objekti’, Delo, 7 October

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Smith, Joe, and Petr Jehlička. 2013. ‘Quiet Sustainability: Fertile Lessons from Europe’s Productive Gardeners’, Journal of Rural Studies 32: 148–57

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