Photographing allotments and community gardens across the city, Hoare sheds light on the communities of people that inhabit these temporal spaces
As a city-dweller, if there is one lesson learned from this pandemic, it is humankind’s innate need for nature. When the UK lockdown began to ease in the summer of 2020, Londoners flocked to parks and community greens, laying claim to patches of grass and spots of sun, even just for a day. Gardening became a mainstream trend; many took to their balconies, creatively installing flower beds and vegetable patches, growing tomatoes on their windowsills, nurturing cuttings from every plant in their home. But, there were also the lucky ones, those who had endured years-long waitlists for a plot of land to make their own: an allotment. And, as one of the few places people were permitted to visit during lockdown, for many, the allotment became both a sanctuary and a necessity.
Commissioned by Bristol Photo Festival, in April 2020 Chris Hoare set out to photograph allotments and community gardens across Bristol. “As someone who has never had an allotment, I found them incredible,” says Hoare, describing the greenhouses, barbeques, and trampolines that people had built and installed over decades of owning these temporal pieces of land. The resulting photobook, Growing Spaces, published by RRB Books, is currently available for pre-order, and the work will be exhibited at Bristol Photo Festival this summer. Fittingly, it will be presented outdoors, in the University of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens.
Shot between April and November 2020, the photobook flows through the shifting seasons, from the first blossoms of spring, through harvesting season in the summer, and into the quieter months of autumn. Part of the beauty of cultivating an allotment is transforming a blank plot of soil into a space that is entirely one’s own. And these spaces are not only sites for growing, but also places to play, learn and forge friendships.
“They are like an oasis in the centre of the city,” says Hoare, who has since joined a waitlist to secure one of his own. “That’s why the project is called Growing Spaces. The growing is just part of it, it’s also about the space and how that makes you feel.”
Intrigued by the diversity in age and ethnicity of the people he met, Hoare became fascinated by how these allotments are changing generationally and demographically. The traditional allotment system we recognise today originated in the 19th century, to provide land for the working-class to grow crops.
Over time, their popularity has wavered, and the stereotype of an allotment-goer transformed to depict middle-class retirees. But in reality, as Hoare discovered, the prospect of urban land cultivation has been attracting people of all ages and backgrounds for a long time, and in recent years, younger, environmentally-conscious individuals.
“There is a genuine sense of community in these spaces, which is a rare thing in this day and age,” says Hoare. Among the people he met was a young couple called Chicken and Rachel, who have created a home for 15 chickens and a cat. Then there’s Barry, an elderly Jamaican man who has tended to eight plots of land since he first arrived in the UK, and Mike, a “local legend” known for his expertise in permaculture, and his orchard containing 50 varieties of apple.
“There are people who have been on their allotment for over 40 years, and there are young people who have just taken on plots. These two groups can be neighbours, and have conversations and learn from one another. Allotments are a great place for that sort of exchange to happen,” says Hoare.
Initiated before the pandemic, the project takes on a renewed sense of pertinence following it. Growing Spaces depicts nature as a realm with multiple purposes. It is a site for sustainable production; a haven away from home; and a pasture for genuine connection: a simple necessity we have all yearned for during trying times.
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.