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Practice-based Planning for Urban Gardening

Graduation work by Ioana-Cristina Musat

Our daily activities are taken as is: the fact that we ride our bicycles to do the shopping, or that we go to work using a certain train, or that we spend more time during the weekend with our family. We see these activities as a “matter-of-fact”; many of them unquestioned and not thoroughly understood. In the meantime the rhythm of our societal practices is shaping our environment as we speak. What if existing practices which improve the quality of urban life would be identified and then further supported through urban planning?

Urban gardening and food sustainability

Food sustainability is a subject on the urban planning agenda. The research of food-related practices can contribute to creating sustainable food strategies for urban areas. Urban gardening is a practice increasing in popularity in the Netherlands, especially in the city of Amsterdam: fig.1 illustrates urban gardening initiatives in the city. Urban gardening raises awareness in urban areas about how food is grown (Cohen & Ilieva, 2015). Because food sustainability is a societal problem on the agenda of urban planning (Amsterdam municipality, 2016), understanding how social practices like urban gardening are taken up and maintained by citizens is a key factor in tackling this problem.

Figure 1. Urban gardening initiatives. Source:

Social practices meet urban gardening

Social practices are the daily activities of people (Chase et al., 2008; Shove et al., 2012). They are as complex as they are seen as a “matter-of-fact”. Researching social practices greatly contributes to understanding how societies are shaped and how they in turn shape their environment (Jacobs, 1961; Shove et al., 2012; Chase et al., 2008). A model for analyzing social practices is formulated by sociologist Elizabeth Shove (Shove et al., 2012). Social practices exist when three elements are linked together: competences, meanings and materials. Simply told, if we would apply this model to the practice of urban gardening then:

  • The competences are the set of knowledge and skills for gardening.

  • The meanings can be growing your own food, leading healthy lives, contributing to the community

  • The materials are the necessary physical tools and props for gardening, i.e. seeds, soil etc.

In order for a practice to survive it needs to be constantly re-enacted by the people who carry it out. Two factors play an important role in the continuation of a citizen-led practice: their motivation (Shove et al., 2012) and the spatial flexibility (Chase et al., 2008). The motivations of the carriers are the reasons they keep coming to the same place time and time again to do their activities. Spatial flexibility is created by the lack of strict rules and regulations therefore assuring that the urban place easily adapts to the wishes and needs of the carriers. The case-study of the “Boeletuin” garden is an exploration of how this model can bring up valuable insights for planning urban gardens.

Figure 2. “Boeletuin” garden. Source: “The Green Living Lab” facebook page.

Case-study “Boeletuin” garden

The “Boeletuin” garden (fig.2) is situated in the south of Amsterdam, a fast developing business area. The garden is located in the vicinity of the VU University and VU medical center. It has been active for over 50 years. Now it has a vulnerable statute, because the University owns the land and intends to use it to expand its campus in the near future. The core findings about the gardening practice of “Boeletuin” are the following:

– It reduces implementation and maintenance costs for green space because it is citizen-led.

– Raises awareness about food sustainability and health.

– Increases life quality of members: health and wellbeing.

Although it has an uncertain future, the garden hosts three citizen-led initiatives who engage in weekly gardening activities. Results of the research are based on interviews, questionnaires with initiative participants and prolonged participant observations. The social practice model was used for data analysis of the existing situation as well as of the desired development of the garden (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Model of gardening practice at “Boeletuin. Source: author.

­The model illustrates (on the left) an overview of the existing competences, meanings and materials at “­­Boeletuin” garden. On the right needs and wishes of the carriers for improving the gardening practice are illustrated. For example, as for competences, some gardeners have been identified with advanced gardening skills. In the same time there is a need coming from the less experienced gardeners to learn more about cultivating vegetables and alternative gardening techniques. Therefore, learning opportunities could be facilitated between these two groups, hereby improving competences. The model can serve to strengthen the entire practice based on existing resources and therefore minimize any external assistance.

Figure 4. “Boeletuin” garden. Source: author.

Motivations and spatial flexibility

In order for a practice to survive it needs to be re-enacted by its carriers. In the “Boeletuin” garden the main motivations for gardeners to keep coming are:

– The feeling of being welcomed.

– Exchange and rewards of harvest: vegetables, seeds, etc.

– Acquiring and exchanging gardening knowledge.

– Improvement of physical and mental wellbeing.

Spatial flexibility, or the degree to which it is easy to materialize ideas and wishes, is very high in the “Boeletuin”. An indicator of the spatial flexibility is the co-existence of three different citizen-led initiatives, each with their own specific design. Questionnaires show that almost 80% of the respondents consider to have flexibility to materialize their design ideas (fig.5).

Figure 5. Opinions about spatial flexibility. Source: questionnaires.

Spatial flexibility offers the possibility for carriers to appropriate the place they do gardening activities in, take responsibility for it and maintain it:

“Yes, [the physical space easily adapts to our needs]. If it [adapting physical space to our own needs] is not easy, I will make it easy, because we create our own space.” (Source: interviews)


The gardening practice which is specific to the “Boeletuin” in the context of high spatial flexibility reduces implementation and maintenance costs for green space which normally would be borne by the municipality, raises awareness about growing food in urban areas, and increases the life quality of the participants by improving their health and wellbeing.

Recommendations for spatial planning of urban gardens

In order to further tackle the issue of food sustainability and contribute to increasing public awareness on this matter, urban gardening practices should be supported. The social practice model can be used for this purpose. The social practice model is useful for identifying the existing on-site resources, as well as needs and wishes of the practicioners. Identified resources can then be used for reinforcing the practice and its future development with minimal external input. Offering spatial flexibility is a key factor in the appropriation of the garden by the people: they have hereby the opportunity to realize their own design and therefore will feel responsible for the maintenance of the place.

By mapping and strengthening urban gardening practices they can be introduced into a city-scale strategy for food planning. The overarching aim should be the autonomy of the gardening practice, as this contributes to a long lasting appropriation and therefore reduces municipal maintenance costs.

Figure 6. Suggestive image for mapping. Source:


Cohen, N. & Ilieva R. (2015). Transitioning the food system: A strategic practice management approach for cities. Environmental Innova on and Societal Transitons. 1, 1-19.

Chase J.L. et al. (2008). Everyday urbanism. New York: Monacelli Press. 1-224.

Healey, P., Silva E. A., Harris N., Van den Broeck, P. (2015). The Routledge Handbook of Planning Research Methods. New York: Routledge. 1-529.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House. 458.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., Watson M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice. Everyday Life and how it changes. London: Sage Publications. 1-191.


Amsterdam Municipality, 2016. Retrieved December 2016 from:

Amsterdam Municipality, 2016. Retrieved December 2016 from:
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