The story of workers’ gardens in France, an enlightened priest, and world wars.
Allotment gardens took different forms — from individual and family gardens to industrial and workers' gardens. However, the intent was the same: allowing the city people to produce their own food and have a respite from the stress and rapid pace of daily life.
The dilemma of living harmoniously in an urban environment, without losing touch with nature and the source of food may seem modern, but it is at least a century old. Toward the end of the 19th century, Europe was going through a major transformation: ideological and cultural reshufflings, scientific and technological progress were the driving forces of a new lifestyle. In the new paradigm, industry and factory jobs were prioritized, and city dwellers dedicated less and less time to gardening.
The challenges of this shift were multiple and complex; people’s connection with nature became weaker, the air was increasingly more polluted, the local food supply was decreasing and a larger portion of the family budget was allocated to food purchases.
Recognizing the problem, several European countries, including France, Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Belgium, initiated national programs aiming to establish allotment gardens, consisting of small plots that could be cultivated and cared for by one individual or a family. The allotment gardens took different forms—from individual and family gardens to industrial and workers’ gardens. However, the intent was the same: allowing the city people to produce their own food and have a respite from the stress and rapid pace of daily life.
The allotment gardens/workers’ gardens also had a moral and social role, as they were thought to reduce poverty and reliance on welfare programs, decrease criminality and the rate of alcoholism.
With the terrible turmoil provoked by World War I and Word War II, the gardens gained an even greater dimension, as they became vital for the survival of the city. The strategic importance of the gardens around Paris is perhaps the best example and a good case study for applied food security.
Debut of the Gardens
Workers’ gardens made their debut in France in the late 1800s and one of their greatest advocates was Abbe (Abbot) Jules Auguste Lemire, a Catholic priest born in French Flanders. Abbe Lemire held very high ideals of social justice and strongly believed that living standards had to be raised to a decent level for all. In addition to his clerical obligation, Abbe Lemire decided to run for public office, in 1893, becoming an elected official for the House of Representatives (Chambre des députes). His political career extended to 35 years in the Parliament, and his work was characterized by a social agenda.
Abbe Lemire championed balanced reasonable duration and conditions of work with one day a week reserved for relaxation and observance of religious holidays, community spirit, programs that encouraged family life and financial assistance for those raising more than three children, retirement benefits and care for persons with disability, etc.
Abbe Lemire strongly believed that a healthy and decent life could not be achieved in separation from the land. Providing each individual in the city with a plot to cultivate was a priority for Abbe Lemire, who saw in that an opportunity to ensure universal access to good, fresh, healthy and affordable food, thus satisfying his social agenda, but also a means to purify the spirit and reaffirm the appreciation for God’s creation. The workers’ gardens were comprised of edible and medicinal plants, intended to nourish and heal, as well as many ornamentals; the utilitarian aspect had to be complemented by an aesthetic one. The agrarian emphasis was not nullifying the modern lifestyle, but rather adding to it.
Abbe Lemire became well known in France, and Europe at large, as a proponent of “terrianisme.” An English equivalent is unavailable, but the verbatim translation would be “landism” and it refers to the doctrine calling for ownership of land by all. Workers’ gardens were the natural result of this doctrine; the municipality would provide city dwellers with a small piece of land to tend.
In 1896, Abbe Lemire’s established the “Ligue Française du Coin de Terre et du Foyer,” an entity meant to stimulate the formation of family and workers’ gardens. The concept of the Ligue was novel and, to an extent, controversial, but it was eventually recognized as an institution of public utility in 1909. The Ligue was instrumental in developing public awareness and informing people of the numerous benefits of gardening. A postcard, printed by the Ligue in the 1920s, listed the following as benefits of gardening: a hobby activity that deters people from alcoholism, a way to counter a high cost of living and generate additional revenue for the family as well as an opportunity to spend the after-work ours with your dear ones.
Many cities of France were rapidly adopting the urban gardening strategy and Paris was no exception. By 1920, Paris and its outskirts (“banlieu”) numbered over 2200 gardens, providing food for approximately 15,000 people. It is fair to say that the devastation produced by World War I had also contributed to the popularity of workers’ gardens. In fact, the French government encouraged the establishment of edible gardens through multiple subsidies, during the war as well as in the aftermath.
Records of the Ligue indicate that in 1927, there were 56,700 gardens in cities across France and 170,000 industrial gardens. Large companies, such as Schneider, Companies des Mines de Lens, Peugeot and Michelin, were gradually conceding to the idea and providing their employees with plots to garden.
The famine provoked by the war had an awakening effect on France, as well as many other European nations; growth of industry without the parallel development of a uniform food supply was not sustainable. The gardens were part of a survival strategy and World War I had demonstrated that. In fact, the French government formally acknowledged the invaluable contributions of the workers’ gardens to the national food supply during WWI. Workers’ gardens had also served as models for the numerous military gardens maintained during the war. Once the hostilities ended, many of the military gardens were converted to workers’ gardens.
The popularity of the workers’ gardens rose rapidly across Europe and in 1926, and consequentially, an international body was created, called “l’Office international des fédérations des jardins ouvriers” (“The international office for the workers’ gardens federations”). The design of European cities, to accommodate inclusion of urban, edible gardens was, therefore, becoming a priority.
Paris and Workers' Gardens During WWII
During the inter-war period, Paris had maintained numerous workers’ gardens, thanks to the Ligue, as well as support from the general population. With the threat of the war, beginning in 1939, the French government instituted a public program, in coordination with the Ligue, aimed at increasing exponentially the number of city gardens and supporting though subsidies, all newly created gardens. Bank credits were also available for the creation of familial and workers gardens and the formation of gardening associations were considered very desirable. This proved to be a visionary approach, as it contributed substantially to the survival of Paris, during the Nazi occupation.
France—and Paris, in particular—has been a long-standing symbol of refined cuisine and a destination for the gourmands of the world. For that reason, it is difficult to imagine Paris deprived of food or on a subsistence diet.
During World War II, many factors concurred, leading Paris to a desperate situation. First, France was losing its colonies; due to that and the war blockades, a good portion of the food imports had been abruptly ceased. Due to the destructions caused by the war, much of the infrastructure had collapsed; therefore it became increasingly difficult to transport food to the city, even from domestic sources. And as if this was not sufficient, the Nazi occupation instituted a draconic rationing program. The scope was to weaken the enemy physically, but also to ensure that the German army had enough good food to support their war effort.
In an attempt to find justification for their actions, the Germans elaborated a “theory”, stating that different nationalities had different caloric needs. Within this framework, a German citizen needed over 2300 calories/day, while a French citizen was said to do well on 1450 calories/day. In addition, the Germans were mostly interested in a diet based on products of animal origin, paying less attention to the vegetables and fruits. To better grasp the gravity of the situation, it suffices to observe that meat deliveries for Paris had been cut in half.
Hunger and endless queues at the food stores became the norm for occupied Paris. This, of course, gave rise to social unrest and led to the creation of the black market. Those that had any access to fresh food were speculating the situation and selling at exorbitant prices.
With transport of food being very limited and unreliable, the relief from hunger came, to a great extent, from food produced in the workers’ gardens of Paris and its suburbs. Locating these gardens on a map, it is evident that Paris had a truly substantial green belt, with food being produced in Aubervilliers, Choisy-le-Roi, Courbevoie, Issy, Ivry- Bicetre, Ivry-sue-Seine, Kremlin-Bicetre, Maisons-Alfort, Pantin, Pantin Quantre Chemins, Saint-Denis, St. Ouen, Sceaux, Thiais, Vanves, etc.
Under Abbe Lemire’s guidance, Paris had established as early as 1904 the “Society for workers’ gardens of Paris and suburbs” (“Societe des jardins ouvriers de Paris et banlieue”). It is estimated that by the end of WWII, France had approximately 600,000 gardens, and Paris and its suburbs had around 20,000.
Inspiration for the 21st Century
Looking back, the role played by the workers’ gardens in the survival of Paris is undeniable. In an objective analysis, France was able to survive thanks to a gardening program that was over 40 years old, at the beginning of WWII, and that had functioned on a constant basis, educating people about the importance of gardening and allowing them to gain personal experience in tending the land.
Local production and rapid access to food are as pertinent today, as they were in the 1940s. The startling difference is that most cities do not have a “hunger prevention” program. Ironically, in many cities of the United States, lawns are protected over edible gardens, which are often considered “messy,” “unruly” and need special approval to be placed in the front yard.
Creating the space and defining the aesthetic norms for urban gardens is definitely a challenge, but probably the smallest one. The difficult issue is inspiring people to garden and re-familiarizing them with the process. Changing the mentality on urban gardens is imperious if the current talks about food security are indeed heartfelt, and not merely a topic in fashion.
As an exercise in imagination, it might be useful to think how most of our modern cities would face a crisis situation, similar to the one Paris confronted during WWII. But beyond catastrophic scenarios, it is important to consider our quality of life in the city on a day-to-day basis. The reasons invoked by Abbe Lemire a century ago for establishing urban gardens remain valid. First, urban gardens provide a source of fresh, healthy food, independent of the gardener’s income. Recreating diets, along healthier principles, should be an immediate concern for a society troubled by a generalized health crisis and plagued by chronic diseases. And gardening is, of course, a form of exercise. Secondly, reconnecting with nature, particularly in the case of children, can be successfully done in small, urban gardens. Thirdly, creating more livable cities, with cleaner air and more green spaces is absolutely necessary.
In absence of an American Abbe Lemire, perhaps the solution lies in individual action, education and the formation of associations of urban gardeners, who can champion the cause and offer tangible examples on how edibles can be integrated into the modern urban landscape. It would be idealistic to believe that all city dwellers will become gardeners, but those who don’t can still be pivotal to the transformation in other ways. Buying local, paying more attention to the quality and freshness of food and voting for favorable legislation are only some suggestions.
Irina Stoenescu is a food historian who speaks and writes about cultural and societal food traditions. She is one of the coordinators for the National Heirloom Expo and the acting Director of Development of Comstock Ferre and Co., and of Food Freedom America. Irina was born in Romania and completed her undergraduate studies in International Relations in Cleveland, Ohio.
Amy Glasser is an artist and herbalist from Arcata, CA. She enjoys utilizing nature’s wisdom through her paintbrush. You can check out her past and current work at AmyArtsYou.com
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