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NATURE IN THE CITY: Allotment gardens are growing in popularity, with many now deciding to live year-round in these residential suburbs.
VILNIUS - It is spring time, the sun is out in a most pleasant manner and with warmer winds and milder temperatures setting in, the people of Vilnius and the surrounding areas are flocking to the many allotment gardens found on the outskirts of town. Here, they come for pleasure and a cozy togetherness with family and neighbors; chatting while going over the sand, smiles are exchanged, drinks and snacks are enjoyed on the patios, and the birds start singing and the bees begin buzzing. While the city itself keeps growing and the population of Vilnius keeps increasing as if it will never stop, these types of residential areas outside the center zone are becoming even more popular. Eventually, these areas will also be made into fully fledged suburbs, which is actually what is happening right about now.
Many of the allotment gardens found in and around Vilnius today were initially established during the 1960s, when urbanization started to increase as many Lithuanians moved from countryside to city looking for work, higher incomes, and a better quality of life. Coming from rural areas to urban environs, many felt as if they now missed out on something when abandoning their roots to start their new lives, and the chance to get a small but private piece of land outside the city was welcomed by many. Small wooden or brick houses started to be erected on these little green oases, and the new tenants began cultivating their soil, enabling them to later harvest and enjoy fresh produce - fruits, berries, herbs, vegetables - in their private and secluded environments.
Up until around ten years ago, the allotments were chiefly used for recreational purposes and leisure, with owners coming for weekends and holidays to relax, to work on their property and enjoy the green and peaceful surroundings. Back then it was not legally an option to build bigger houses, but then again, people had no interest in this either. Nowadays, the allotments are increasingly becoming recognized as new suburbs, and rightly so, as most of them have increased considerably in size, carrying the meaning that family sized year-round houses are now being constructed in the garden areas. Furthermore, some allotments are situated less than 10 km from the city center, which means that they are technically within the urban area. People nowadays move and settle down in the new suburbs at a fast growing rate, for practical as well as financial reasons. The main reason being that many Vilnius families simply do not find themselves able to afford keeping an apartment in the city, or purchase land in already fully developed suburbs. So instead, they opt for the allotments as a welcome and affordable alternative.
Legally, provisions for Vilnius allotments are set out by the city council, and are dictated overall by the Lithuanian parliament. The so-called Gardeners Law provides regulations for allotments as a whole, and sanctions under the Gardeners Law as such. The law, which is rather comprehensive, today recognizes the communities as suburbs, where families are allowed to build structures (houses in the design they wish, with certain legal restrictions) and reside all year round. Members (residents) of the communities are encouraged to help sustain the allotment environment, in the sense that they should maintain and look after their land, keep it presentable, and provide for a larger, sustainable landscape. In this manner, it is the overall aim to essentially make it possible for everyone residing in the allotments to cherish the community as such, and contribute in making it a good place to stay. The community itself is an entirely non-profit organization, and it is emphasized that individual allotment owners should always display solidarity, democracy and equality in cases of individual disputes, such as in the building of private fences, public road maintenance, enhancement of housing property, and so forth.
Occasionally, meetings are held between the representatives of the Lithuanian Gardening Society and the City Municipality officers in order to discuss economic and social issues concerning the allotments. During recent years, these meetings and discussions have been even more pressing, as the new suburbs turn into all year residential areas and integrate into urban infrastructure. In this manner, the successful development and maintenance requires more government attention. The people residing in the allotments all year round deal with quite a few practical problems. One particular and major issue is that the majority of residents do not have contracts with municipal garbage collectors. This means that the communities are somewhat plagued by the fact that people throw garbage where containers are not set up, which creates dumps where they are not supposed to be, creating much annoyance and discomfort. This specific issue is a constant problem for allotment communities, and the problem needs further attention and reaction from local politicians and decision makers, as continuously pointed out by community members.
However, in spite of inconveniences residents have to face, there are still more advantages than downsides when living in the gardens. Most obviously, this is shown in the evidence of beautiful nature, a tranquil environment, private and spacious territory, which is not found in city apartment blocks. More than this, tending your own garden gives you an opportunity to feel comfortable and enjoyable about what you consume, because it gives you the opportunity to enjoy the genuine taste, quality, and aroma of good old home grown fruit and vegetables.
Today around 18,000 people in Vilnius are permanently residing in the new suburbs, these allotments, and this number might very well increase to around 27,000 by 2015. The allotments make up 5 – 1/2 percent of the total Vilnius area of 400 km2.