© Matey István 2020

Fertile foundations in Debrecen

A thin grassy strip hid between the wall and the pavement that edged the vast tract of cracked asphalt at the centre of Debrecen’s Vénkert area. Looking out, you would never have imagined that this wispy grass could defeat this colossal asphalt slab.

“Residents started putting flowers and bushes in the little margin of grass,” recalls Erika Jacsmenik, Senior Expert of Debrecen’s Urban and Economic Development Centre, EDC Debrecen. This small anarchic gesture signalled a much greater need. “Many people living in these blocks didn’t have the opportunity to buy a house with a garden,” Jacsmenik says, “but being in a city shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing nature.”

Being in a city shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing nature
— Erika Jacsmenik

This sentiment was shared by the residents, who longed to plant the seeds of community on this barren square. “It was a neglected area from the 1980s,” remembers Kata, a local woman, “An asphalt playground, a dangerous sledding hill, two grocery stores and a pub, causing noise that bothered us.”

Residents did not suffer in silence. They let their desires be known to their local representative, who also happened to be the Vice-Mayor of Debrecen, Dr Lajos Barcsa. “He has a good connection with the residents and when they asked for a garden, he started thinking about how to make that a reality,” says Ferenc Krisztián Fülöp, Eco Manager of the Municipality of Debrecen.

The opportunity came within the city’s territorial development programme, which sought to revitalise a number of areas in the city, including Vénkert, with green spaces. However, the vice-mayor knew that satisfying local people would require going further than just the new playground, street furniture and grassy areas that were in the pipeline. They needed something that could really feel like it was theirs and could be a catalyst for self-expression and community.

You spread my garden

The idea came from an innovation in the University of Debrecen. With the support of the university, a student organisation, the ‘Student Committee on Environmental Protection’, created a 1000 m2 community garden. They invited students to join them  and populate the area with plants and vegetables, trying out different growing techniques and interesting species. The experiment led to enhanced community, gave students a practical way to put insights from their lectures into practice, and supplied food.

It was hard to imagine a beautiful garden blooming there
— Kata

When the city pitched the idea of taking the university’s model of a community garden and organising something similar in Vénkert, the locals were elated. “The construction was a little noisy, and it was hard to imagine a beautiful garden blooming there,” Kata says, “but once the beds went in, we really got going!”

The dramatic effect of industrial food production and waste on our ecosystem and climate are well document. At the same time, interventions like community gardens can help cities adapt to the effects of climate change while creating more socially inclusive neighbourhoods. Hence, food systems will be one of the key topics addressed at the Eurocities Environment Forum 2023, ‘Powering our Cities,’ to be held in Ghent from 26-28 April.

Organic growing

The communal garden has 14 raised beds, with two plots each. Would-be gardeners pay a small fee of €10 for a year’s access to a 4.5 m2 plot, where they can plant whatever they like. The fee goes into a pot that the gardeners can decide collectively how to spend each year. Besides the raised beds, there is a brand-new playground and some green areas – not a shred of asphalt is left.

Residents of Vénkert proud of their community garden © Fülöp Ferenc
A young resident water the vegetables © Matey István
Organic local food from the garden © Matey István
Plants triumph over tarmac © Matey István

One restriction that is put in place is that gardeners are not to use chemicals and fertilisers – instead, they rely on organic solutions for plant feeding and protection. Composting bins ensure that any green waste can be collected and reused in the garden.

“The city provides the beds, the irrigation, and the seeds – though of course people can use their own seeds if they prefer,” Jacsmenik says, “we used European and municipal funds to create the garden, and running costs are also paid for by the municipality.”

The students from the original university garden visit this new plot and engage the gardeners in discussions about soil types, planting techniques and any advice they might need. The gardeners reap plenty of rewards from their endeavours: they learn about nature, get free organic food, and enjoy a deeper sense of community.

It’s a great opportunity for young and old people to strike up inter-generational friendships
— Gyula Dézsi

Healthy socieity

“Gardening is good for mental health, and it’s a great opportunity for young and old people to strike up inter-generational friendships,” Gyula Dézsi, Urban Development Expert of EDC Debrecen says. The youngest gardener is in their 20s, and the oldest in their 80s, with plenty of people across the age spectrum between them. “Organic food is good for your health as well,” Dézsi adds, “so we consider improved health an added bonus of this project.”

The gardeners do not take the gift of community lightly, and they are doing all they can to spread it around. “The gardeners come with a lot of positive energy, especially their ringleader Zsike,” Fülöp says, “they hold events to make sure that the benefits are shared with other residents.”

Beyond vegetables, they also plant flowers for the whole community to enjoy, and plants that encourage insects, birds, and other animals to return to the area. “It also makes our area safer and cleaner,” Kata says. Their most recent exploit has been surrounding the fence of the gardens with rose bushes to spread their scent over what was once an asphalt plane.

It also makes our area safer and cleaner
— Kata

A thousand flowers

It’s not just the scent that is spreading. The garden has been so transformative that the city wanted to repeat the exercise in other areas. “In the autumn of 2022, we established two new community gardens, based on this one, in similar neighbourhoods, in Újkert and Tócóskert,” Jacsmenik says. The recognition of this success is also spreading far beyond the city. Since it was established in 2020, the Vénkert Community Garden has already won a national award for Most Beautiful Kitchen Garden of 2021.

Indeed, it may travel much further. The city’s Mexican partners from Hermosillo in the International Urban and Regional Cooperation programme (IURC), run by the European Commission and supported by Eurocities, were brought to see the garden when they visited Debrecen. “They were delighted to see it,” recalls Jacsmenik, “lively, vibrant, and full of green.”

One of Debrecen’s famous poets from the 18th Century, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, famously compared hope to a garden, writing:

Kertem nárciszokkal
Végig ültetéd;
Csörgő patakokkal
Fáim éltetéd;
Rám ezer virággal
Szórtad a tavaszt
S égi boldogsággal
Fűszerezted azt.
Gondolatim minden reggel,
Mint a fürge méh,
Repkedtek a friss meleggel
Rózsáim felé.

You spread my garden
with daffodils;
A laughing stream
fed my drills;
Spring came
And a thousand flowers
Jubilantly flamed.
Each morning my mind
like a bee from the hive,
would bring its sting
to the folds of my roses.

Unfortunately for Csokonai Vitéz, his garden of hope withered away, based as it was upon a brief amore. The residents of Vénkert have chosen a more fertile foundation: the strength of community.

This article is part of the #EUFoodCities campaign. In a time where political ambitions for a common food policy in the EU are shaking, cities want to be loud and reiterate their critical role in food systems transformation advocating for ambitious EU legislation under the Farm to Fork Strategy.

This campaign is paired with a high-level political event ‘Bringing urban food policies to the table,’ which took place in Brussels on 9 March. More information here.

#MUFPP #Food2030EU

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer