Baptized “Prazeleni,” combining the Czech word for Prague and vegetables or “greens,” the first attempt at “mobile urban gardening” has been created in the capital’s Holešovíce district. The move to bring something of the countryside, or at least country living, into the center of Prague is now into its second month where the Komunardů and Přístavní streets converge.
Architect Matěj Petránek, 32, has borrowed the already developed concept of urban gardening from Western capitals and is attempting to see if it can put down roots and prosper on Czech soil. Several dozen large bags filled with soil, a few sun umbrellas and benches are the most visible testament to the experiment so far.
“We want to try to bring back life to the urban environment with something simple and refreshing, like allotments. It’s not about some sort of weekend cottagers with transistor radios in a closed colony behind wire fences. We prefer a space that is open to everyone, where people can meet up, for example with neighbors who were previously strangers,” Petránek told Czech Position.
For many older Prague citizens, the other options are sitting in their apartment flats alone, at most going out to the local shopping center, or sitting in the corner of a smoke-filled pub. “It’s an attempt to offer people another way of spending their free time. At the gardens you can not only meet interesting people but also have the pleasure that with your own hands you growing something you like, be it flowers, vegetables, herbs or even apricots. You can just simply take it easy with a trowel and rake in your hands,” he added.
The inspiration for the urban allotments came from photographs of the phenomenon in Helsinki. “The simplicity of it fascinated me. You just need some bags on some unattractive bit of the suburb and at a stroke you can turn it green with newly converted gardeners,” he explained.
The site of the Prague experiment is a former 1,000 square meter parking plot with the urban allotment now occupying about half of it. The allotments themselves come in the shape of enormous bags, so-called “big bags,” which normally serve for transporting dried goods such as flour and sugar. Their plus is their strength and the fact that they allow the contents to “breath.”
‘The simplicity of it fascinated me. You just need some bags on some unattractive bit of the suburb and at a stroke you can turn its green with newly converted gardeners.’
Bags rented for the growing season are filled with around six wheelbarrows full of compost, soil, and sand around 60 centimeters thick, which guarantees a constant moisture at the bottom. The soil is included in the price as well as gardens tools are at hand for those without them. Altogether, the bags amount to around a square meter of growing space.
The gardeners choose what they want to grown themselves with around six months ahead of them to try and get the most out of the uniformed rows of cultivation bags. The first celebratory harvest of the first crop, lettuce, should take place next week.
The urban gardening concept is already mature in cities as far apart as Melbourne, New York and London. “People build functional gardens, for example on rooftops or on balconies. Together with other things, such as small cafés, bakeries or laundries, they can transform the impression of cities from something which unlivable and impersonal into a pleasant place to live,” Petránek said. And that, in short, has been his target.
The former industrial district of Holešovíce was chosen because it a dynamic part of the city with a lot of young people who have moved in over recent years. But the right location was not quite so simple to find. “It has got to be a safe place without rubbish or used syringes [from drug users]. Then you start to find out that there are not so many of such sites, almost everywhere it’s an inert and dirty jungle. The allotments should be places where mothers can go with their children,” Petránek said. He eventually found the right site in the grounds of a building damaged in the 2002 floods that the owner was ready to rent out at a reasonable price.
Step by step, the project began to take shape. Cheap bags for barley were bought in Uherské Hradišti, the caravan for serving refreshments came from Veselí nad Lužnicí. Together with the other items, such as the garden equipment and the soil, the total cost came to around Kč 100,000. With online advertising, it was fairly easy to reach out to the would-be urban gardeners.
“I have always dreamed of having a small garden, and I have now finally accomplished my dream,” said one, a 32-year-old student of Czech, Karin Matějů. With her doctor husband and two children they live in an apartment in Prague’s Vinohrady district. Although the building has an interior court, no one has come up with the idea of doing something similar to the allotments garden. “To agree on something like that would be quite complicated, the same as getting an allotment. This way we are saving time,” Matějů said.
‘I have always dreamed of having a small garden and I have now finally accomplished my dream.’
The Prazelina complex is around 15 minutes away from their home with the whole family going there at least once a week. Starting with one bag, after a month’s experience they now have three on the go. “We are overjoyed. The kids can play in the sand pit, and my husband and I have met people in discussions over the seedlings, which is a positive bonus in addition to the cultivation,” she said.
The array of huge grow bags show off various types of oriental lettuce, peppers, herbs, marrows and tomatoes. “Not just old ladies living near come to see what’s going on, but a lot of children as well. That’s why we are thinking together with some others about organizing a children’s day,” Matějů explained.
So far around 100 people have taken up the challenge to rent bags for around Kč 850 for the six month growing season. The site is open every day from 9 am to 10 pm with everyone invited to witness how a dilapidated corner of the city has been transformed.
Petránek says he has now fulfilled his target for the urban allotment. While he did not go into it with the aim of making money, the rental income together with earnings from the sale of refreshments mean that he should not be out of pocket either when the first season wraps up. “We should break even,” he added, adding that he regarded it as an adventure to put something together that had not been tried before.