BERGEN, Norway — It was an unusually hot day in May on the west coast of Norway, about 25 degrees Celsius. The weather caught us all unprepared — me, my husband and the public transportation authorities. The latter, worried about the cost of air conditioning, told the bus drivers to limit its use as much as possible. Being on such a bus during rush hour on such a hot day was not a pleasant experience, and the heat made my bottom lip slowly protrude. On top of that, a huge car accident clogged all the city’s major arteries, doubling the traveling time necessary to get to the suburbs. But it was all worth it.
The end point for my husband and me was the place where we had to meet with 25 other couples. The purpose of our meeting was to divide a piece of land behind a local farm in the open area called Bergendal Gård, only the second community garden in the Bergen metropolitan area. Stuck in traffic, we constantly complained, but in our minds we knew that if we managed to get this 24-square-meter parcel of land, it would be the ideal place to escape to on weekends. We also thought of our expected child, who would be able to spend time in nature and probably meet some other baby friends. We were excited to finally have a chance to have our own garden—something we could never previously imagine in our apartment in the city center, which is only 40 square meters.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo, the capital, where people often grow their own food on rooftops and in community gardens. The Oslo area is famous for its kolonihager, literally “colony farms,” which are community farms that were established in the early 20th century. Over time, people have built little cabins on their kolonihager parcels, and they defend their rights to their parcels as property. Parsellhager gardens, as the garden parcels are called, are slightly different in that the parcel users are not allowed to construct any buildings, and the land use terms are not as fixed, since the municipality can take back the parsellhager land at any time.
The official website of the urban gardens in Oslo reports that in 2013 the capital had about 20 major urban garden areas with more than 1,000 parcels. The gardens are so popular that a waiting list has about 800 people. With Bergen second in size after Oslo, you would expect that urban farmers would abound there as well.
But on the contrary: Bergen has never had a history of kolonihager, and until the recent opening of the farm in Bergendal Gård, the city had only one large parsellhager, the one in Fløen, with about 90 small parcels. In addition to fewer garden areas, the demand for the gardens in Bergen can’t compare with Oslo’s. In 2012, the waiting list in Bergen had only about 85 people.
In fact, the perception of the parsellhager gardens as not permanent has been a challenge to their development. Discussions about the establishment of more gardens in Bergen date back to 2012, when city officials made them a part of the city’s Green Environment and Land Use Plan. Back then, former City Commissioner Lisbeth Iversen expressed her concerns about the challenges of finding places to establish gardens where their long-term use could be guaranteed. In 1997, the Nordjordet gardens in Oslo, behind the famous Vigeland Park, had to be closed down after 14 years of operation because the city decided to build a school building on the land.
Garden organizers in Bergen have proposed a solution to this problem of the gardens being perceived as short term in nature. They decided to ask local farmers to voluntarily rent out their available land that was not being used. However, in 2012 Bergen’s Farmers’ Union had mixed feelings about the idea. The union said it would charge commercial rents for the land. In addition, representatives said the municipality had to look first at its own gardens rather than asking the farmers to give away their land. This is what Bergen did. In one of its open areas, Bergendal Gård, enough space was available for a parsellhager.
When we finally got off the hot bus, equipped with only our cellphones, we passed through the neighborhood. The end of the asphalt road was the sign that we had been looking for: It marked the end of the city. The transition to a perfectly shaped road covered only with gravel slowly began to reveal a picturesque view of the landscape. Somewhere within this beauty was hidden the place where we could create our own little garden.
The first thing we saw was a small running brook with a bridge made of flat stones. Hearing its song, I exclaimed, “It will be ideal for the baby!” Next to the river was a red wooden farmhouse, typical in Scandinavia, with a small flower garden in front. When we looked at the side of the farmhouse, we discovered that the red farm’s owner had arranged to have two tractors for plowing the land that is going to be divided between the city dwellers, who were yet to arrive.
In our excitement, we were almost an hour early. So we enjoyed the wait in silence and in the heat from the early summer sun until we saw a tall, skinny man with an electric bicycle, who was the first to arrive.
I immediately recognized him, because to get your own little parsellhage we had to register online and then become part of a closed Facebook group for the gardens. “The name of the man is Pål Røynesdal!” I said. Later on, we discovered that Røynesdal is a representative from the network of groups around Bergen called Sustainable Life (BL). Together with the municipality, they have launched the project to help people from urban areas get their own garden parcels. With this initiative, the local government and other sustainable-agriculture organizations expect that the gardens will become a forum where the community’s members can share their interest in growing organic foods in Bergendal Gård.
We were so early and waited so long that we wondered if the people who had preregistered would really come. But just 10 minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, people started arriving in waves. There were couples with babies, families with young children, young men and women. Although the average age of the participants in the meeting was about 30, a few older people came as well.
Røynesdal, the leader of the meeting, was accompanied by a few women who would help him divide the land, talk about the rules and share their gardening know-how with us. The first meeting to partition the gardens for this specific area had occurred two weeks earlier. However, with the low turnout, the event had to be repeated in order for the land to get enough tenants. A second, stronger media campaign interested more urbanites.
In fact, there were so many people that we weren’t sure everyone would be able to get a parcel. Kristin Finne, who works with Røynesdal, did a quick count in her head, dividing the number of families by the number of available parcels. “I think that all the people here today will get their small parsellhage,” she said. “Yes, yes!” I exclaimed. I really wanted to get the land, especially after seeing how many babies and children were going to be our neighbors by garden.
“The establishment of the gardens is a way to influence others to think more about what they eat, and to help people grow food even partially,” said Finne, describing the philosophy behind the gardens. She also organizes a course for vegetarians at another organization, the Sustainable Life Nattland and Sædalen.
“I wanted a parsellhage since I was a student 10 years ago, but the area in Fløen was all too far away from us. It was not convenient to go there several nights a week with my children, now 14 and 11, and a husband studying for his Ph.D.,” said Finne, who also helped with the development of the new gardens. “Bergendal is just an evening stroll away.”
Finne said the parcel helps her family grow a lot of its food. “We have our own garden at home, but here we have access to prime topsoil. Good topsoil takes years to build. It is nice to grow your own food organically. The kids learn how much work and dedication is hidden behind the food we eat. As a bonus, here in Bergendal Gård we have access to swimming, hiking trails and lots of friendly neighbors by garden.”
The gardens are ruled democratically, with a steering committee and the garden members. Gardeners have to pay rent of about $30 (U.S.) a year and must follow a long list of rules, including participating in volunteer shifts and, most important, following organic agricultural practices. “But what is organic? And are you the people that say what organic is?” was a question from an elderly, white-haired man who was accompanying his wife. On the opposite side where most of the young couples and families were standing, quiet laughs showed a generational divide. “How it is possible not to know what organic is?” whispered one person. This discussion led to some prolonged talks about agricultural techniques, including how to grow potatoes and the varieties allowed.
Besides these obligations, gardening in your very own parsellhage is deeper than just growing your own food. “Owning such a parcel of land is all about going back to basics, knowing what you eat and experiencing the happiness from something that you have grown yourself,” said Linda Kausland, a garden designer who has had a parsellhage for many years. She was explaining why the gardens are suddenly popular in Bergen. “Garden plots establish community. They are a meeting place for like-minded where you can exchange experiences, sit in nature and enjoy a cup of coffee on Saturdays. It is a place with unlimited possibilities.”
The Fløen parsellhager, closer to the city center, is more popular, but due to the limited space there, we would have to wait for someone to give up a parcel to get one ourselves. We were told that we might have to wait for five years. The burst of interest in Bergendal Gård means that this parsellhager now has a waiting list too, according to the garden organizers.
We were one of the first couples to get our own garden. As we headed back to the bus stop, the early summer sun created shadows behind our backs. They were the happy shadows of a couple that had received an opportunity to be connected again with nature, and an opportunity to exchange our window garden for a real one.