Cultivating Kale, Cucumbers, and Community Spirit

What to do with an overgrown piece of land in a bustling capital city whose residents live mostly in apartments? One active community in Riga founded urban gardens, illustrating the potential of transforming derelict plots into added value for a city.

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Gardens of Sporta Pils
For city dwellers starved of a piece of land to call their own, the Gardens of Sporta Pils provide space to enjoy the simple pleasures of nature in the midst of an urban setting. Photo: Madara Gritāne

Once the site of a Soviet-era sports complex, a sizeable plot of land in central Riga, Latvia, stood empty for years, anticipating a promised new life. Now slated to become a sleek retail, business, and lifestyle development, the site entered a state of limbo as the owners waited for the right economic moment. Eager trees, leggy weeds, and sprightly bushes shot up where glass and brick buildings should have stood. Until activist Renāte Lagzdiņa came along, that is.

The weeds are now tamed, and the site is home to the Gardens of Sporta Pils (Sporta pils dārzi) – a finalist in the European Prizes for Urban Public Space 2022. Lagzdiņa approached the owners of the land with a proposal. The idea? To fill the space with meaning by developing a community garden. The owners agreed to hand the land over for three years.

Planting the seeds

Community members paid a small fee, attracted several sponsors, and did crowdfunding to bring the idea to life. Through a series of clean-ups, the community tidied the site and kitted it out with collapsible planter boxes. The gardeners now tend to a total of 150 allotments, share tool storage facilities, compost points, and communal flower beds, as well as many moments. All gardeners chip in with maintenance.

For city dwellers starved of a piece of land to call their own, the urban gardens provide space to enjoy the simple pleasure of growing a tomato from seed to a full-blown, fruit-bearing plant. Not only that, but they also teach valuable lessons in civic engagement by demonstrating the power of individuals in creating change.

As a non-discriminatory space, the gardens welcome people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Several planter boxes are adapted for people with reduced mobility. The 2022 season saw some allotments offered to refugees from Ukraine. Illustrating the principles of the New European Bauhaus movement, the urban gardens are beautiful, inclusive, and sustainable spaces.

Sporta Pils Dārzi: giving the community a green thumb

Anyone can visit the Sporta Pils Dārzi during the seasonal public working hours from Thursday to Sunday. Community members take turns volunteering at the gates and welcome guests. In summer 2022, local artist Darja Meļņikova enriched the urban gardens with a café. Visitors to her Palette Kiosk can enjoy an invigorating menu of coffee, spritz, and nibbles inspired by the Italian aperitivo tradition. The bar and kitchen are in an actual revamped vintage kiosk, itself a design icon.

Kristīne Madjare is a photographer, active gardener, and member of the community. She shares the value she has gained from joining the initiative: “At the end of a working day, there’s nothing greater than having somewhere to come and work with your hands. It lets me completely take my mind off other things. It’s not so much about whether something grows well but more about keeping yourself busy and feeling a connection with something bigger.”

The story doesn’t have to end once the urban gardens close their gates for the last time in their current location. The planter boxes are mobile, and so is the community.

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