During the first year of studying for my Masters degree in documentary photography, I took a week’s holiday in Lisbon, Portugal. Whilst travelling into the centre from the airport, the metro train emerged from a tunnel and my attention was suddenly attracted by a cinematic widescreen view of allotments. It was so striking that I decided to set aside a day to explore the area.
Having inferred the general location by looking at an online aerial photo, I began my exploration at Olaias metro station. I found a path leading down towards the track and tried to locate the allotments I had seen from the metro. From there I could see the metro line running overhead. It was clear that it would not be practical to access those allotments so I walked alongside the track and under an elevated road.
Small plumes of bonfire smoke rose from between the trees and shrubs at the base of the columns supporting the highway. Further along, I came to Chelas rail station and I was able to cross the line and head down towards the valley floor. A solitary horse stood untethered in front of an old stone wall on scrubland at the side of a road.
I followed the road as it became part of a large junction and could see what looked like edible plants growing on the land between the roads. To my left, white and pink apartment blocks stood on the crest of the hill. To my right, I could see a series of Heath Robinson-style gates gave access to unofficial allotments along Azinhaga Baptista. With a little trepidation, I entered the site and observed the chaotic mix of dry earth and parched grasses interspersed with the occasional cabbage. After a brief non-verbal exchange with the allotment “owner”, I felt safe to explore further.
Old pieces of wood and a pallet were lashed together with string to make an open shelter from the sun. The roof comprised a tarpaulin weighted down with sticks. Old plastic paint containers were lined up ready to store water. A dying fig tree was adorned with a single silver Christmas bauble. Onion plants lay in neatly tilled rows in the soil. The seemingly random and sprawling nature of the site had soon revealed signs of improvisation in the face of limited resources. It was one of the many unofficial allotments that exist on derelict land in and around Lisbon. The gardeners grow food for their own consumption and do not own or pay for the land. They have low incomes and are often unemployed. Retired people dominate in some areas, such as Quinta da Granja. In other areas, many of the gardeners are migrants from Cape Verde. Since there is no official water supply, sewerage water is sometimes used to supplement rainwater captured in repurposed containers.
I left the site in search of refreshment at the nearby Bela Vista metro station. Afterwards, I walked along and came across a small allotment at a junction. This site felt more ordered, with a large water tank and a compost heap. An elderly woman was not impressed at being photographed and returned to working away quietly in the background. Cabbages and onions were joined by cacti, sunflowers and a lemon tree.
I decided to head in the direction of the airport to see what else I could find. Monolithic blocks of a vast housing estate loomed ahead; it was the largest low-income housing complex developed by the public sector in Portugal since the 1960s. Looking east, I surveyed the Chelas Valley. Lines of identical wooden sheds were arranged with military precision. This was one of the eight Municipal Urban Allotment Parks. It covered about 15 hectares, of which 6.5 hectares were allotments. It included 200 plots, each covering 150m2.
The site was previously home to unofficial allotments and was redeveloped in 2011. The land was remodelled, water for irrigation of crops was introduced, cycle tracks were constructed and a skate park was built on the eastern side of the park. About 100 plots were allocated to gardeners who had occupied the old site. Free training was provided, like “Water Management – Simple Irrigation Techniques and Systems” and “Selection, Collection and Conservation of Seeds”.
Ana Firmino is a professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Planning at the New University of Lisbon. She argues that the move from informal to municipal allotments has encouraged gentrification since allotment owners must now adhere to regulations and pay fees. Those who formally grew food on unofficial sites “will not match” the municipal structure and may choose to leave. She points out that in a densely populated city like Lisbon, there is not enough land to sustain food production for the local population. However urban allotments provide a range of benefits. Urban spaces can be renewed, biodiversity increased and the carbon footprint of food production reduced. Allotments can foster the formation of local groups and improve wellbeing through social interaction and contact with nature.
I am a documentary photographer based in Bristol, UK.