Root and branch: Botildenborg and the urban agricultural revolution

The seeds of change were sown in the late 2010s by a social innovator named Lena, who acquired and renovated the small ‘mansion’ of Botildenborg, which had stood unused for many years previously.

If you find yourself with time to kill on Malmö‘s “circle line” tramway, or you’re wandering the city’s eastern peripheries, you could do a lot worse than disembark at the stop named Rosenalmgården, and pay a visit to Botildenborg. But what is so special, you might be wondering, about this old but charming building sat aside the tramline, surrounded by vegetable gardens?

You would be hard-pressed to guess, unless you knew the city well, but the tramline—which traces what was, until the 2030s, the route of a busy, noisy ring-road—once marked a stark division, physical and cultural, between the neighbourhoods of Almgården to the east and Rosengård to the west. Both housing estates (which the Swedes, confusingly to English speakers, refer to as suburbs) were built as part of the first miljonprogrammet of public housing expansion during the C20th, but by the beginning of the C21st they had very different demographics and very little in common: Almgården was predominantly populated by native-born Swedes of the precariat, while Rosengård had become something of a dumping ground for successive waves of immigration and refugeeism, and the tensions between the two were inflamed (some would say manufactured outright) for political advantage at the local and national levels.

The seeds of change were sown in the late 2010s by a social innovator named Lena, who acquired and renovated the small ‘mansion’ of Botildenborg, which had stood unused for many years previously. Lena’s passion had always been food, and her work in television and other media had given her a string conviction that cooking and eating was a way to reconnect people across cultural lines; Botildenborg became a place where she could test that conviction with action.

When the first serious pandemics hit at the start of the 2020s, the Botildenborg team opened their cooking and cultivation courses, already in high demand locally, to a wider digital audience beyond Malmö, and even outside Sweden. Teaching would-be market gardeners not just how to grow food but also how to sell it at a small but steady profit, the courses grew into a successful and sustainable practice that combined ecological and social values, and influenced activists elsewhere: the Parisian urban gardening movement, for instance, still claims allegiance with la modelle Beautildenborgue.

Expanding into a nearby plot to the north (originally slated to become a graveyard), Botildenborg served as a launch-pad for a trickle of market gardener businesses that soon became a stream, but it also provided new jobs on site, and began to supply affordable local and organic food for the local population, as well as a neutral meeting-place for residents from both neighbourhoods. This quickly caught the attention of the municipality of Malmö, which started investing public funding in similar initiatives around the area, and freeing up city-owned land on the urban periphery for use by aspiring market-gardeners; they were also among the first bulk buyers of Botildenborg’s produce.

(Many locals, including Botildenborg regulars, would argue for a much greater emphasis on the role of the radical local MMA, or Malmö mark & arbete-partiet, in the city’s adoption of new land-use policies, particularly after their surprise successes in the local and regional elections of 2030. However, touristically speaking, it’s hard to visit the site of a largely leaderless and horizontalist political movement, but comparatively easy—and rewarding!—to visit a location with a clear connection to historic changes. Our advice, as always, is to listen to the stories people tell you without trying to decide who’s right or wrong.)

From the activity at Botildenborg grew what would become the international Plants and People-garden Network (PPN), albeit slowly at first. Herb-focussed “sense walks” with residents in Rosengård soon turned into a social garden once the Botildenborg renovation was completed, becoming a place where adult immigrants and refugee from Rosengård, and later their children, would gather to experience a closer connection to food and ecosystems, and to practice their newly acquired Swedish language skills in a relaxed and welcoming setting. Similar operations were soon set up in other neighbourhoods, as well as other cities and countries, and have sometimes had surprising success in influencing their surroundings: the Botildenborg branch of the PPN, for example, has been instrumental in the development and adoption of Malmö’s food security and sovereignty plan for 2060.

Lena officially retired some time ago, but it’s still quite likely that you might bump into her in the cosy café at Botildenborg, holding court among the chintzy but charming upcycled sofas and armchairs. She has remained very down-to-earth, and declines (mostly) to take any credit for the success of the PPN. “I have never been interested in scaling-up”, she said to the Rough Planet writing team on our most recent visit, “but I hope I have been an inspiration for others so carrots, kava and kids can grow side by side”.


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