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Light-blue collar brigade can restore the urban balance

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In Bremen, the Bremish like to garden. If you look at an aerial photograph, you will observe large areas, close to the town centre, that are devoted to Schrebergarten - allotments.

Years ago Dr Schreber, who lived in the industrial region of the Ruhr, saw the unhealthy local workers and advertised the virtues of gardening. Not only did the act of digging bring the workers into fresher air, they also got exercise and produced fresh vegetables. This saved lives and contributed to the survival of many exploited people.

Similar qualities were inherent to Patrick Geddes'strategies for Edinburgh. The touch of brilliance was the installation of a camera obscura near the castle, giving the citizens a dispassionate view of the squalor in the city.

Today the Schrebergarten of Bremen and other German cities serve a different purpose - they are in-town, semi-rural retreats for the locals. Often they are no more than a kilometre from the permanent houses of the people who use them, yet at weekends the urban dweller heads south to a haven of peace. No longer are vegetables the principal crops. In many of these mini-farmsteads, there are none. You will find rather twee wooden huts and palings, some tastefully planted evergreens, sweet peas, daisies, tiny immaculate lawns - and sometimes an array of personal ornaments.

These places are usually amazing. They are private, delightful zones of free expression.

The gardeners spend their weekends in their 'Wendy' houses playing at another existence and they become, perhaps, nicer people. Of course, these retreats are not fantasy, they are reality. Our urban farmers are successfully escaping lives of deadeningly dull conformity and peer competition as, say, office workers, for a little light work and a new perspective.

We could learn something from the way these spaces are incorporated into the city fabric. In England, sadly, we have long sold off our allotments to volume housebuilders, leading to an absence of space for such realities.

Nevertheless, an area such as the Lea Valley could easily become the site for such a parallel world. This is a large enough site for the four million houses that this country requires. It is therefore obviously large enough to give delight through other forms.

In what ways could the new Schrebergarten be realised? Could it be high rise? Could it be electronic? The magazine Archigram 9 (London 1970) predicted and supplied the tools (and seeds) for the modern garden. Here we find David Greene's mobot, a machine to take the sweat out of mowing the lawn, autogrow electric gardening aids, the transient machine in the landscape, an experimental bottery and a sachet of nightscented stocks. The idea of the urban retreat has been with us for a long time.

Perhaps its time is coming, as the reality of a post-industrial age dawns on us and the multi-meaning, multi-functional, post-theory age of free expression arrives. The virtual world of the couch and the concept of intellectual wealth are already encouraging a new form of manual labour. As the world of screen dwelling and intellectual property expands, many people are beginning to dream of the world of work. This is translated into boutique businesses such as garden services, house makeovers, a variety of craft activities and anything else that can generate a higher return on effort. The birth of this light-blue collar brigade has brought us people who will restore the balance of activities in our economy. Italy is full of small dynamic industries feeding large industries.

There are, however, fewer gardeners.

William Alsop, from the right-hand side of the bed

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