The summers in Milan are just as hot as the ones in Tokyo, and when I’m walking through the city with sun beating down me and the heat radiating up from the asphalt and I find the shade of a single tree where I can find mental and physical relief, Handel’s” Ombra mai fu” starts playing in my head. It was a long time ago, but I bet some Japanese will be familiar with the tune since it was once used in a TV commercial. It’s a simple, yet beautiful aria—both in the melody and in the words, which describe the shade of a plane tree. I encourage you to listen to it sometime.
So as you stroll through Milan, you’ll run across several sectioned-off areas of fenced-in greenery. If you look closely, you’ll see that they’re actually miniature gardens planted with tomatoes and such. I found out that these are called “urban farmland.” I hear that vegetable plots have started coming up for rent in urban Tokyo recently as well, but the history of rental farmland in urban Milan is actually quite long. Apparently the practice of rental farm space began in places like Holland and Germany. In Italy, it started during the poverty-stricken years following World War II, when the government began giving people permission to freely work untilled land and grow crops in an effort to increase the nation’s food production.
The rental farmland managed by the City of Milan is made available to groups who are putting together programs offering hands-on learning experiences for retired people, elementary school kids, and so on. The retired people who rent out these farming spaces visit them with their families during the summer and work on them alongside relatives, siblings, grandchildren, and so on. You’re even allowed to have barbeques there as well, and you’ll often see everyone gathered in happy circle around a meal in the little huts built in the corners of these plots. The whole scene is a perfect picture of family happiness. They say that one of the things modern families are struggling with is having opportunities for parents and children to participate in shared conversation and shared tasks—and there’s no doubt that cultivating these rental plots is a great way to bring families closer together. Meanwhile, advanced greenhouse technologies have made it hard to identify exactly when vegetables are in season these days, so actually getting involved in farming seems like a perfect opportunity for people to reconnect with their food.
I have a tiny postage-stamp garden at my house, and despite the fact that I don’t know the first thing about gardening, I do know that going out there on the weekends when the weather is nice and messing around with it as if I’m gardening is very soothing for me. Even people who don’t have yards often grow things like parsley or basil on their balconies. Certainly everyone should experience the joy of growing even a potted tomato plant at least once in their life.
I caught a glimpse of rental farm plots in the far northern country of Norway as well. Of course they require a bit more sophisticated setup, but they were so adorably arranged that they made me want to move in myself. Sadly, the fences that surround the rental plots in Milan are often poorly constructed and I hear that a lot of theft goes on—meaning that the vegetables people put so much time into growing end up never being enjoyed by the farmers themselves.
I hope people aren’t discouraged by this, though, and that the Milanese keep expanding rental farm plot services. How wonderful it would be if the Milanese took the lead in creating lovely urban gardens all over the city, making everyone else want to join the trend?