This article was written collaboratively with Gradske Baste Banja Luka and Tihomir Dakic.
The development of community gardens in urban settings has become increasingly popular in cities around Europe. The goal to grow local and often organic food as a means of achieving greater sustainability is well documented and a clear aim of most such initiatives. Another element of urban gardening is perhaps less in focus. It deals with participation in public spaces and the ability of residents to actively develop citizens’ initiatives which they often manage with support from local authorities but without their interference.
Modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina is not (yet) an urban gardening hot-spot. While small initiatives did attempt to come to life in the past few years, Banja Luka (finally) managed to get its very own successful citizens’ initiative that seeks to develop urban gardening practices and to expand the greening of the city landscape.
The ‘Gradske Baste’ initiative first came to life at the end of 2017 with an initial meeting of urban gardening enthusiasts. Miodrag Dakic facilitated the planning meetings, which gathered a small group of people keen to pursue its development. The meetings aimed in part to reflect on previous unsuccessful attempts and it was identified that for a new attempt to succeed the new leaders of the project had to rethink and reconsider the approach and relationship with the city council of Banja Luka.
Set up of the citizens’ initiative
After the initial meetings the further action of the citizens gathered around the idea of a city garden in Banja Luka, was motivated by the need for the initiative to be useful for the entire local community. The coordinator of the initiative mentions that citizens’ initiatives are often one of the main ways in which people act politically on specific decisions made by the local council. However, in this particular case, this was not a reaction of the citizens to a particular decision of the Banja Luka city council, but the presentation of a certain idea that had not been previously taken seriously.
The representatives of this citizens’ initiative, namely Biljana Banovic, Milka Tamamovic and Goran Pivasevic made the first official contact with the then president of the city council, Zoran Talic, and the concept they presented was initially welcomed. In order to establish official and administrative contact with the city, it was necessary for the citizens’ initiative to change the way they acted and to become a legal entity, namely to form an association of citizens who would then formally request for the project to be supported through a project application. They adopted the organisation’s statute and appointed a board of directors, which consists of the president and vice-chairmen of the board who are also the president and vice-president of the association and of course the assembly and membership of the association.
“Banja Luka Gradske Baste” is the first project of the association, but not the last. From the very beginning the goals of the initiative were not limited solely to the idea of a city garden. The membership within the project is made up of individual holders of plots, and it forms every season. This membership is separate from the membership of the Citizens’ Association Gradske Baste.
The association wrote the project “Banja Luka Gradske Baste” in 2018, and formally formalized this cooperation with the mayor of Banja Luka, Igor Radojicic. The following step was signing the contract for the allocation of urban land for the use of the association in accordance to the project goals.
Goran insists that for citizens to be able to implement such an initiative it is not enough to just wish for it, but necessary to also have a very good knowledge of the functioning of the local authorities.
Operation of the Initiative
The main goal of the initiative was to create a community in Banja Luka that brings citizens together around the idea of gardening. The interest for gardening plots has been considerable given that this year there are already 56 plots ready to be distributed to its current as well as potential new members. The goal for the following ten years is to reach 80 plots.
The gardens operate on bio principles and growing in harmony with nature. The use of pesticides is strictly forbidden. Goran Pivasevic, project coordinator at Gradske Baste says: ‘ these are the old principles used by our grandmothers, which were abandoned and forgotten by generations due to different lifestyles. We just want to change people’s habits this way. Many shake their heads and say it’s impossible, and we tell them to come and see.’
The project is led by three key persons: Biljana Banovic and Milka Tamamovic are experienced in the field and are the two mentors. Goran Pivasevic is the project coordinator. The current project of the association,”Banja Luka Gradske Baste” employs seasonal contracts which growers sign on a yearly basis. Banja Luka residents who wish to be involved and part of the community become holders of a 60 square meter parcel and get access to water, mulch hay, tools, a series of free workshops and permanent mentoring by the appointed mentors.
All the rules of the Banja Luka Gradske Baste project, with detailed rights and responsibilities of the members, are found in the Rulebook adopted by the Citizens’ Association Gradske Baste, whose functioning Goran supervises as part of his project coordinator role.
One of the main principles Gradske Baste was founded on was the isolation of the association and the project itself from direct party influence. In order for this idea to survive, it was deemed essential to develop it as a public good for all citizens. That is why the association states that they are cooperating with the city council and not with political parties.
Any attempt to interfere with the party will be sharply rejected, as the leaders of the project consider that every citizen is welcome.
The main challenge encountered in the first year was monitoring the land and bringing it to a purpose that is most appropriate, depending on its quality. The location is not ideal for gardening due to some of its parts experiencing excess of water. The gardens were thus located in the part of the land that does not have such issues. The next step is to work on the drainage of the more unsuitable part of the land in order to provide new facilities in the future.
Another important lesson was that before launching any citizens’ initiative, it was necessary to know the governance laws that apply to the aims of the initiative and, in addition, to have a clear goal and plan of action, much patience, perseverance, and above all honesty.
Furthermore, it was necessary to completely pull the citizens’ initiative out of the reach of any parties, because citizens’ initiatives are created for the benefit of the community and should not serve political agendas. It is acknowledged that the involvement of political parties in leading civic initiatives is just a hypocritical way of marketing political points by using the only way citizens can fight. Therefore, it is considered necessary for citizens to take matters into their own hands, ignore all parties and, in principle, go to institutions whose officials they personally pay taxes too. Citizens need to understand that they are employers of politicians who are currently in institutional positions.
The real impact on the local community is yet to happen as the initiative is still only in its second year of existence. What is visible is that the idea was well received by citizens who became involved in the first implemented project.
The next step is to spread the idea and interest to more residents, and especially to children, who can learn to develop healthy habits such as producing their own healthy food, using their own seeds, in harmony with nature and while protecting it. Goran believes and emphasises that this will be one of the most important skills of any human being in the future.
In the short term Gradske Baste plans to improve the accessibility at the site so that people with disabilities can also practice gardening.
Another plan is to train more citizens and to increase the expertise by employing more mentors. In 2020, the organisation will establish its first seed bank which will offer members 30 different varieties of tomatoes to begin with.
But the long term goal, which is already being actively pursued is the development of a botanical garden open to all citizens and tourists. The land that the botanical garden will occupy is already being prepared this year.
More information about the initiative and photos can be found here.