In cities and towns across the U.S., community farms and gardens have been gaining popularity as a hip way for urban residents to meet their neighbors, get their hands dirty, and grow their own fresh food. In several instances, these farms also serve another purpose—that of providing fruits and vegetables to disadvantaged neighbors, people who would otherwise not be able to afford nutrient rich, fresh food.

When I visited the Ogliastra and Barbagia regions of Sardinia a few weeks ago, I learned that a tradition of community agriculture and forestry—that serves many of the same purposes—has existed there for hundreds of years. Within this system, called ademprivi, a village or town owns a large tract of communal land on which any citizen can pasture their sheep and other animals, or forage for acorns, firewood, and plants.

Agriturismo Mehnir, near Villagrande Strisaili, is still part of the communal land of the village

The existence of the ademprivi system in Sardinian towns guaranteed the survival of even the poorest members of a village population.  During the 19th century, when inhabitants of many parts of Sardinia were starving, the people of Villagrande Strisailí (a town where 65% of the land is still communal) were able to survive because everyone had land on which to graze sheep – essential for milk, cheese, wool, and meat – and to collect acorns used to prepare the traditional bread “pan ‘ispeli.”

Secondly, the ademprivi system fostered a sense of symbiosis and community within the culture.  With a dependence on shared resources, everyone had to work together for survival.

Farmers on their family vineyard near Villagrande Strisaili, Ogliastra

Further, this codependency catalyzed a culture of sustainable land management.  Each villager recognized that only by taking what he needed, not overgrazing or over foraging, could the entire village sustain itself on the communal land.  Therefore, the people of the Sardinian Blue Zone have inherited within their culture a strong sense of community and love for their natural environment – a culture of biophilia – based on this ademprivi system.

This institution has been so highly valued and fundamental to Sardinian culture that after 1820, when the Kingdom of Italy began to institute private property management, most of the lands in the Ogliastra region remained communal.  Even today, 28% of the land in Ogliastra and 65% in Villagrande Strisailí (a village within it) is owned by the local municipality.

In Sardinia, the communal lands were often down-hill from the cities, built into the mountainsides

Today, most families in the Ogliastra region have a small private farm that they use for a fruit and vegetable garden, small vineyard, or to pasture the family horse or herd of sheep. In several instances, these farms are still owned by the municipality and can be taken away from a family if they are not used for farming or other agricultural uses.

The communal land in many towns is being used for parks, forests, or recreational areas.  However, a strong connection to this land is maintained among village members, and they are tenacious about maintaining the land for the members of the community and future generations even as the region becomes more developed economically and industrially.

Post by Harriett Jameson

Harriett Jameson is a gradate student at the University of Virginia, pursuing a dual Masters in Landscape Architecture and Urban and Environmental Planning. This summer she is pursuing a research project entitled Landscapes of Longevity.