Food, land and money - making the case for urban food production

Some reflections

There is hope

Untapped potential

As a child of the fifties and sixties, I can remember growing up with food being produced around me. You didn't have to live in the country then to see vegetables grown for sale, or to be able to buy eggs and the odd free-range chicken. Even modest houses had relatively large gardens and across the road from us, a two-acre plot between the houses was used to grow vegetables. Mr. Savage, a local builder who had built our house and many others in the road, owned this plot. He could have built on that plot too, but he chose instead to manure his land, tend his vegetables and see out his life by the seasons.

My father grew vegetables in our garden, like his father and uncle before. He didn't need to but he enjoyed the balance it gave to his life and it was fun to compete in the local shows. Below ours was a house with an even larger garden where the intensity of production was astonishing unless you knew that the surplus was regularly for sale. For the householder, it was a secondary income that would continue into retirement. For some others in our area, the income from a greater range of produce was sufficient for it to be their primary work. Thus urban farming - albeit part time - was not uncommon.

Now, forty years on, the field across the road is built on and the nearest vegetables for sale are the limp and shrink-wrapped offerings in the mini-market. Even the large gardens have gone. What was then my father's vegetable plot is now the access area to two executive-style houses, the houses being built on the garden of the house below. This is infill building brought about by creating new access and housing plots through the combining of pieces of land from back gardens.

I think about this often now because it haunts me, as you will see. It seems madness that the simple endeavour of growing food has been banished from urban areas to some remote, other region. Where once the land around my childhood home could support life, it now only supports bricks and mortar. As a society, we failed to recognise the foolishness of losing our access to cultivatable urban land. It cuts down our options, makes us more dependant and - the cruellest irony - it has not been balanced by a rural hinterland that is responsive to our needs. Some more of life's reflections will explain.

Some reflections

I inherited my father's delight in growing vegetables and it seems to have been with me most of my adult life. While my father would not claim to be organic, I thank him that his example made it an easy transition for me. Neighbours often ask me if they could buy some produce from my garden. This makes me uneasy because I never plan to have a surplus and my access to land can only support one household. Thus I started to encourage others to grow their own while my partner and I looked for small holdings that would enable us to start producing the surplus that was clearly needed. It was then that we came up against the nightmares that are the barriers to access to land.

In our semi-upland area, horseyculture (paddocks for ponies) ensures that agricultural land with a dwelling is heavily overpriced, bearing no relation to the productive capacity of the land. Land without a dwelling is more accessibly priced, but I would prefer to live where I grow - a personal choice in that I don't want to be a daylight only grower. Unfortunately, Planning Departments have yet to see a need for local food production and are wary to give permission for a dwelling because they say unscrupulous people have cheated them so many times before. We must all hope that low impact development based on committed rural productivity - as advocated by Simon Fairlie - eventually helps to win over the planners (see 'While the Giant Sleeps', Permaculture Magazine No. 20).

And so it was that we looked to our urban locality, remembering the productivity that existed in my childhood. We even found a vacant property close by with an acre of neglected garden, but in a classic example of infill, the owners received planning permission to tear down the (modest) dwelling and build four executive homes. This quadrupled the value of their asset and meant that for our purposes, the land was doomed to be lost. A rare three-acre urban horse paddock also went the same way showing the curse of the planning system. Large gardens and urban open spaces represent easy and large windfalls to owners once planning permission is given for infill building. The argument goes that nobody wants a large garden these days so what does it hurt if we have three or four houses where there was once only one. I despair of this view because it means access to urban land for food growing will continue to diminish when the price the land attracts (through a false scarcity) rules out anything other than residential use.

There is hope

 Permaculture has taught me that while I should become more self-reliant, I should also be contributing to a supportive community. Thus I begun to realise that I didn't have to do it all on my own. Also, along with many others, I witnessed the remarkable transformation in local organisation catalysed by the coming of Local Agenda 21 (LA21). Through LA21 processes, people have found common cause to work on issues of sustainability and to my immense satisfaction, local food production has become one of the key issues. This is because food production and distribution has social and economic considerations as well as environmental concerns, and thus benefits from a holistic approach. In addition, in the new agenda of quality of life, food and nutrition is linked to health inequalities and is being addressed in health improvement programs. Where I live, this has resulted in a long-term commitment to developing local sustainable food production in our Community Plan (our LA21 document) and a funded Healthy Food Program as a partnership between the health authority and the Council.

Some farmers in peri-urban locations have become responsive to this new agenda, re-learning that food production is nothing if it does not meet the many needs of local communities (see Matt Dunwell in 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' Permaculture Magazine No.19). However, the seeming intransigence of the many (who produce food as a commodity) has meant that urban communities have had to take matters into their own hands. In my own District, this is exemplified by a number of initiatives. Springfield Communities Gardens is located right next to a large regeneration estate in SE Bradford. Food grown organically there is sold on site but also finds its way into social and lunch clubs on the estate. What this does is reintroduce people to the freshness and seasonality of food as they see it being produced almost on their doorstep. Gardening for Health is a Bangladeshi women's organic allotment project, born out of a health promotion strategy for that community and which reunites Asian women with their traditional role in food production.

Another example on allotments is the Peasants Collective, a voluntary group consisting of members from a claimants club in the centre of Bradford. The Collective grows organic vegetables on three allotments on a city centre site. Each member of the Collective takes responsibility for growing a particular vegetable and the food is used for lunches in their club kitchen. The Collective also run an excellent vegetarian catering service for socials and conferences.

Untapped potential

Allotments have become the focus for much community food growing to produce surpluses, but there are difficulties in squaring this with the original intent of allotments being for individual use and with no financial gain. There are, however, many more untapped potential growing areas in urban centres that are beginning to become apparent. Three other examples from Bradford illustrate this.

A former trials ground for flowers, situated in a city centre public park, became vacant as the trials closed down. The chair of the Council's LA21 committee opened it up for alternative uses and it now has a community group growing and selling organic produce from it. A number of schools in the district use their school grounds for growing organic food and use the process to fulfil some of the requirements of the National Curriculum. Building on early success, there is now funding for a cluster of ten and more schools each year and two peripatetic teacher-growers.

Ward 5 of the Lynfield Mount Hospital has short-term psychiatric clients who benefit from leisurely practical activity. The Ward recognised growing food would fit this and has planters on the ward containing herbs and salad leafs. The Ward also overlooks a large and under-used courtyard garden that has the potential to become a permanent edible landscape that includes annual vegetable production.

These three examples offer security often lacking in other areas such as allotments, thus giving hope for urban production that is not vandalised. The identification of these types of site has led to them being classed as closed spaces (rather than open spaces) and many more can be found if you count up the institutional sites that exist in urban areas. In a parallel with the situation that has developed in the entirely organic city of Havana in Cuba, we could be producing food where there is the need for daily meal preparation. Community and peripatetic food growers working in school and hospital grounds, land around social services day-care centres, colleges and even some parts of parks, could be urban farming.

As we build the case for the use of these closed spaces, we must also work within the system to preserve the urban land that remains under threat. Though not all brownfield land is suitable for food growing (because of possible industrial contamination) it is worth making the case that their often overgrown state represents the last green lungs of urban areas and contributes to a natural balance through harbouring pest predators that are essential for a sustainable urban food production.

There are also examples of specific threats that are worth the effort to oppose and one of these recently arose in Bradford. A group of people living in town houses in east Bradford had rented for nine years a small piece of privately-owned land that they all backed-on to. The space of roughly four allotment plots is owned by a local builder who uses a small part of it for storage of building stone. The five adults and seven children who use the land call themselves an allotment collective and produce organic food as well as having a safe outdoor playspace, well-overlooked, for their children. Last year, the builder applied for planning permission for two bungalows on the land and the collective reacted by calling on the food network that exists in Bradford to raise objections. Which we did but without holding out much hope that our arguments about urban food production would have much force with the planners.

To our delight, the approval was refused with the specific recognition that the land was used for food production as a private allotment and for which no suitable alternative provision had been made (the nearest Council allotment site had been closed three years earlier). The reasons for refusal went on to note the (improved) policies on allotment provision contained in the District's Unitary Development Plan and showed that it recognised the District's commitment on local food production as contained in its Community Plan. Could this be a turning point?

Mark Fisher, 14 August 1999