Given that the UK imports an increasing proportion of its food supply, including roughly 95% of its fruit and 50% of its vegetables, there is reason to be concerned about a growing physical and psychological disconnect between food production and consumption – and the many implications this has for public health, sustainability and local economies.
Urban agriculture is one way of reconnecting people with the food they eat, saving money and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If done as part of a community group it can provide people with a sense of belonging and enjoyment. For many, gardening can be a therapeutic activity, see for example the charity Thrive
. Urban agriculture - especially when organised cooperatively in order to ease the burden of time required by individuals - provides a means for low-income groups to have a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, contributes to household nutrition, and can help to tackle food deserts
. Plants directly cool the air and can reduce surface roof temperatures by as much as 50C in summer, as well as insulating against heat and sound: buildings with roof gardens lose 30% less heat in the winter, are cooler in the summer, and offer year-round sound insulation, reducing energy consumption. So, how do we encourage urban agriculture in London (where the waiting lists for allotments – the solution that perhaps first springs to mind - can be up to 40 years
Perhaps the example of Havana, Cuba might be of value. A report
by the Institute for Food and Development Policy has shown that much of the food that Cubans consume every day are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides. This was not always the case. Cuba's organic food movement developed in response to a crisis. The withdrawal of Soviet aid in the late 70s and early 80s meant that 1,300,000 tons of chemical fertilizers, 17,000 tons of herbicides, and 10,000 tons of pesticides could no longer be imported. Havana residents responded en masse by planting food crops on porches, balconies, backyards and empty city lots. The Government played its part too, intensifying the previously established National Food Program, which aimed at taking thousands of poorly utilized areas, mainly around Havana, and turning them into intensive vegetable gardens. Extensive state-supported infrastructure was built to support urban food production and urban growers. The Urban Agriculture Department in Havana was created, with the objective of putting all of the city's open land into cultivation and to provide a wide range of extension services and resources such as agricultural specialists, short courses, seed banks, biological controls, compost, and tools. The Department secured land use rights for all urban growers by adapting city laws to gain legal rights for food production on unused land. Hundreds of vacant lots, public and private, were officially sanctioned as gardens and farms. In some cases land ownership titles have been accorded, but in the majority of cases land has been handed over in usufruct (a planning concept used to grant free and indefinite right to use public land for gardening).
This may all sound a little radical, but in fact late last year the Government announced the Meanwhile Lease
. Under this scheme, new lease arrangements would be introduced to make it easier for local residents and organisations to set up growing spaces on land that is currently unused or waiting development, including stalled building sites or sites waiting for planning permission. In addition, there would be no legal restrictions on gardeners selling genuine surplus produce to local markets and shops.
Back to Havana, where by 1998 there were over 8000 urban farms and community gardens run by over 30,000 people in and around the city. By 1997 small-scale rice production had reached 140,000 tons, 65% of national production. According to official figures, in 1999 organic urban agriculture produced 65% of Cuba's rice, 46% of the fresh vegetables, 38% of the non-citrus fruits, 13% of the roots, tubers, and plantains, and 6% of the eggs. Today, food from the urban farms is grown almost entirely with active organic methods: Havana has outlawed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture within the city's limits. The model is now being copied throughout the country, with production growing at 250-350% per year.
So what is the model? The size and structure of these urban farms and gardens varies considerably. There are small backyard and individual plot gardens cultivated privately by urban residents (huertos populares) right through to larger gardens based in raised container beds with a high ratio of compost to soil and intensive planting. Then there are popular gardens ranging in size from a few square meters to three hectares. Shared use of the popular gardens, range from one to seventy people per garden site. And finally, there are rooftops and window boxes.
These models are already proliferating in the UK. Thornton's Budgens, a supermarket in Crouch End, North London, has transformed its roof into an organic vegetable garden. Produce from the garden will be sold in the shop below while waste from the shop itself is being transformed into compost for the garden. At the individual level organisations such as Garden Organic
are targeting people that want to have a go at growing their own food for the first time, Capital Growth
that aims to support Londoners in transforming the capital by creating 2,012 new food growing spaces by the end of 2012, King's Cross Central Skip Garden, a self-sustaining movable vegetable garden, and the campaign One Pot Pledge
aims to help gardening newcomers to grow an edible crop. At the community level The Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens supports, represents and promotes community-managed farms, gardens, allotments and other green spaces, creating opportunities for local communities to grow their own food. There are number of high profile examples such as Hackney City Farm. These kinds of community ventures provide creative, safe, high quality open spaces which offer opportunities for people to learn new skills and abilities, either informally or on formal accredited training courses. And then there big initiatives such as Incredible Edible in Todmorden
, a town in Lancashire where ‘there are herbs growing in flower boxes at the bus stop, raspberry canes on waste land, cabbages in the flower beds at the local park - and even beans between the graves in the local cemetery.' The food is free for anyone to pick and take home to cook.
The opportunities for reconnecting people to the process of food production are vast. But when considering the achievements of Havana there is one key ingredient that seems often absent in the UK: the infrastructure and state support, and a prominent initiative to provide services and resources to those who want to become involved in urban agriculture. The Meanwhile Lease and the Soil Association's Food for Life Partnership are a good start, but there is a need to explore how best to tie together the desire amongst people to grow their own food and/or source it locally, the opportunities for using vacant land under the meanwhile lease, and ultimately, incorporate this into the overarching localism agenda.