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Urbanising in Place: peri-urban food growing

Hannah Gardiner

How do peri-urban food growers interact with or affect the flow of food, water and energy within cities? What is or could be their role in managing these flows? And how does the urban environment enable or disable the practice of food growing?

These are just some of our initial questions as we embark on a research project with partners from four countries and diverse disciplines, Hannah reflects on our initial research.

As you may have read in our newsletter we are excited to have started ‘Urbanising in Place’, a three year research project looking at the current and potential role of food growing in managing the flows of food, water and energy in our cities..

As you may have seen in our previous ponderings on peri-urban land we believe it has great productive potential, and that local food production also contributes to resilience. But how do these food grower actors interact with or affect the flow of food, water and energy within cities? What is or could be their role in managing these flows? And how does the urban environment enable or disable the practice of food growing?

These are just some of our initial questions as we embark on a journey with partners from four countries and diverse disciplines. Together we are thinking of cities as metabolic systems and aiming to define components of an “agroecological urbanism: a model of urbanisation which places food, metabolic cycles and an ethics of land stewardship, equality and solidarity at its core.” Over the course of three years we aim to explore and compare the experience of peri urban food growing in four cities; London in the U.K., Riga in Latvia, Brussels in Belgium and Rosario in Argentina.  The project will develop proposals for policies, support programmes, business models and practices to create a more enabling environment for peri-urban food growers.

Our first step has been to map what is already here, and at the end of September all the partners met in Brussels for three intensive days of research and knowledge sharing from our case study cities, which all sit within very different political and historic contexts.

My first observation from this exercise is that in England we have a strong history of gardening and allotments, and at least in London there is a considerable amount of community action around food growing. However, this often has the tone of communities ‘fighting’ for the space and is not always strongly supported by local, city or national government. Contrast this with Rosario where urban agriculture became part of their strategy to tackle poverty following the economic crisis in 2001. The popular launch of an urban agriculture programme in 2002 quickly led to 800 gardeners city wide, supported by a move to incorporate urban agriculture in city planning including a survey of vacant land and formalising its temporary use for food growing. A later survey identified sites suitable for food growing but not housing development such as next to railways, which were prioritised in the programme. In the U.K. we are far from having a planning system which supports urban farming despite some pioneers such as Brighton and Hove.

Despite our history of gardening and allotments, and the best efforts of some social enterprises,  the culture and knowledge of how to live from the land is something we are at risk of losing. By contrast in  Riga a high proportion of the population still forage for food during the season, and the recent historical experiences of food
shortages and financial and political crises there mean that owning a plot of food growing land is seen by many as a way of providing food security in the event a future crisis. The living memory of conflict and crisis, as well as living knowledge of how to survive from the land give completely different context. Would people fight more strongly for food growing spaces if they saw them as directly related to their sustenance? It feels like a connection we are missing for now.

Brussels provided insights into the widely different contexts for food growing in the different partner cities. It also enabled us to identify areas we want to explore further with peri urban growers back in London.

  • Is there a greater role for progressive procurement, more community supported agriculture, or programmes to connect food banks with local growers, in London in order to securing better livelihoods for growers?
  • Can post Brexit subsidy reform encourage local and ecological food production close to our urban centres?
  • What role can peri urban food growing play in reducing food waste and supporting better nutrient cycling; through connected local compost schemes?
  • Can rainwater harvesting systems on growing sites provide irrigation and help manage surface water run off in urban areas in a context of climate change?
  • Should urban agriculture be recognised by planning; with designations, protection and recognition within planning obligations beyond allotments?

In the spring we are planning a workshop in London to continue to develop these ideas and invite you all to attend or get in touch to add your thoughts.

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