Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Steal this veg

Urban agriculture can challenge the priorities of the capitalist city, writes Chiara Tornaghi

July 15, 2011
8 min read


Chiara Tornaghi is the co-ordinator of the urban food justice research project at the University of Leeds: www.urbanfoodjustice.org


  share     tweet  

In April this year, Edible Public Space (EPS) gained formal access to a food growing project in a public space in Chapeltown, Leeds. EPS was born last September, when a group of people involved in environmental activism and agricultural projects around Leeds started to discuss how to establish a food project on public land that could radically challenge the way urban space is managed and designed.

Arguing that the institutional management of public space in the UK is currently repressive, EPS not only claims a right to the city as a right to shape and use public spaces in convivial ways (for community gathering without having to ask permission, for example) but also wants to bring back the culture and practice of food production to the core of urban life.

‘We are more and more forced into predesigned landscapes of consumption, into privatised, enclosed streets which plan and channel our emotions. We have lost the ability to imagine our city and to make it the place we want it to be,’ says Anzir, a group member particularly interested in organising engaging, playful activities for its gatherings. ‘With EPS we want to reverse this trend. We want back the right to play, and to eat and shape our public spaces.’

The local council’s declining budget is another part of the context. ‘It is ridiculous the amount of money spent annually by the council for mowing the grass. They could rather give the land to groups like us to be cultivated collectively and become a source of fresh food and an opportunity to learn how to grow food and feed ourselves,’ explains Pete, another group member.

In the interests of building a heterogeneous group, including families and people without a background in activism, EPS decided not to use tactics such as squatting or guerrilla gardening. Instead, networking with existing community groups and following council procedures has been their route to what they hope will be a long-term project. It has not been without its frustrations. Organising anything more than a family picnic needs advance permission, and fly-posting is not allowed. Instead Mary, aged 85 and active in a local tenants’ association, organised a team to distribute 2,000 flyers door to door and in all the shops and community display boards in the area.

EPS promotes collective growing based on the principle of non-ownership of produce, community-led project design and land management, mutual learning and re-skilling, non-consumption based on the right to gather in public space and the mix of playful activities with food growing. So when the Parks Department asked ‘But what if people start stealing the veg?’ EPS had to explain that it would consider that a success.

Changing public space

Mention urban agriculture and it is easy to summon up a picture of a back-garden hobby for the middle classes. Some of it is. But some of it is challenging the modern capitalist city, its modes of production and reproduction of social life, and raising issues of social and environmental justice.

Projects of this kind adopt three broad approaches, which are sometimes intertwined or overlapping: promoting alternative and convivial ways of using public space; sharing private resources for food production; and converting residential areas or spaces around housing estates and transport infrastructures for food production.

Urban wild food walks in public parks and urban green belts organised by groups such as Leeds Urban Harvest and Invisible Food in Brixton claim, more or less explicitly, the right to urban food and to places for foraging (see guerrilla guide, page 55). They promote a more spontaneous use of the city’s green spaces, and particularly of all those spaces that as ‘public land’ are collectively owned and are currently managed by local authorities. They reclaim the right to gather outdoors and to harvest the existing food, the right to a non-consumption based sociality, to escape the rules of the capitalist economy – to have free and non‑CCTV-tracked fun.

Darrin Nordahl, in his recent book Public Produce: the new urban agriculture, offers a good collection of visionary projects in US cities, which break the rules of ordinary space management, stressing a shift from ornamental to edible urban spaces in public policy.

Another form of urban agriculture getting a more mainstream hearing is land sharing. These projects do not directly challenge the capitalist city, but perhaps represent an embryonic reconstruction of the commons, a resurgence of collective use of land that is a firm and immediate answer – in the form of mutual aid – to the growing waiting list for allotments, concern for food quality, food miles and community building. Projects such as Abundance in Sheffield, Grow Your Neighbour’s Own in Brighton and Hove, and Transition Town land sharing groups promote the construction of networks of people willing to share their privately owned land with people without access to land, create publicly accessible fruit trees databases for collective harvesting and processing, and offer free opportunities for re-skilling.

Urban zoning

A third group of initiatives are challenging and reworking the consolidated land zoning and labour structure of the traditional capitalist city of the global North. In these projects suburban neighbourhoods, large industrial estates, neglected spaces or even interstices around transport infrastructures (for example, around railways in Tokyo and Vancouver) are transformed into food production units, and managed by informal grass-roots groups or co-operative agricultural enterprises.

Detroit, which has experienced one of the most drastic population declines and economic collapses of the post-Fordist era, with huge numbers of derelict buildings and 5,000 vacant acres of public land, is maybe the most emblematic case. Urban agriculture there is becoming one of the most efficient and viable ways for local communities to provide food and relieve poverty and ‘food deserts’ (the absence of fresh food in poor neighbourhoods). The great availability of urban vacant land and the growing popularity of food growing in this city suggest that it has the potential to become a training ground for radical alternatives to the post-industrial city, its land management, redevelopment trajectories and community empowerment.

A wide range of groups, communities, and organisations are now involved in urban agriculture in the city. Particularly interesting is the work of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, and its Cook Eat Talk project, which is mapping ‘the unseen food justice skills, networks and relationships in Detroit’. Whether urban agriculture in Detroit will evolve from a solidaristic/subsistence tool to a main vehicle of a self-sufficient sustainable food system remains to be seen, but in the meantime its inspiration has spread around the northern hemisphere.

Housing estate food growing, mobile food farms on sites under development and rooftop agricultural projects are emerging in other large cities too. In Belgium, the Brussels-based Auto‑nomie project is combining a critique of the massive growth of car ownership and its environmental impacts with the provision of mobile kitchen gardens by transforming used cars into growing spaces. In Bristol, a food-growing project has been established by Eastside Roots inside the Stapleton Road train station.

In London, initiatives such as Growing Communities (Hackney) and Organic Lea (Lea Valley) have been leading the way for more than ten years in urban and periurban land reconversion, reskilling, and making local food available to city dwellers. Meanwhile Grow Heathrow in Sipson has grown out of the mobilisation of local people opposing the construction of the third runway, and the aftermath of the Heathrow climate camp in 2007. It is a growing project realised inside abandoned former market garden greenhouses, and was squatted a year ago, just before the government dropped the plans for the airport expansion. Grow Heathrow is now in its second growing season, and is a community garden embedded in local life.

The more we look closely at this wide range of agricultural projects, the more we begin to understand the complexity of the socio-environmental injustice issues they bring to the surface. From the rules you have to comply with in order to use publicly owned land to the extortionate price of land, particularly in urban and periurban areas; from the regulation of land zoning and allotment leasing, which prevents people from establishing agricultural projects beyond self-consumption; to discriminatory neighbourhood design which makes it common to have densely populated neighbourhoods without decent green space.

The emerging urban agriculture movement can not only tackle some of these issues, but begin to challenge the consumerist priorities of the modern city, creating a better way for us to live in the process.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Chiara Tornaghi is the co-ordinator of the urban food justice research project at the University of Leeds: www.urbanfoodjustice.org


Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


35