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

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.


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


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