This research project aimed to investigate emerging forms of Urban Agriculture (UA) in the UK, and their impact on social cohesion and environmental justice.
By UA we mean a wide range of practices, such as food growing in public space and housing estates, schoolyard greenhouses, rooftop gardens and beehives, guerrilla gardening, balcony and window sill vegetable growing, allotments and other and community gardens.
UA is a common practice in many cities of the so-called ‘global South’ (for example African and south American cities). In the cities of the global North people’s engagement with food production has been marginalised and limited in ways that varies between countries and cities, with relevant exceptions during the world conflicts (i.e. Dig for Victory campaign). However, we are currently witnessing a great resurgence of UA in UK and elsewhere in European, Canadian and American cities.
The beehive on the roof of Chicago City Hall, food production on former industrial sites in Detroit, the UK LandShare movement launched by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the proliferating guerrilla gardening groups which are making public spaces more attractive and productive, the many local groups harvesting public spaces for food processing and free distribution. These are just a few examples of an extraordinary list of visionary and innovative projects promoted by single individuals or networks linking community organisations, local councils, universities, charities, co-operatives, social enterprises. The interest in UA is growing to the point that in March 2010 the UK government announced that so-called “under-used and uncared-for land” will be given to local communities in order to help meet the unmet demand of 100,000 people on allotment waiting lists and enable them to grow their own food. In the same month, a supplementary document to “Growing in the community” was released by the Local Government Association to guide local councils on how to deal with the growing demand for land. This came just days after the London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee published the report “Cultivating the Capital. Food growing and the planning system in London”. These reports are symptoms of growing policy concerns in the field of land management, food planning and urban sustainability.
Despite UA practices being portrayed as benevolent and unproblematic activities, with the potential to partially solve problems associated with food quality and affordability, contribute to reduced ecological footprints, increase community cohesion, achieve greater community resilience to the economic crisis and promote urban sustainability, many controversial and potentially unjust dynamics lie unexplored. For example: who has access to land? How and with which criteria will the land be distributed? Will this take into account disadvantaged social groups? Which competing claims over land use are emerging among urban agriculturalists?
The academic community so far has paid little attention to this social practice and its cultural, economic and social dimensions. This research project aimed to provide a critical analysis of UA in the UK and to support socio-environmentally just policy making through:
- providing an overview of exemplar UK urban agricultural projects and their objectives, values, meanings and claims;
- understanding the potential exclusionary and inclusionary dynamics of UA, such as issues of equity, social and environmental justice, poverty alleviation and participation;
- identifying the specific challenges that UA raises to policy makers, such as access to land, competing claims on land, externality effects on the environment;
- creating a forum (social platform) that brings together policy makers, urban agriculturalists and academics to answer the above three questions, negotiate conflicts, learn from practice and help to design and implement policies that meet the current emerging inclusionary needs of urban dwellers.