What is the role for community based urban food production?

A close up photograph of a vegetable patch with rows of leeks sticking out of the brown soil
Published: 11/03/2020

We are publishing a series of blogs on designing for a changing climate. Here Central Scotland Green Network Trust’s Emilie Wadsworth blogs about the many benefits community growing has for our climate and economy and for people across Scotland.

Having worked with the community growing sector for nearly a decade now, I have become accustomed to a general attitude that allotments, community gardens and urban farms are seen by many as a “nice to have” rather than having any genuine benefit to society, the environment and the economy. But is this actually true?

In light of the recently declared global climate emergency, can local, urban food production offer part of the solution to adapting and mitigating climate change? Can we combine this with a shift in behaviour change, right from national policy to individuals’ choices, to support action to address the issue? Should we? What difference could it actually make?

Locking up carbon

Let us start with the climate emergency, and the well-publicised targets of net zero carbon emissions. Surely a bit of food growing cannot help there? Well, actually, it can. Our biggest carbon sink is our oceans, the second is our soils. All plants sequester carbon, transferring some of that to the soil during their growth.

On an allotment, community garden or urban farm, those plants, once they have “fruited”, are usually composted and ploughed back into the soil at a later date, locking up the carbon. And that is without taking into consideration orchards, which are, after all, made up of trees.

We can then start thinking about other aspects of climate change like flooding, over-heating, air and water pollution. Urban food growing can tackle all of these. It can help purify the air through tree planting. It can also aid surface water management through de-paving and encouraging the natural infiltration of water in urban areas.

Food growers, no matter the type, often want to use the free water that rain provides. They use rainwater harvesting techniques, removing water from the water cycle. Small amounts though it may be, it all helps.

Reducing food miles

On top of all of that, there is great potential in the reduction of food miles by providing more easily accessible and affordable local food. Glasgow social enterprise Locavore is doing just that. It has been in operation since 2011 with the aim of building a more sustainable local food system. Today, it has a shop and cafe, market garden, catering services, veg box scheme, and sells produce to other local cafes and shops.

Admittedly, there is more to be done here on changing consumer expectations and behaviour. We are so used to being able to get anything we want at all times of year in the supermarkets. But an important driver to increasing local food production is supply and demand, so we need to create the demand. More production will lower prices and increase accessibility.

What is better: buying an organic apple flown in from New Zealand, or an inorganic one, perhaps a different variety than we are used to (because it is August), grown just down the road? I am not suggesting that we stop importing everything – good coffee is irreplaceable – but do we really need mangoes all year round?

Joined up thinking

Moving onto other environmental benefits provided by urban community growing, so much more can be achieved with a bit of joined up thinking. Using and appreciating urban and peri-urban sites can give local greenspaces protection from development or neglect. And turning unused or unproductive spaces into growing spaces can bring a range of improvements. These include biodiversity and habitat connectivity, a sense of community pride, and a more attractive neighbourhood.

What about using novel spaces for food growing? For example roof top farms, edible green walls in schools and community centres, and orchards on street corners. Some of these could bring energy savings to buildings and be a greenspace resource in dense urban areas. They could also provide a valuable resource for communities and wildlife.

Getting a Tokyo community involved in growing

This is something that Tokyo has been doing well for more than a decade. A good example is City Farm, a roof top farm on a building on the man-made island of Odaiba. It grows a wide variety of produce and offers opportunities for the community to get involved in the growing and producing. It also provides cooking classes and a range of related projects like making local sake.

Bringing edible green walls to Glasgow

Edible green walls have been used in schools in Barcelona to help teach children about food production, growing, cooking, and the importance of sustainability. In 2018, this concept was brought to Glasgow. The landscape architect who started the project in Spain brought it over with support from Nature Harmonics and CSGNT. In reality, there is not much of an energy saving to the school with walls on this scale. But it is a start, and the educational value is huge!

Social benefits

That leads me on to social benefits. There is a growing body of evidence showing that growing, particularly communal food growing, has a range of health benefits. It can boost physical activity, help with weight loss, and lower high blood pressure.

It also has potential to help a range of mental health issues including stress, dementia, anxiety. And it could help with recovery from alcohol or drug misuse and trauma.

Communal growing can combat loneliness and facilitate social cohesion, can develop confidence and skills, and encourage access to the outdoors. It is also a fantastic tool for use in education, covering many subjects and supporting learning in all environments.

Community gardening in Edinburgh

Bridgend Growing Communities in Edinburgh is a community garden aiming to improve the health and wellbeing of people of all ages by providing growing activities and training opportunities. It promotes social inclusion, builds community capacity, develops individuals’ skills, and sustains healthy lifestyles.

It receives a wide range people through health and social referrals, works with young and vulnerable people, the homeless, the unemployed, and victims of abuse and trauma. While wellbeing is at the core of the project, training and skills development is right up there. It provides volunteers with confidence in themselves and their ability to contribute to society.

How about the economy?

Can growing a few leeks or apples really benefit the economy? At scale, definitely. And arguably, scale is what we need in our urban areas. It could provide local jobs of a wide variety of types, from the actual growing, to harvesting, preparing and selling.

Then there are all the associated products and industries. Livestock farming, beekeeping, local cafes, veg delivery schemes, bakeries, cookery schools and education and training are just a few. All this will encourage local spending, which will lower food miles and food prices as discussed above.

Urban farming in Oslo

Oslo urban farm Losæter started life as a temporary community garden on a vacant and derelict site created by the removal of a large motorway. Ten years on, the city council has granted it permanent planning permission due to its economic and social benefits.

The site now has an urban farmer employed, a wide range of produce, including chickens and bees, and has its own on-site bakehouse and pizza oven. It runs community events, classes and horticultural therapy sessions to name just a fraction of things.

Share your place-based climate action

We would like to hear from communities and local authorities who are creating carbon conscious places. If you are designing and adapting a place to reduce, repurpose and absorb carbon, please share examples of your work with us.

Share your work