Designing for a changing climate: What is the role for community based urban food production? Blog

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As part of a series of blogs on designing for a changing climate, Emilie Wadsworth, Central Scotland Green Network Trust,blogs about the multitude of benefits community growing can bring – to our climate, our economy and people across Scotland.   

Having worked with the community growing sector for nearly a decade now, I’ve 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’s start with the climate emergency, and the well-publicised targets of net-zero carbon emissions. Surely a bit of food growing can’t 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 havfruited are usually composted and ploughed back into the soil at a later date, locking up the carbon. And that’s without taking into consideration orchards, which are, after all, made up of trees.  

We can then start thinking about other aspects of climate change… flooding, over-heating, air and water pollution, for example. Urban food growing can tackle all of these, from helping to purify the air through tree planting, to surface water management through de-paving and encouraging the natural infiltration of water in urban areasFood growers, no matter what the type, often want to use the free water that rain provides, so use rainwater harvesting techniques, removing water from 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. Locavore, a social enterprise in Glasgow, is doing just that.  It has been in operation since 2011 with the aims of building a more sustainable local food system. Today, it has shop and cafe, market garden, catering services, a 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 a key driver to increasing local food production is supply and demand, so we need to create the demandMore production will lower prices and increase accessibility. What’s better – buying an organic apple that’s been flown in from New Zealand, or an inorganic one, perhaps of a slightly different variety than we are used to (because it’s August) that’s been grown just down the road? I’m 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; turning unused or unproductive spaces into growing spaces can bring a range of improvements, from biodiversity and habitat connectivity, to 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, orchards on street corners? Some of these could bring energy savings to buildings, and be a greenspace resource in dense urban areas, as well as providing a valuable resource for communities and wildlife 

This is something that Tokyo have been doing well for over a decade. A good example is City Farm, a roof top farm on a building on the man-made island of Odaiba, which grows a wide variety of produce, and offers opportunities for the community to be involved in the growing and producing, and also cooking classes and a range of linked projects such as making local sake. 

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, when the landscape architect who started the project in Spain brought it over with support from Nature Harmonics and CSGNT. In reality, there isn’t much of an energy saving to the school with walls on this scale, but it’s a start, and the educational value is huge! 

Social Benefits

Which 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 support increased physical activity, help with weight loss, and lower high blood pressure. It has potential to help when dealing with a range of mental health issues, including stress, dementia, anxiety, and recovery from alcohol or drug misuse, or trauma, amongst other things. 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 so many subjects and supporting learning in all environments.  

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. They promote social inclusion, build community capacity, develop individual’s skills, and sustain healthy lifestyles. They receive a wide range people through health and social referrals, work with (young and vulnerable people, the homeless, the unemployed, and victims of abuse and trauma, amongst a load of others. Whilst wellbeing is at the core of the project, training and skills development is right up there, providing volunteers with confidence in themselves and their ability to contribute to society.  

So, how about the economy? Can growing a few leeks or apples really benefit the economy? At scale, and arguably, that’s what we need in our urban areas, definitely. Providing 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, for example, livestock and beekeeping, local cafes and veg delivery schemes, bakeries, cookery schools, education and training, to name just a few.  All this will encourage local spending and cycle back to the lowering of food miles and food prices as discussed above.   

Losæter, and urban farm in Oslo started life as a temporary community garden on a Vacant and Derelict Land site created by the removal of a large motorway. Ten years on, the City Council have 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.  

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