Greening the Grey: Bridging the gap between urban and rural.
The terms ‘farming’ and ‘urban’ sit at odds; to many, the latter is defined by its lack of the former. Our sprawling metropolises have banished agriculture to their perimeters, hiding the provenance and production of our food behind industrial processes and centralised systems. We now need look no further than the supermarket shelf for our next meal. The management of land and industrialisation in England have both been instrumental in facilitating the widespread population shift from rural to urban since the eighteenth century, and can help us understand the divide between the food that feeds us and the land it grows on.
By understanding the past we can address the future, and help reunite an increasingly urban population to the land that nourishes them. Contemporary initiatives are working to regreen our cities and transform urban environments into edible ones. These initiatives are rekindling the commons through community-led action and helping re-educate and reconnect people with the food that feeds them.
To understand why our population is centralised in cities, it helps to take a brief look at the history of land ownership and industrialisation in England. For much of English history, land rights have been a source of contention. Over a millennia of ongoing enclosures have seen a wholesale shift from the stewardship of land by common people, to the possession of estates by elites. By the sixteenth century enclosures had become “a set of strategies the English lords and rich farmers used to eliminate communal land property and expand their holdings” (Federici, 2004: 70). This has often been supported by central government; between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, over 5,000 parliamentary acts facilitated the enclosure of a total of 2.7 million hectares of public land (Standing, 2019). Communally held land has historically engendered autonomy and self-sufficiency in communities, allowing people to provide for themselves. Access to the commons meant people could gather firewood, forage, and building materials, and graze livestock. The open-field systems that operated on commons also entitled every family to a portion of tenable land. By stripping commoners of their rights to common, they became reliant on more centralised systems and forms of state welfare, and lost their connection to the land.
This disconnection only increased with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. By the eighteenth century, the increasing demand for an industrial workforce brought about a great migration from rural to urban as people left the land to work in factories. Over the next 150 years, a series of agricultural innovations would push much of the remaining farming workforce off the land, their labour becoming obsolete. By the late nineteenth century, techniques such as pasteurisation and refrigeration meant food could be stored for longer and transported further, enabling food systems to globalise. At the start of the twentieth century, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to synthesise atmospheric nitrogen into artificial fertiliser, bringing fertility back to ailing soils. In the following decades unused post-war munitions were developed into chemical pesticides, and pioneering scientists such as Norman Borlaug helped breed commodity crops suited to industrial scale farming. These radical changes came to be known as the Green Revolution, and helped build the food system that feeds us today.
If global food production had not risen to meet growing populations, it can be theorised that the twentieth century would have been marked by numerous widespread famines. The globalisation and industrialisation of our food systems has helped nourish billions, while at the same time facilitating population increases worldwide. However, the homogenisation of these food systems has alienated us from the processes behind what we eat, leading us further from sustainable consumption. The Industrial and Green Revolutions, and the widespread enclosure of common land, have all played a significant role in this alienation.
Farming today has largely become an industrial process. By using modern agricultural practices and enough machinery, one farmer can now work huge expanses of land singlehanded, and feed such disproportionately large urban populations. This phenomenon is explored by agroecological farmer Col Gordon in Landed, a podcast series from Farmerama (2021). Gordon discusses how the impacts of industrial agriculture are preventing a new generation of small-scale farmers from getting their hands in the soil. As an ageing population of farmers retires, the giant tracts of land they tend will come up for sale at prices that only large corporations or the very rich can afford. “We’re going to see an acceleration of the trend towards bigger, more industrialised farms and carbon capture landscapes, with fewer people on the land, and greater concentration of land ownership, resulting in a very small number of people in control of huge amounts of land” (ibid:np). Gordon goes on to explain how this is also leading to a greater disconnect between people and the processes behind the food they eat.
One way to reconnect the urban to the rural is to bring growing into cities. Small-scale urban agriculture is not a novel concept. Since the eighteenth century, allotments have been a staple of English cities. Historically, allotments were plots of land saved from enclosure and reserved for the use of those with lower incomes, helping encourage food security and autonomy – an echo of the open-field system. Today, allotments remain an affordable and equitable way for local communities to gain access to tenable land and grow their own produce. Unfortunately, much like the open-field system, allotments have suffered in the hands of privatisation, and many have fallen victim to the increased need for housing, or loss of interest. This decline, paired with high demand, means prospective tenants can be on waiting lists for years.
In the last century, two national emergencies helped highlight the fragility of a centralised food system. In both the First and the Second World Wars, a diminished male workforce, compromised domestic infrastructure, and limited international trade routes meant that the nation's food security was at risk. To supplement the national food supply, the government-backed Dig for Victory campaign encouraged communities to plant ‘victory gardens’ on any arable spot. From playing fields to railway sidings, tenable land was found in every corner, turning urban environments into edible landscapes. These plots of land not only alleviated food shortages but also helped boost morale, and when the import of pharmaceutical ingredients was disrupted, they became a source for medicinal herbs. The Dig for Victory movement had the added benefit of providing women with work previously reserved for men, helping free many from the shackles of domesticity and advancing the suffrage movement.
This nationwide, government-backed initiative shows how urban populations can be galvanised to grow their own food, becoming more self-sufficient and less reliant on centralised food distribution networks. A contemporary iteration of Dig for Victory is the Incredible Edible movement. Founded by Pam Warhurst in 2008, this initiative strove to plant every bit of unused land in the town of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, with food crops. Under the motto ‘if you eat, you’re in,’ the initiative has provided a space for people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds to come together under a common interest: food. In a 2012 TED Talk titled How we can eat our landscapes, Warhurst outlined how the initiative had educated people about food processing, and helped benefit the local community. Within three years, the regional government was on board and—through fundraising, promotion, and networking—the initiative was officially recognised in local legislation. Today Incredible Edible has grown into an international organisation with over 700 official initiatives worldwide. Todmorden is a town of only 15,000 people, yet there is scope for the councils and boroughs of larger cities to follow suit and repurpose unused land to grow food. The Dig for Victory and Incredible Edible schemes show how urban populations can be motivated to bring growing into the city and reconnect themselves with the land. Warhurst closed her TED Talk by stating that “through an increasing recognition of the power of small actions, we are starting, at last, to believe in ourselves again, and to believe in our capacity ... to build a different and a kinder future” (ibid:np).
The London-based Growing Communities scheme shows how community-led initiatives can also be commercially viable. Growing Communities champions purpose over profit by prioritising affordable, sustainable produce and local livelihoods over their earnings. What surplus income they do make is reinvested back into the scheme, helping maintain their independence and self-sufficiency. Their aim is to create practical, enduring alternatives to the current food system. To get a better idea of the work Growing Communities are doing, I met Zosia, the co-manager of one of these sites. Zosia and her colleague Dee split harvesting, maintenance, and volunteer coordination at Allens Gardens Farm. Allens is one of five Hackney Patchwork Farm sites, part of Growing Communities. Springfield and Clissold—also part of Patchwork—are run by Sophie, who manages a trainee and paid internship scheme, helping equip people with the skills they need to find work in sustainable growing. Three of the Patchwork sites also run volunteer programmes, offering locals a place to meet and learn about organic growing. Growing Communities leases these locations, and helps support the growers who tend them by supplying a weekly veg box scheme and other local outlets with the fresh produce they grow. All these sites focus on salad, the most practical urban crop; the short cycle to the Growing Communities HQ means these perishable leaves reach their customers with maximum freshness and minimum emissions.
Nestled between a railway line, an Edwardian terrace, and a public park, the Allens Gardens site is accessed through a plain gate beneath the boughs of a large tree. Step into the garden and you are surrounded by a beautiful melee of plants in every shade, alive with insect life. Despite its order, the layout feels organic, one bed giving easily to the next. To one side runs a greenhouse where seedlings are nursed before being planted out, and down the far end, hidden behind a fig tree, lies an eco-classroom camouflage under a living sedum roof. The site is adapted to its urban location in a number of ways. Half of the beds are planted with mixed salad, interspersed with pollinator-friendly companion plants, the other half with perennial fruits and herbs. The remaining space is left wild to encourage biodiversity. The farm grows their own fertiliser by using green manure in lieu of animals’. In this process, beds are sown with plants that nourish the soil, which are then chopped up and left to decompose, becoming fertiliser for the next crop. The beds are then planted with brassicas—the hungriest crop—followed by lettuces; then chard; and finally ‘others’ (mixed plants). This five-year rotation from green manure to ‘others’ helps avoid pest infestation; if a pest gets in one year, it won’t affect the next year's crop. Through investing in locally managed farms and independent growers, Growing Communities shows how a business venture can help benefit local communities. This approach could be applied on a national level to the huge tracts of land that farmer Col Gordon references in Landed. If the large corporations wealthy enough to buy these farms leased their land to small-scale community-led growing initiatives, they might help more people reconnect with growing while also turning a profit.
On a global scale, the Industrial and Green Revolutions have changed the face of agriculture, and hidden food production behind industrial processes. Many of us will need to relearn that the food we eat relies on the ecosystems we live in as much as we do. The Dig for Victory campaign and the Green Revolution are both examples of our ability to overhaul centralised food systems in times of need. We are now in a new time of need that is hidden by an illusion of plenty; the need to move away from centralised food systems and support local initiatives, and in so doing regain our understanding of how food is grown. The impacts that urban farming can have on communities goes far beyond nutrition. From boosting wartime morale, to uniting people, urban agriculture has the ability to not only reduce reliance on centralised systems, but also rekindle notions of community and self-sufficiency.
The ongoing allotment scheme, as well as contemporary movements such as Incredible Edible and Growing Communities, are all pioneering examples of how to create edible landscapes in urban environments. Space to grow food can be found, or made, in any available corner; finding spots of green in the grey might be the answer to bridging the gap between people and their food.
Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch.
Grodon, C. (2021). Landed Part 1: The family farm. [Podcast].
Saladino, D. (2021). Eating to Extinction.
Standing, G. (2019). Plunder of the Commons.
Warhurst, P. (2012). How we can eat our landscapes. [TED Talk].