September 11, 2013

Please Tell Lorna …

By John Blewitt, co-director of MSc Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Aston University, Birmingham 

Blewitt argues that there is a growing recognition that more localized food production is crucially important for personal health, social well-being, and ultimately resilience to change. He provides insight into how small scale projects can have wide implications for supporting those fundamental services and connecting people with one another and communities across the globe.

The other day my wife gave some organically grown potatoes and runner beans from our self-managing allotment to our elderly neighbor who is no longer able to cultivate her own plot. The next day I met Barbara while she was walking her dog. “Please tell Lorna,” she said, “that those ‘pots’ tasted absolutely wonderful. Home grown produce tastes so much better than what you can get in a supermarket.” And it does not just because of the loving care and attention that usually goes into the growing, but because when eaten, the fruits and vegetables are fresh and naturally ripened. Unfortunately, too few urban dwellers grow their own veg if they have a small garden. Too often it’s just lawn and a few flowers in the border.

But things, as well as times, are changing, and not just because of flavor. In a development context, issues of food safety, food security, and increasing prices are also inducing many people to consider growing their own. In small but nonetheless significant ways the urban landscape is changing. A number of local urban food projects have been developed recently. Building on the success of the Incredible Edible initiative, Paul Clarke has set up the not for profit Pop Up Foundation – an intercultural food growing project connecting localities in the UK with localities in Uganda and elsewhere. Paul told me,

“What we have been interested in with Pop-Up-Farm all along, is how you get some basic ideas about sustainability out to large numbers of people. We call it ‘flat pack sustainability’. It’s sort of Fordism for another time. (…) [D]evelop an accumulated knowledge base around sustainability, energy, food, water, and waste in terms of strategies people can adopt in their own settings relatively easily and then build up a network round this in the region and through the website to people in other parts of the world.”

Ugandan school children are some of the “people in other parts of the world,” now experimenting with solar cooking instead of wood burning ovens, improving health and encouraging people to address deforestation. Other Ugandan children grow coffee as a cash crop, selling the coffee to the schools in Burnley and to fans of Burnley Football [soccer] Club, who are part of the Pop Up network. Any financial surplus is returned to Uganda to finance other local initiatives.

Urban allotments and pop up farms may be a far cry from vertical farms and Michael Sorkin’s New York City steady state ideas, but many city landscapes are becoming greener and people want to learn. The newly opened Library of Birmingham, the biggest public library in Europe, has three roof gardens tended by 25 local volunteers. Its two elevated terraces, where its vegetable gardens are located, will be used to train new horticulturalists in a scheme developed with Birmingham University. There is also a wildlife friendly brown roof on the 10th floor. People can (re)connect with the land and with food in the dead centre of a densely populated city.

Cities may never be able to feed themselves. But with the global population about to top nine billion by 2050, and up to 70% of the human population living within urban environments, it is time we seriously act to make our cities more sustainable. We can encourage and enable citizens within them to grow and share the tasty ‘pots’ and runner beans Barbara enjoyed so much. This sharing, reconnection with nature, and even often the minor contribution localized urban food growing makes to feeding the city is also about fashioning resilience through social learning and expanding the worldviews of urban dwellers. We are in a connected world and local food growing can help us connect more effectively.

Read More:
Searching for Resilience in Sustainable Development – John Blewitt and Daniella Tilbury

Understanding Sustainable Development – John Blewitt

Digging Around digital exhibition for the Library of Birmingham – curated by John Blewitt.

photo credit: John Blewitt (Aston University).

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