ABUNDANCE: urban agriculture demonstration plot on social housing estate maps the way forward for community food

The ABUNDANCE urban agriculture project in Brixton, London, aims to create a ‘low input, high output’ community garden, and to demonstrate just how productive urban agriculture can be. The organisers also aim to map cultivable green space across Brixton and to prepare a ‘space surveying’ manual.

Plots will be mapped spatially and institutionally, with information about land ownership and land use collated along with location. ‘Our experiences will feed into the urban planning situation, and we feel that policy guidance on urban agriculture will shift rapidly,’ says project coordinator Robert Biel from Univeristy College London. It would seem that he’s right: during 2008, even the royal parks in London began to put aside land for cultivation; and the Capital Growth initiative, which aims to establish 2012 new growing spaces across the capital, was launched.

Transition Towns Brixton
Capital Growth: 2012 new growing spaces for London

The ABUNDANCE project set-up was supported by the UrbanBuzz knowledge exchange programme, and is now continuing with the support of Transition Towns and local residents.

A key aspect of the project is the need to explore the policy and planning arrangements that lie behind land cultivation. The UK policy context is complex: do residents have the right to cultivate land on social housing estates? How can we create common property management criteria to manage the space and distribute food? ‘These issues have been investigated in some detail in the Latin American context, but they’re completely new here,’ says Biel.

‘Surveys suggest that a very significant amount, as high as 60 per cent, of food needs could be met within cities if all available space were to be cultivated, including rooftops, balconies, allotments and urban green space,’ says Biel.

The team and local residents are already enjoying the first crops of fruit and vegetables they’ve grown in their new demonstration plot at the Guinness Trust allotments in Brixton, south London.

A key driver for Abundance is the emerging global food crisis and the drive to reduce food miles, with food and fuel prices soaring and global urban populations outstripping rural ones for the first time. The project brings in extensive experience from countries that have been forced by circumstance to cultivate all available land, for example Cuba and Argentina.

In Argentina, for example, community gardens were created to mitigate the effects of the 2001 economic collapse. As the economy recovered, the popular concept was reworked into government-run urban agriculture programmes providing unemployed workers with food and an income. It would seem that adversity breeds sustainability, as the Brixton plot, along with many of London’s parks and gardens, was last cultivated during the food shortages of wartime Britain.

The residents are well aware of the issues that need to be thrashed out. Estate resident Louise is one of the community’s keenest gardeners. ‘I’m often here and the kids come up to me and ask “Who is going to eat all this stuff?” “Can I have my own patch?” “Can I grow what I like?”. At the moment, we don’t know all the answers. If we did, I’m sure that more people would get involved.’ Louise notes, however, that the cultivated garden has never been mistreated. ‘There’s no monitoring, but I’ve never seen anyone even walk on ground that’s been worked on,’ she says.

The team is also teaching cultivation techniques, with project partner Transition Towns offering courses on permaculture and plot design using the Brixton site as an examplar. Low input agriculture can be highly productive. ‘Although we value the recreational and quality-of-life aspects of the project, we focus on productivity,’ says Biel. ‘This is something that has never really been addressed by urban agriculturists in this country.’

The team aims to establish a sustainable institutional structure to manage this land, and other plots, once the project ends.