Farming the urban fringe

author: Shared Assets
date: December 31st, 2021

A city as large as London might at first seem inhospitable to agroecology, and yet, looking a little closer, there are deep networks of care between growers, and with the earth both within and around the city. These draw on a rich history of the commons and urban horticulture in London, and from its many diasporic communities. The exploration of an agroecological urbanism in London enabled people involved in these networks to come together and consider what a city transformed by the principles of urban agroecology might look like. Learning from the other cities, we collectively envisaged large agroecological farming on the urban fringe, underpinned by healthy soils, supported by a circular economy of composted organic waste and local markets. We saw these farms, as well as community kitchens, as sites of political pedagogy, where a new generation of growers, food sovereignty and land justice advocates could learn and take strength from each other, and history, to build a movement of care for human and non-human life. The seeds of this new future are already planted, and the first shoots are poking their heads through the ground - we now need to continue working together to create the conditions in which they can flourish. This will involve further tending to relationships and connections - between ourselves and the land, between the waste of the city and the potential it holds for new life in the soil, between the lofty goals of food policy and the practicalities of creating an equitable food system, and between the rich knowledge of people and the planet and the resources to take an agroecological urbanism forwards.

Setting the Scene

Three fields of work

Farming the fringe

Through the exploration of an agroecological urbanism in London, the extent of opportunities to realise agroecology at scale in the peripheral boroughs of London became clear. There are already successful examples of agroecological farms on the city’s outskirts, such as OrganicLea - a worker’s cooperative using permaculture principles to grow food in North-East London, while also running many training and educational courses, and having a significant positive impact on biodiversity and carbon capture. Other boroughs on the edge of London, such as Enfield, Barnet and Sutton, also have relatively large agricultural land holdings, which are often currently used for horse grazing or held for future housing development. However, this land could instead be utilised to benefit a much wider range of people and the environment, by establishing commercial scale agroecological farms which can provide a significant contribution to local food supply and the economy, but also a space of learning and connection to the natural world and to food growers for local people who may not otherwise have access to this. 

Challenges remain around land data transparency and convincing decision-makers at local authorities of the range of socio-economic and environmental benefits from using their land for agroecology, but the local work has helped mobilise and resource a network of stakeholders across London to provide the evidence for these multiple benefits, develop strategic relationships, and work on a compelling business case, narrative, and service offer that can help London’s public and institutional landowners to provide access to land for food growing. This work will be taken forward through the ongoing Fringe Farming and Designing London projects Shared Assets is part of.

Soil Care Matters

Caring for the soil emerged as a priority and a challenge, especially in an urban context where soils are often contaminated, capped or closed off, often resulting in supplementary compost being brought in from elsewhere. Soils were recognised as a commons, like air or water, which we all rely on, but whose degradation doesn't receive the same attention as for example air quality. This may be due to generally low understanding of soil’s functions or its perception as merely dirt rather than a medium for life. Barriers to a fuller appreciation of soil include, the high costs of soil tests and the limited meaningful insights they provide to a non-scientific audience, and limited awareness of the microscopic more than human life soil holds. A meeting to discuss the potential for greater legal protection of soils held as part of the programme identified the need for a mass public awareness campaign such as we have seen for plastics and pollinators. 

Several Workshops held through Urbanising In Place brought together people who were motivated to change the current perception of soils and heal our relationship to them. Funding for the piloting of a ‘community soil clinic’ is now being sought, with the idea that this would be a community facility offering free and low cost soil testing for anyone interested, as well as a space where people can connect, share skills, tell stories and learn together about soil health and related topics.

Building a quantum farm

Closely related to the two themes above, the Urbanising in Place project explored the infrastructure necessary to support growers to build healthy soils at scale using the ‘waste’ produced by the city. Our colleagues in Rosario showed the value of using different waste streams of organic matter from particular industries such as brewing to meet particular plant nutritional needs, and similar waste products are available in London. 

Quantum Waste, a full cycle waste recycling company interested in decentralised solutions to waste processing, trialled a model of collecting organic waste from markets, cafes and restaurants around London and composting it at a peri-urban site . Although this pilot project, whose eventual aim was to also have growers using the compost on site to produce food which could be sold back to the waste producers, stalled due to a mix of issues, including around planning permission, the idea remains appealing and fundamental to ‘close the loop’ of a circular economy informed by agroecology. 

We are aware of a number of other groups currently trying to pilot similar closed loop systems in their growing spaces, such as at The Calthorpe Project, and will support these where we can.

Inspiration from London