Sarah is Programme Manager for Sustain, having joined in 2009 to work on Capital Growth, which supported 2,012 new community food-growing spaces in London. Sarah has developed the Big Dig and Growing Health projects; currently oversees the London programme of work, run under the London Food Link; and represents Sustain on the London Food Board. She was previously at Groundwork and Strategic Manager of a Food Access Partnership, both in east London.

In the last few years, thousands of acres of derelict land in London have been turned over to community growing. Urban farming has brought benefits that go way beyond locally‑sourced potatoes and cabbages.

In 2008, allotment waiting lists reached an all-time high: for most Londoners, it seemed that retirement might come sooner than the opportunity to grow your own. But Rosie Boycott, Chair of the London Food Board, and Ben Reynolds, Sustain’s then-Network Director, came up with the ambitious idea of getting landowners, policymakers and Londoners to work together to create new food-growing gardens on unloved, disused spaces in London. Inspired by the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which led to the creation of 2,010 new plots, Capital Growth aimed to establish 2,012 new growing spaces by the end of London’s Olympic year, backed by funding from the Mayor of London and the Big Lottery’s Local Food fund.

By December 2012, our campaign had reached its target and its focus turned to supporting the gardens and farms in the network. To date, we have more than 2,500 spaces registered on our map, covering over 240 acres and made up of a mix of school gardens, community spaces, urban farmers, allotment holders and homegrowers in back gardens.

The support we have given has taken the form of grants, training, events and advice; most importantly of all, we have helped to make it commonplace for derelict pieces of land and waste grounds on housing estates or rooftops to be transformed into food-growing gardens, offering people the chance to connect with the food they eat and with one another. We have helped landowners, including utility companies and housing associations, make more land available for growing food by brokering meetings, providing advice, creating template documents to help with licensing and writing a good practice guide, Edible Estates, for social landlords. In the process, we have learned first-hand that these schemes deliver a multitude of benefits, from developing new skills to improving community safety, particularly for cash-strapped but asset-rich local authorities.

We estimate that Capital Growth has led to more than 150,000 people becoming involved in food growing. Many have gone on to create ambitious and innovative developments: selling food, using technology and inspiring others. To track some of the more measurable successes, our Capital Growth team has developed the Harvest-ometer, an online tool that helps members measure food grown by converting the weights or quantities into a value (so if you enter the 2kg of tomatoes you’ve harvested, you see you have saved £X), and storing these to create totals, graphs and trends. With data collected in the first two years, published in our Reaping Rewards report, we estimate our network has the potential to grow over £2m of food each year.

Meanwhile spaces

London has been partly a building site for as long as I can remember. In the course of regeneration schemes, people are often decanted from their homes; and early on in our campaign, people realised the potential of these sites. It’s now commonplace to see community food-growing gardens on temporarily derelict land, rather than hoardings preventing access. While developers pursue their plans, activists, entrepreneurs and community groups take over the spaces to grow food, attract wildlife, maintain use and safety and provide a sense of place.

Funding is often needed to help with setup – but not as much as one might think: many of our gardens were started with a modest £500 grant. Others have needed larger amounts of funding to pay for staffing and training but even the more expensive schemes yield many rewards, including reducing costs that would be incurred securing the sites or dealing with crime and the loss of amenity if they were left empty.

When the time comes to move on, saying goodbye can be hard, but many groups have overcome this by taking their staff and structures to new sites. The most successful example is Global Generation’s Skip Garden in central Kings Cross, which included gardens built in skips that could be moved. Seven years on they have a permanent site.

Growing health

Capital Growth set out to engage people with growing food primarily to get them to ask questions about what they were eating. Along the way, it became apparent that growing food also benefits public spaces, wildlife and neighbourhoods, with an obvious impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and the local environment. Go into a food garden and you will see bumblebees feasting on rosemary bushes; people from different walks of life chatting or gardening alongside one another; children learning about good food.

There is invariably a sense of calm. The Benefits of Gardening and Food Growing for Health and Wellbeing – a report produced by Garden Organic and Sustain – documents the evidence of these health benefits, while Capital Growth’s data has demonstrated them in specific locations, showing for example that as a result of one project, 71 per cent of people have made a friend.

The building and management of these spaces allows people to build connections that make a genuine difference to their lives, helping neighbourhoods in a state of flux to become more resilient and improving the quality of life even for those who simply observe. One housebound older man on St John’s Estate in Islington said just looking at the garden made him feel safe; a bobby on the beat in Edgware Road commented that the local food garden was worth the equivalent of an extra police officer on the street, as a result of the way that formerly empty spaces were now occupied with positive activity and life rather than being magnets for anti-social behaviour.

The health benefits to individuals have developed into a spin-off campaign run by us at Sustain, in partnership with food-growing charity Garden Organic. The Growing Health campaign has not only collected the evidence of health benefits into a report (as mentioned above) but has also shared them with health professionals. This has provided ammunition for local groups to start discussions with their health providers. The evidence shows that if you get your hands in the soil, you start to forget your worries: do this regularly and you start to see real benefits. Our vision is for “food-growing on prescription”, something that progressive health professionals and commissioners are already making a reality, as shown by the Growing Health case studies in Lewisham and Tower Hamlets. But we are still waiting (and campaigning) for this to become routine.

Growing enterprise

In the time we have been working to make the city edible, life in the public sector has changed. Local authorities have faced cuts that have had a profound impact on service delivery and these have inevitably had an effect on support for the community and voluntary sector. We are seeing the consequences in many of the established gardens and city farms. Always creative, growers have had to take up the challenge to turn their assets into income. Many gardens are now excelling at enterprise: not just selling the odd courgette, but making and selling jams, cakes and garden cocktails at events, cashing in on the pop-up trend by hosting temporary events, offering corporate team days and renting out their gardens for meetings and weddings.

For some, the proceeds might perhaps cover seed and soil costs but a growing number of urban farms are selling food with the primary aim of making a living from the land. The best established include Organiclea in Chingford, Sutton Community Farm and the Patchwork Farm (made up of a series of 12 smaller plots) in Hackney that sell salads to the Growing Communities box scheme.

There are also more recent farms, such as Keats Organics in Welling, Growing Communities Dagenham Farm, and those using aquaponics or hydroponic technology, such as Grow Up Box in Beckton. Together, these provide London with food, training opportunities, a food ecosystem and the first step towards a different kind of food security than that offered by long-distance supply chains. But the challenges they face – equivalent to those of any small British farmer – are compounded by issues that particularly affect London, such as the need for their workers to pay city rents on low wages.

London’s urban farmers are diversifying into other services, selecting high-value crops and selling to niche markets. They also benefit from a team of willing and able volunteers. Even so, without the support of their local authorities or funding from trusts and foundations, these farms face an uncertain future.

Back to the land

Almost every conversation about the future of London seems very quickly to come back to land and housing prices: this one is no different. While we have benefited from ‘meanwhile spaces’ and sympathetic building developments that incorporate food-growing, the pressure is on. Global markets that squeeze farmers, intensify production and make waste commonplace systematically reduce the value of food, which cannot begin to compete economically with house building.

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

With this comes our latest challenge: we have moved from thinking about creating new growing spaces to protecting those that exist. We need to go on demonstrating that food-growing is a valuable land use, that it builds social and natural capital. The planning process is crucial here and we succeeded in getting both Capital Growth and food-growing into the London Plan (which guides the strategic development of London and sets the bar for local plans); we have additionally published guides for planners and for community groups to understand planning. We have also used our annual Good Food for London report – which ranks local authorities’ performance on food issues – to see how local authorities have used planning frameworks to support community food-growing. While the majority of councils have incorporated food-growing into their planning frameworks (23 out of 33 at the last count) our next task is to review how they have implemented this. We also need to prepare for the London Plan review from the new Mayor, to ensure it continues to value and protect space for food-growing – a process currently being championed by Just Space, a London network of voluntary and community groups who are creating a community-led plan for London.

Many benefits, direct and indirect, accrue from growing food in the city. We should aim to make food-growing and farming integral to the London landscape. To be resilient, healthy and more sociable, as well as better-fed, London needs to find a way to put food-growing at its heart.