Growing communities

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Different types of food-based community initiatives

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Detailed analysis of patterns of energy consumption in the Spanish agri-food system show both the need and prospects for sustainable degrowth in this sector. Industrialisation of production methods since the 1950s, combined with changes in how food travels from farm to plate (increased levels of transportation, processing, packaging, storage for unseasonal consumption and use of energy=intensive domestic methods for storing and preparing food), have dramatically reduced the energetic efficiency of food production in Spain. In the year 2000, the agri-food system in Spain consumed an estimated 1400PJ of energy, mostly from fossil fuels, in order to produce food with a total calorific value of 235PJ. In other words, the system consumed six times as much fossil fuel energy as that available in the food produced. The study concludes that a shift to sustainable agriculture would require a complete structural reorganisation of the agri-food system to one with a greater emphasis on organic, local and seasonal production and consumption.[1] This corresponds with existing prescriptions and actions around food on the part of many community-led initiatives,[2][3] such as permaculture,[4] Transition,[5] slow food, community-supported agriculture and others.

As important as enabling transition to a sustainable food production system is, community food initiatives also provide a wide range of further environmental and social benefits. Incredible Edible began in 2007 in the former textile-producing town of Todmorden in Northern England as a community response to disenchantment with trends in diet and food production. Identifying food as an inclusive issue (captured by the slogan "If you eat - you're in"), a group of residents came together to pioneer a method now referred to as 'propaganda gardening'.[6] By converting unused, abandoned and derelict land in and around the town centre into public growing spaces, a group of concerned residents sought to inspire a sense of civic responsibility and empowerment among a largely disenchanted local population.[7] Raised beds containing vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, an 'open source' community resource from which anyone is free to help themselves,[8] and to help with maintenance, have become a familiar site in the town: on the platforms at the local railway station, along the side of roads and canals, outside shops and in the front yard of the local police station.[9] The real achievements lie not in food growing, but in reinvigorating local identity and cultivating a sense of local pride.[10]

An independent evaluation led by Adrian Morley at Manchester Metropolitan University concluded that Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) has in direct benefits in various dimensions: social (higher levels of physical activity and use of green space, strengthened local identity, increased community cohesion and connectivity), economic (generation of income generator for local businesses, creation of spin-off businesses including a farm and educational centre, encouraging a buy local ethos) and environmental (increased engagement with food, improved use of public space, heightened public understanding about sustainability).[11]. This has been achieved with little or no recourse to external funding: the project relies largely on the work of 300 local volunteers, who are among its key direct beneficiaries, and raises such funds as it need largely through income from tours of its edible spaces and speaker fees earned by its founders at events outside Todmorden. Social Return on Investment calculation conservatively estimated that IET realised direct and indirect benefits to the community of a total value equivalent to over five times that invested in the project (direct expenditure plus value of volunteer labour).[12]

Notes to integrate

(from Fernández Casadevante Kois, José Luis, Nerea Morán and Nuria del Viso, 2018. Madrid's Community Gardens. Where neighbourhood counter-powers put down roots. In Buxton, N. & D. Eade (eds.) State of Power. 2018 edition. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute. Pp. 131-148.) "As well as the immediate activity, the CG prefigure what people would like their city to look like in the future, expressing the need for neighbourhoods that are more participatory, shared spaces, together with the introduction of more eco-urbanism (sustainable transport, proximity, renewable energies, composting, closing cycles)." ( :146)

"The CG were born in local communities that organized to regenerate degraded urban spaces on a small scale by occupying abandoned properties, spaces between buildings or underused green areas." ( :146)

"The action of occupying the space reflects the absence of ways to engage in a fruitful dialogue with local institutions, and reclaims the right of communities and citizens to take ownership of the public space and apply 'collaborative planning and management practices to recreate it and think about what it should look like in the future'. 23" ( :147)

"The movement began at the start of the twenty-first century with a few isolated initiatives taken forward by neighbourhood associations and ecologists, who by 2010 had set up coordination networks such as the Red de Huertos Urbanos Comunitarios de Madrid (RED). Since the 15M movement in 2011 many neighbourhood assemblies have been setting up gardens in different areas of Madrid, definitively locating this issue in the public sphere and putting it on the political agenda. The RED serves to raise the profile of all the initiatives, encourage the exchange of experiences (visits, meeting), share resources (seed nursery, seed exchange, buying manure collectively), create mutual support mechanisms and promote training events (learning days, courses), as well as offering a resource space that can provide advice and support to people and groups interested in taking forward new initiatives." ( :147)

"Right from the start, the instability inherent in the occupation of land and the scarcity of resources led the RED to seek dialogue with the Madrid City Council, in order to regularize the status of the gardens and push for the launch of a municipal programme that would enable them to form part of the city's green infrastructure on a permanent basis." ( :147)

"Following a lengthy hard bargaining with one of Spain's most neoliberal municipal governments, the status of the first 17 CG was regularized in 2014. The gardens are located on sites categorized as green areas, and the right to use them is awarded in a public bidding process." ( :147)

"This giant step has enabled the community agriculture initiatives in the capital to consolidate and in just a few years to increase to nearly 60 regularized projects today." ( :148)

"The CG map is the opposite of a tourist map, which shows only the city centre, because the low-income neighbourhoods predominate, especially those on the outskirts where most initiatives are concentrated. In the city centre, where urban development is denser, it is much more difficult to find a physical space. Even so, the decisive variable is the thick social and neighbourhood fabric that the gardens require, which is more likely to be found in outlying neighbourhoods" ( :148)

"since a municipalist coalition took over the City Council in 201524 further steps have been taken, advancing the joint development of public policies aimed at recognizing and maximizing the creativity and collective intelligence in our cities, involving citizens and the social fabric in designing and implementing policies that concern them. This has led to the regularization of more gardens, including 25 those located on non-residential land on a temporary basis, the building of the Municipal Urban Gardening School, consolidating a training plan to support community gardens jointly managed by the RED, and the launch of a pilot project for community agro-composting. In addition, they have also arranged fun activities to visibilize these city experiences and to encourage participation in urban agriculture social movements, including for example a festival of multimedia short films on community agricultural, the Hummus Film Festival,26 and a community garden bike tour connecting the different gardens that has helped build relationships between the city's different geographic zones." ( :148)

"Municipalism is a walking paradox - discomforting to central government powers and business interests, but also to local counter-powers, who are obliged to leave their comfort zone, abandon the logic of resistance and accept a change in their identity that will enable them to play a leading role in a scenario where securing new rights becomes feasible. Counterpowers seen from above, powers seen from below. The 'city councils for change' find themselves in an unusual and paradoxical position between the pragmatism of the moment and the utopian impulse to bring about change. They are giving life to a space where it is possible to create more suitable ecosystems and environments for the experiments that are autonomously prefiguring another society. These are local governments that facilitate, support, and strengthen new forms of social institutionality." ( :149)

"The work draws on the knowledge and experience of all the members, creating a climate of knowledge-sharing and ongoing, collective knowledgeproduction in response to the problems that arise." ( :149)

"The practice of urban ecological agriculture is often the main initial attraction. Later, working and spending time with other people means that relationships tend to become more important than the vegetablegrowing tasks as such. Gradually, a network of relationships is woven and encourages solidarity and mutual support" ( :150)

"Of course, as in any social setting, there are disagreements and disputes over how to manage the space or do the work, or because of misunderstandings. However, conflict is not usually seen as something to avoid, but rather an issue to be addressed. This is why some gardens in Madrid have developed their own regulations for dealing with conflict, and even make use of mediation processes through the RED." ( :150)

"once the gardens had put down roots in the neighbourhoods and become part of the social ecosystem, they and the RED focused on building bridges, gaining more allies, linking up with other campaigns and coordinating with other actors on various scales. The advocacy work done by the CG goes beyond their own neighbourhoods and their influence extends to the city as a whole, where they are making their own specific contribution to changing the urban model." ( :150)

"These projects are involved in multiple mobilization networks both at the urban and the translocal scale, linked to citizen participation, food" ( :150)

"sovereignty and agroecology. In 2015, the RED coordinated the First National Meeting of Urban Community Gardens. The ultimate aim is to transcend their own neighbourhood and become involved in a wider movement by connecting these islands to others, eventually consolidating ever-expanding archipelagos that break the bounds of established institutional structures and dominant practices." ( :151)

"Madrid's gardens have gained significant symbolic power as metaphors for social creativity, for citizens' capacity to give abandoned spaces back their use value, for caring for nature in the city, and for the building of alternatives by autonomous citizens. As well as mobilizing alternative ideas and becoming a means of protest, the CG have been a valid practical way to bring the organizational dynamics and critical discourses developed by the 15-M movement to neighbourhoods and municipalities. They are also fostering connections between the various pre-existing group or neighbourhood processes, thus diversifying their participant profile thanks to their constructive and inclusive nature." ( :151)

"The CG act on the production and transformation of the urban space through their impact on human relationships and lifestyles rather than via major works of physical refurbishment." ( :151)


  1. Infante Amate, J., González de Molina, M., 2013. ‘Sustainable de-growth’ in agriculture and food: an agro-ecological perspective on Spain’s agri-food system (year 2000). Journal of Cleaner Production 38, 27–35.
  2. Seyfang, G., 2007. Growing sustainable consumption communities: The case of local organic food networks. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 27, 120–134.
  3. Kirwan, J., Ilbery, B., Maye, D., Carey, J., 2013. Grassroots social innovations and food localisation: An investigation of the Local Food programme in England. Global Environmental Change 23, 830–837.
  4. Mollison, B. and D. Holmgren, 1978. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Tyalgum: Tagari Publications.
  5. Pinkerton, T. and R. Hopkins, 2009. Local Food: How to Make it Happen in Your Community. Totnes: Green Books.
  6. Paull, J. (2011). Incredible Edible Todmorden: Eating the street. Farming Matters, September: 28-29.
  7. Accessed June 7th 2018.
  8. Paull, John (2013). "Please Pick Me" – How Incredible Edible Todmorden is repurposing the commons for open source food and agricultural biodiversity. In J. Franzo, D. Hunter, T. Borelli & F. Mattei (Eds.). Diversifying Foods and Diets: Using Agricultural Biodiversity to Improve Nutrition and Health. Oxford: Earthscan, Routledge, pp.336-345.
  9. Accessed June 7th 2018.
  10. Thompson, J., 2012. Incredible Edible – social and environmental entrepreneurship in the era of the “Big Society.” Social Enterprise Journal 8, 237–250.
  11. Morley, A., Farrier, A, Dooris, M. (2017). Propagating Success? The Incredible Edible Model.Final Report.
  12. Morley, A., Farrier, A, Dooris, M. (2017). Propagating Success? The Incredible Edible Model.Final Report. Pp. 47-62.