Urban foodies need more allotment land in Welsh capital

Steve Garrett outlines some practical steps that can localise greater provision of more sustainable food

As the public becomes more aware of the damage that is being done to the environment by the transportation and packaging of food, and to the health of individuals by processed and ‘junk’ foods which are highly popular and profitable but of dubious nutritional value, an increasing number of people are actively seeking out food in which they can have a greater degree of ‘trust’[1]. Currently one of the most trusted sources of food are local farmers’ markets, four of which are run in Cardiff by the Riverside Community Market Association.

At the same time, the continued availability of relatively low cost oil is likely to mean a continuation of the trend of ‘all-year-round seasonality’ and consumers will continue to expect to eat strawberries in December, for example. However, if the predictions that we have reached a ‘post-peak oil’ situation are correct, this situation cannot last. We will urgently need to find alternative and more resilient ways to organise our food supply chains. One attractive option will be a re-localisation of food production and distribution.

Wales: a sustainable food nation

 This essay is one contribution to Practical Steps towards making Wales a sustainable food nation published by the IWA today and available here. It is being launched at a conference in Cardiff today – programme here. This project, co-ordinated by the IWA is a collaboration between the following organisations: the Waterloo Foundation, Cardiff Food Council, Soil Association, Cynnal Cymru, Organic Centre Wales, Cardiff City Council, Public Health Wales, Welsh Local Government Association, Cardiff Riverside Market, and Natural Resources Wales.

An undesirable outcome of promoting local food chains would be the creation of a food supply polarised around choices available only for the food-rich at the expense of the food-poor. Kevin Morgan has described the risk of “fetishizing” the local. As he put it, “alternative quality food production seems destined to retain its status as a narrow class diet of privileged income groups”[2].

Thus far it is predominantly white, middle class people who shop at farmers markets. If we want to extend their appeal, we must shake off their image as being only for ‘foodies’, and adopt some more subtle and effective marketing practices. Food shopping for all sectors of society is increasingly taking place in an informational environment, which strongly emphasises the importance of a healthy diet, against a backdrop of increasing obesity and other health complaints amongst adults and young people. There are reasons to be optimistic that ‘buying local’ has the potential to appeal to a much broader range of people than is currently the case.

Kevin Morgan recognises that smaller scale, more locally based initiatives such as farmers markets, whilst being modest in their aims and outcomes, and running the risk of responding to the food demands of a relatively elite group of consumes, have an important role to play in the process of changing the culture of food at all levels. This role can only be enhanced if government agencies with responsibility for areas such as environment, health, local economy, agriculture, regeneration and so on take the issue of generating a sustainable food economy seriously. They will need to provide sufficient economic and policy support to ensure that local food supply networks do not become just an attractive shine on the surface on an apple that disguises a continuing rottenness at the core.

The number of farmers’ markets in Wales has expanded rapidly in the past decade – from the first that was set up in Riverside, Cardiff in 1998, to the nearly fifty that exist today. During that time, public interest in purchasing fresh locally produced food, and in knowing more about the source and production methods of the food they buy, has soared. It has been underpinned by what seems to have been a constant stream of bad-news stories in the media about the problems and dangers associated with conventional industrial-scale food production and distribution methods – most recently the discovery of horse meat in several mainstream food products. A key question is how the farmers’ market model of food marketing can be expanded to meet this growing demand for local food (on the part of some socio-economic groupings, at least). In particular, what contribution might it make to the development of a more sustainable food system in Cardiff?

Even if farmers’ markets continue to be a relatively small presence in the food retailing, they enable some producers to survive economically using sustainable methods. In this sense farmers’ markets will contribute to the overall sustainability of the agri-food economy. However, for real change leading to a more sustainable food economy, we must devise radically different mechanisms of marketing and production than those currently employed by the industrial retailers. We need to examine whether urban food growing has the potential to play a more significant role in creating a Sustainable Food City and improving the health, wellbeing and local economic development of Wales.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, and one of the UK’s best known advocates for an approach to city planning which adapts to a future of declining, or less available, oil supplies, is sure that urban areas which want to become sustainable must develop a more localised way of providing food for residents[3].

Well known food researcher Tim Lang described the high level of anxiety at which emerged central government level during the lorry drivers’ strike of 2007 when it was realised that within three days, the shelves of food retailers would start to empty and there was no way they could be restocked. This situation apparently brought home to Ministers the extent of our dependence on a globalised food economy, and the level of vulnerability inherent in that dependence, for example to changes in oil supplies. Lang also cited some particularly stark anomalies in how we organise mainstream food production and distribution. For example, until recently the majority of the apples eaten in the UK were grown in this country. We now import nearly 95 per cent of our apples. Indeed, we are by far the highest importers of fruit in Europe, a situation that is replicated in a number of other food items. There are many more examples of food products which we could, or do, produce within our own borders, which are either exported or imported unnecessarily.  How such a system would operate if oil supplies were threatened in terms of availability or price is a real concern, and another impetus for looking seriously at how more food could be produced much closer to home.[4]

Taking the process of urban food provision to one of actual food production in the city is now on the sustainability agendas of an increasing number of Western cities. Experience in the US has shown that although levels of actual food production at local food growing projects may be limited, at least in the early stages, there are a number of other immediate benefits to be had in allocating land to food growing. In their 2003 report on urban agriculture, the Community Food Security Coalition observed that:

“City revitalization efforts which include urban agriculture have a regenerative effect when vacant lots are transformed from eyesores – weedy, trash-ridden, dangerous gathering places – into bountiful, beautiful and safe gardens that feed peoples’ bodies and souls”.

The idea of growing food within city limits is by no means a new one. In the 19th Century, market gardens in Paris produced a high proportion of the fresh produce consumed in the city, using all kinds of waste as a growing medium, and until the end of the First World War, they were famous for the abundance of their crops. ‘Victory Gardens’ were planted during World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. They were also considered a civil ‘morale booster’ in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labour and rewarded by the produce grown.

In some parts of the UK, significant recent progress has been made in establishing local food initiatives (with varying degrees of support from the local authority) and in measuring the benefits which were experienced by participants. Such projects illustrate increasing public interest and enthusiasm for the idea of re-connecting with nature through the cultivation of food, and the important role of local government in ensuring the development and survival of such activities. A shining example is Todmorden in Yorkshire, which is now growing food in empty spaces all over the town, including apparently in the graveyard. Its Incredible Edible project plans for the town to become self-sufficient in food within ten years.

Internationally, Cuba is renowned for its high level of urban food production to the extent that Havana grows up to 60 per cent of the vegetables consumed in the city. This path to local organic production and greater food resilience was a by-product forced on the Cubans when their supply of oil was cut off following the collapse of the Soviet. In response to government and public concerns in the UK about security of access to food at affordable prices, coupled with increasing consumer demand for food that gets to the plates in an environmentally friendly way, a similar spirit of flexibility and support in relation to local food growing may be needed here.

The greatest difficulty facing an urban food growing initiative can be as simple as access to appropriate land. However, with sufficient political will and effective work in partnership with voluntary sector organisations, there is no reason why this cannot be overcome by local authorities which have sufficient vision and determination. As the capital city of Wales, Cardiff has a modest population of fewer than 400,000 people. It could become a ‘test case’ for a review on how the political will might be found to become more self-sufficient. Cardiff Council is currently undertaking a review of unused land in the city to see if there are areas which could be made available for food growing.

As a first step in supporting the development of urban agriculture in the city, Cardiff Council needs to know much spare land it has, and how much of this could be made more attractive, more productive, and more profitable in social, economic, and environmental terms through urban agriculture, Once there is a political and planning commitment to securing access to land, then the process can begin of determining which production systems and which organisational models would be best suited for particular land uses and particular sites and other operational details. Drawing on expertise that already exists within their own departments, alongside community organisations and engaged citizens, Cardiff Council could create planning strategies to address the multiple challenges to urban agriculture. In addition, funding streams could be created or identified which would enable the necessary skills and equipment to be acquired by individuals, enterprises and community groups in order to set up sustainable local food growing projects. What is needed is a clear commitment to action to ensure that legal obstacles are removed and the necessary resources and support are easily available.

Supportive policies can create access to resources and skills, and address any legal obstacles preventing unused land being made available for urban agriculture activity. However, the drive and motivation for implementing urban agriculture activities will have to come from communities themselves, rather than as a political directive. Several residents’ and voluntary sector groups in the city have already started to look at the potential for establishing some food growing projects. Community organisations, such as the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and the Cardiff Transition Project are championing food growing as a tool for health and community development.

Urban agriculture would not necessarily have to be considered as a permanent function for any vacant land within the city. As is the case in Cuba, empty land could be made available for food growing until such time as it is needed by its owners or by the Council for other purposes. Access to such land could be offered at a peppercorn rent to interest groups or social enterprises which would undertake to manage and look after it productively for a fixed period of time. Through the use of raised beds or other intensive growing technologies, any risk of ground contamination or inadequate soil fertility would be avoided. To complement this approach, and to help create a permanent role for local food growing activity, urban agriculture could be included as a topic at all levels of the education system to help create a culture of agriculture among younger generations. Schools would be encouraged to establish small vegetable growing gardens, so that children would become familiar with the enjoyment, the skills and the benefits of growing and cooking their own food.

With the right support, especially in terms of access to vacant land and other support mechanisms to help people get started in local food growing, urban agriculture could deliver similar levels of social and environmental benefits, economic activity, employment and food production that would make it a cost-effective, popular and ‘sustainable’ planning objective.

As we examine the details and how they could realistically be implemented, this vision of a network of small patches of highly productive land growing fruit and vegetables to be sold at a network of citywide farmers markets becomes less of a middle-class utopian fantasy, and more like a sensible and product pragmatic way of ensuring continuing food supplies in an uncertain future and creating employment in an urban food system which could be truly “sustainable”.

[1] Moore, O., ‘Understanding post-organic fresh fruit and vegetable consumers at participatory farers’ markets in Ireland’ in International Journal of Consumer Studies, 30 (5); pp 416-426, 2006.

[2] Morgan, K., Local and Green versus Global and Fair: The New Geopolitics of Care, BRASS Working Paper Series 50, Cardiff University, 2008.

[3] Hopkins R., ‘The food producing neighbourhood’, in Barton H. (ed.), Sustainable Communities, Earthscan: 200–214, 2000.

[4] Lang, T. and Heasman, M., Food Wars, the Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets, London: Earthscan, 2005.


Steve Garrett is a founding director of the Riverside Market Garden community supported agriculture project.

One thought on “Urban foodies need more allotment land in Welsh capital

  1. “….Cardiff has a modest population of fewer than 400,000 people. It could become a ‘test case’ for a review on how the political will might be found to become more self-sufficient. Cardiff Council is currently undertaking a review of unused land in the city to see if there are areas which could be made available for food growing.”

    Don’t waste your time on such lofty idealistic ideas. The only political will in Wales is for us to pick up the scraps from the English table as exemplified by the urge to faster links to London and the creation of a Severn side City Region in the south and the Chester City region in the north. In addition, you have the Local Development Plans for housing to build in excess of 300,000 houses for people largely from outside of Wales. To put it bluntly, our politicians are bereft of ideas; other than hanging on to the coat tails of our nearest neighbours.

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