Five years ago Allens Gardens provided a spectacle of dereliction all too familiar in the underprivileged London borough of Hackney. By night it was a shooting-up gallery for drug addicts, by day a dumping ground, choking with debris and burnt-out bins.
A snip, you might think, for a property developer? Not so. Today the spot is host not only to a spruced-up children's play area but also a vegetable and fruit plot that is helping to breathe new life into the once common practice of urban food growing.
It has the look of a tranquil urban idyll. There are four beds of vegetables grown under a crop-rotation system. A line of newly planted apple trees fronts an ancient brick wall, on the other side of which a young grapevine trails. Herbs such as salad burnet and mint fit into odd corners. As a reminder that modern growing needn't mean the elimination of all other forms of life, there's a tiny pond, inhabited by frogs and newts.
The plot is one of three managed by Growing Communities, a local social enterprise group, and though they jointly amount to less than one acre, they comprise the first Soil Association-certified organic growing plots in London. Benign and small-scale as they might seem, they are a vital and ambitious component in a local box scheme run by the group and its determined founder-director, Julie Brown.
"This is not about recreating The Good Life," explains Brown. "We are trying to show that cities can produce food as well as consume massive amounts of resources. There are lots of good reasons for urban growing, such as building communities, therapy and reconnecting with nature, and environmental reasons such as reducing food miles. But where we differ from others operating in London is that we are trying to show that growing here can also be economically viable."
Brown's quest to find an alternative to supermarket domination of the food chain began in the mid-Nineties. A one-time local campaigns organiser for Friends of the Earth, she and two friends had initiated one of London's first vegetable box schemes. But logistical difficulties in bringing in food from farms near the capital led her to investigate the concept of providing a proportion of the produce from local food plots.
The growing part of the project now employs one full-time grower, a part-time grower and a team of 25 volunteer helpers. Working on such small plots restricts what can be grown. "You'd need a huge area just to grow a two weeks' supply of potatoes," says Brown. "We're working with hand-tools on sites where you can't get large machinery in. We grow a diversity of crops that have reintroduced a sense of seasonality into the food we supply."
She says putting the emphasis on growing salads makes sense economically. "Salad leaves are highly perishable, so it's sensible to grow them as close to where they will be eaten as possible. But they're also high-value products, so our salad bags increase our chances of making it work financially."
The long-term aim is to meet the salad requirements of the box scheme from the plots, while the rest of the produce is sourced as locally as possible. This can includeproduce from Continental Europe. Some of the farmers who supply the box scheme also sell at Growing Communities' all-organic weekly farmers' market. Brown describes this trinity of growing plots, box scheme and market as an attempt to create a business-sized unit that works and could be replicated elsewhere.
"What we have is a system that supplies some food from small pieces of land in the city, links out to small farmers just outside London, extends further afield to cooperatives in Norfolk, and finally brings in produce from Europe at certain times of the year. If you bring all these together with, perhaps, the occasional luxury product such as bananas from a fair-trade source, you have a potential model for the whole food system."
Brown's idea deserves serious consideration, given that London's voracious food demands draw upon a land area 120 times its size to satisfy it, according to the Soil Association. Yet this localised food network, with the city making much use of urban fringe market gardens and farms, was common practice until well into the last century.
For Jeremy Iles, director of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, the loss of such local networks is part of a general dislocation of town dwellers from the food growing process. "Even until relatively recently, the average family garden had a vegetable plot," he says. "But the austerity of rationing with which a past generation grew up was replaced by consumer confidence in supermarket culture from the Sixties. It displaced the knowledge and commitment to grow our own food."
Elsewhere in the world, growing in cities, particularly in developing countries with less sophisticated food supply chains, remains important. Berlin has 80,000 community gardeners on municipal land. And, after Cuba's intensive agricultural system crashed along with the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of volunteer urban growers in Havana started to raise crops everywhere from plots to balconies and rooftops, transforming food production. More than half the country's fresh vegetables now come from the capital.
Britain's agricultural system is not yet on the point of collapse, but our price-conscious retail culture is increasingly dependent on imports. A world energy crisis could lead to food shortages in the capital within weeks. But while the public is increasingly plugged into environmental issues, is it ready to embrace something so back-to-basics as part-time growers in small city farms and community gardens?
Jeremy Iles believes millions of people are already involved in growing of some description. The federation is running an Allotments Regeneration Initiative, which aims to give them a more upbeat image. According to Iles, alongside traditional "one person" allotments, many large plots are now subdivided into smaller ones more manageable for today's busy lifestyles. Then there are the collectives, such as the Bristol community group that has adopted six disused plots to plant old varieties of apples and pears.
The biggest detectable change, he says, is that more young families and women are becoming involved. And there seems to be an upsurge in interest in urban gardens or city farms "where land is available".
And there is the snag. Julie Brown's Growing Communities leased a plot for several years and lovingly nurturing its organic soils, only to have it snatched away for housing development. Shouldn't councils be doing more to make land available for urban growing?
Definitely, says Iles. "Planning guidelines have a baseline of what must be provided in shops, playing fields, schools and pubs, but nothing about how much land should be set aside for allotments, community gardens or city farms."
Julie Brown agrees. Most of the plots that her group manages were discovered by her cycling around peering over hedges and fences at derelict bits of land, and knocking on doors to inquire about ownership.
There's a radical urgency about her project that deserves to succeed. But the issue of urban farms and gardens, and the failure of London to fully explore their potential, reminds us that if city dwellers are to embrace food sustainability, we need to make more space for growing it amid the concrete.
The facts about urban farms
There are 60 community market gardens and seven city farms in London registered with the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens
Community gardens normally comprise vegetable and decorative plots for use by locals.
City farms tend to be larger, keep animals, and offer a wider range of facilities such as a farm shop, crèches, after-school clubs and training programmes.
The federation can advise on setting up a new group and dealing with the local authority and welfare guidelines. For details of this and its Allotments Regeneration Initiative, visit www.farmgarden.org.uk
For more details of Growing Communities and its (pick up only) box scheme, and farmers' market, see www.growingcommunities.org
Growing Communities' market takes place at Stoke Newington Farmers' Market, William Patten School, Church Street, London N16, every Saturday from 10am.Reuse content