BBehind a row of local authority maisonettes in Islington, north London, the air buzzes with insects on a sun-drenched Tuesday morning. Landing bees bend the stems of a lavender field while Peter Louis, 60, trims overgrowth with scissors.
“I probably come here once or twice a week in the winter; probably two or three times a week in the summer,” he says. Louis lives alone and is unemployed due to health reasons. But the project allows him to meet friends, and even when he doesn’t, the work is a salve against his isolation.
“Since the Covid lockdown I’ve suffered from anxiety, stress and depression and I’m a hands-on person: I have to do something, sitting at home doesn’t help me,” he says. “And at the end of the day I feel really good. It’s not because I might have fruit or veggies to get out of; it is the fact that we do this for everyone.”
Islington is London’s most populous borough: 236,000 people crammed into 5.74 square miles. Land is scarce and expensive: single-family houses with gardens change hands for over a million pounds, but almost a third of the borough’s households have no private outdoor space. Space is so scarce that Islington cannot meet its legal obligation to provide allotments for residents. It’s hardly the ideal place for growing food.
But for 12 years, growing food is exactly what the Octopus Community Network has been doing here. The charity operates eight growing areas located in areas of significant deprivation and supports a number of other smaller initiatives.
They provide access to nature, education and socializing. And when harvest time comes, produce is distributed to the community to provide fresh, organic vegetables to families who can afford it.
At the Hollins and McCalls’ Tufnell Park estate, six women plant vegetable sprouts at Octopus’ community nursery on Tuesday. The nursery is Octopus’ education and learning center with a set of beds, a poly tunnel, various composters and a shed full of tools and supplies.
“The beds are demonstrations of different types of growing techniques,” says Frannie Smith, the charity’s full-time community decultivator, who oversees the work. “Then the plants will be given away to community groups across Islington to help them grow. It’s all about connecting with people who want to get involved in urban food growing in Islington.”
Daniel Evans, a researcher at Cranfield University’s School of Water, Energy and the Environment in Bedfordshire, says growing food in cities and communities can bring ecosystem benefits “that are much more than just food on a plate to lay”.
Recently, Evans worked with colleagues from the Universities of Lancaster and Liverpool to sift through every piece of research they could find on the benefits of agricultural land in urban areas. Plants of the right species are particularly good at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, regulating microclimates, housing biodiversity, promoting pollination and restoring soils, they found. Under certain circumstances, green spaces can even mitigate natural disasters, for example by absorbing floods.
“There are also benefits for people, what we call cultural services, things like recreation,” he says. People who go to the allotment garden or community garden can often bring them not only physiological but also psychological benefits. It often allows them to interact with people they wouldn’t necessarily live or work near, enhancing those social connections, and for some of them it’s a great opportunity for spiritual experiences, a sense of being in the green , while most cities are pretty gray.”
Smith finds a number of ways to get people involved. Members of the local Good Gym help carry compost deliveries. Residents at a nearby transitional home for recovering addicts till a church garden alongside wealthy octogenarians. Soon, Octopus will partner with Mencap to teach disabled adults and volunteers to work with them.
But as many social and psychological benefits come from a system like Octopus, growing food cannot be just an afterthought.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years now is a real need to think about growing food locally, or at least sharing the burden,” Evans says. “Britain is heavily dependent on food imports. Britain imported about 84% to 85% of food a few years ago; Around 46% of the vegetables consumed in the UK are imported from abroad.
“Of course, a crisis event like a pandemic or Brexit can really jeopardize supplies. So if you bring together local authorities or people who grow in your local community simply by helping produce fruit and vegetables for that local community, you are helping to mitigate the severity of these shocks.”
Eight and a half miles south, across the Thames and 33 meters below the streets of Clapham, is an underground farm run by Zero Carbon Farms (ZCF), a very different kind of urban food farming project that says it consumes 70% less water and a fraction of the area of a conventional farm.
Evans says the future is likely to be a mix between the Octopus and ZCF models. “Because there’s a pretty interesting paradox here. You bring more people into a town and then you’ve covered all the earth for those dwellings and you have no place to grow food. So we have to think quite creatively. This is where hi-tech and digital could come in, how we use some of these spaces to solve this problem.”
But a project like ZCF is missing key elements offered by Octopus, Evans adds. “The real question here is really how does that affect individual lives — you know, individual city dwellers?
“I think cases like the Octopus community — which isn’t a high-tech community, it’s fairly accessible to all and brings together a variety of people from the neighborhood — that’s kind of what creates sustainability because we do it be able. There aren’t always experts and specialists doing these things on behalf of everyone,” he says.
“We need to get the local community involved so that in a way they help feed themselves and secure their own future.”