Birmingham is a huge conurbation but, within the urban sprawl, pockets of productive growth can be found. In fact there are more allotments in this city than in any other UK local authority – 115 sites and almost 7,000 plots. Alongside the allotment scene are scattered a few projects that are using urban food growing as a way of connecting with communities, ranging from kitchen gardens in school grounds to brand new veg plots in the city’s art quarter.
Let’s begin our journey on the city’s outer edges, three miles north of the centre in Perry Bar, where the Walsall Road Allotments can be found set within in a park. It’s a large and sociable site, complete with its own stores, a shared pavilion and some well loved allotment cats that keep mice to a minimum.
“Allotments are very popular in Birmingham and we have a never-ending waiting list for plots. I’ve split many of the larger ones up in order to give more people a space” says Betty Farruggia, Site Secretary. “Birmingham has a diverse population, which is reflected in the nationalities of our plot holders – 14 different nationalities at the last count. Our youngest plot holders are probably in their early thirties, the oldest is over ninety! I look on our members as part of my extended family.”
“Many people tell me that if they didn’t come to the allotments every day they would never go out of the house or speak to anyone. Having a common interest in gardening means it’s easier to make friends. Many people like to try to grow something ‘from home’. If you walked around the site in summer you would see things like cardoon, callaloo, uri, squash, cadu, artichokes, chilies and many other unusual crops” says Betty.
Food growing is a great way to get to know people who you might not otherwise meet, and the Walsall Road Allotments has a tangible sense of community. It’s a spirit other projects want to harness, not least a brand new one that’s being set up in the city this year. The Refugee Council’s Sowing Seeds Birmingham project will draw on the success of its parent project in London, where refugees and asylum seekers have been tending a shared allotment in Hounslow for a few years now.
The refugee agency has found food growing to be a great way to connect with their clients – it allows them to explore important issues around healthy eating but also gets people out in a social space, where they can grow confidence as a well as vegetables. In the allotment, people can practice their English and socialise with non-refugees. It’s an important way of busting negative media myths and showing that refugees and asylum seekers are people not aliens, with a contribution to make.
“Before the allotment project I was depressed for a long time. Now I’m meeting new people and feel I’m part of a community”, says Bakri Hassan Alnajeeb, a journalist and torture victim from Sudan. “The allotment is where we can see the sky and feel the air. At our garden I step back into life.” These simple pleasures can’t be underestimated, especially in the urban environment.
In Digbeth, on the edge of Birmingham’s city centre, Edible Eastside can be found. It covers a quarter of an acre of canal-side land on the site of a former distribution depot. It’s being converted into a ‘pop-up’ edible park using temporary containers and raised beds. It’s the delicious and ambitious invention of Jayne Bradley, from the social enterprise Urban Grain.
“I started developing food projects in 2008, when I could see how great London was at challenging food hegemony. I wanted to bring those ideas to Birmingham” says Jayne. “Things only really started getting interesting here in 2010, but I’m now able to do things without being seen as a bit of a crank. The recession has helped – people are starting to do things in the absence of paid jobs!”
“The idea with Edible Eastside is to make it the headquarters for a city-centre growing scheme, and to make growing food a city issue and a cultural issue. I want to show that food is important to all of us. One of my aims is to use the site to explore how we might create more resilient communities via a stronger food system.”
Edible Eastside is found in the heart of the arts quarter and so working closely with the arts community is important to Jayne. “Many artists are interested in urban agriculture. Artists are brilliant communicators – making sense of life’s issues and discord. I hope they can help us to transform food culture in cities and move us on from our current fast food model.”
It turns out Jayne is currently paying for everything herself – unsurprisingly she’s keen to find some funding. “I intend to raise grants through the development of a cultural programme, running alongside the growing. I will also be renting beds to individuals and restaurants. If we have a good harvest we will sell food. It isn’t going to make me rich but I hope it will be rewarding in other ways.”
Run by CSV Environment, Growing Gains has been getting kids growing and eating vegetables across Birmingham since 2003. “We’ve worked with over 80 schools in that time” says Rob Tilling from the project.
“Primarily we deliver a classroom-based, curriculum-time project with fortnightly visits to the school throughout the year. These sessions teach children not just about the value of growing and eating healthy food, but also about the practicalities of carrying out this work. Children are taught broadly about soil formation and fertility, diet and exercise, invertebrates, plant life cycles and compost making, among other things.”
The school gardens they create range from a scrap of land alongside a car park in a school with no other green space, to a large playing field converted into a mixed food and wildlife garden. “All the gardens come to be loved by the children” says Rob. “We’re committed to enabling as many as possible to access the outdoors, to learn outside and to find joy and inspiration from surrounding oneself with living things. This project can open children up to a new world.”
Giving people access to a new world seems especially valuable in a city where poverty and food deserts can be a problem. “Large swathes of Birmingham are classed as under-privileged and it has some of the worst national unemployment rates, poor health indicators and other markers of poverty and class division” says Rob. “Some areas are barren deserts for fresh ingredients. The prevalence of fast food outlets is a concern and even where fresh produce is easily accessed, chicken and chips are often even more easily found.” In this context, urban growing projects and allotments seem more important than ever.