Urban Agriculture | Part Nine | Liverpool

Part nine of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“Our city is second to none, we’re very proud to be Liverpudlians. We have a great culture and heritage.” So says Donna Williamson from the Rotunda Community Garden.  “North Liverpool is a traditionally working class area.  Third and fourth generations of families still live here.  There’s very little work now – Kirkdale is one of the poorest wards in the EU, but not in spirit.  There’s energy, warmth and a great sense of humour here.”

The Rotunda garden recently moved to a derelict site donated by the Liverpool Archdiocese.  With funding and favours, they’ve put up a polytunnel and raised beds, and planted an assortment of fruit trees. They’ve also created wildflower gardens, a sloped strawberry bed and herb rockery, plus a children’s play area.

Over the last year, Rotunda has worked with the Liverpool Probation Service to create the edible garden.  “The hands-on approach works well for most people” explains Donna.  “Some offenders have little or no education but they can pass something on to the community they’ve wronged by helping to create a vital garden for all to use. They gain new skills and the community sees them giving instead of taking – it’s a win-win situation.”

Donna believes gardening can act as form of rehabilitation but offers wider benefits too.  For instance, growing your own allows “young people to connect with the earth and the seasons, to realise that potatoes and strawberries come from the earth not Asda or Tesco.”  All of their produce is shared among the gardeners or used for soups and salads in their community kitchen.

“Projects like ours allow future generations to learn from family, friends and volunteers. This supports our communities, cities and the economy.  With global shortages, this could and should be the way forward to be green and sustainable” says Donna.

Economics is a subject close to Peter Rix’s heart.  He once worked for Liverpool’s economic development company but has now turned his attention to urban food systems.  He’s one of the brains behind the fledging Liverpool Food Alliance, which is made up of stakeholders including the PCT, council and YMCA.

They’ve set up a pilot project on a five acre site in Garston.  The YMCA organised corporate work teams to clear the ground, and has put up polytunnels and greenhouses.  The ‘Food for Thought’ consortia of primary school kitchens in south Liverpool have agreed to buy their produce.

“We’re interested in creating jobs in the city and creating markets for local produce.  We think we can stimulate cottage industries and provide accessible, cheap, fresh food to local people” says Peter. “If we work together we can create an income – lots of little growing projects die because they rely on short term funding.  Cooperation is better than competition when it comes to food.

“Our mission is citywide, and we’re currently involved in another bid to create a second hub in Liverpool 8.  We want to become an urban farm dispersed across different sites with a range of outputs.”

Access to land is one of the greatest challenges facing urban growers, and Liverpool is no different.  “The council holds so much land that sits unused” says Peter.  “There’s lots of land that could be used temporarily but the council was advised not to let the community use it in case it’s hard to get back.”

Surely offering land for urban food growing makes sense in a time of recession.  Becky Vipond from Squash Nutrition certainly thinks so.  “Urban growing is about making use of gaps in the city and enhancing local areas.  As food prices go up – but wages and benefits are frozen – food growing is a useful skill to have.”

Squash have worked on numerous food-focused projects in Liverpool for ten years.  Based in an old Victorian school in Toxteh, they’ve created an urban allotment around the site and turned the school’s old rooftop playground into a self-seeding wildflower meadow.  The roof has views to North Wales and hosts three bee hives.  They’re also just starting to develop a new community garden around a disused pub nearby.

“We take a holistic view of food, so growing is part of that.  We’ve found the arts approach is a good way of connecting with people, and we’ve done everything from photography projects to sound installations. Visibility is a part of what we do – if we create things that are striking they’ll stop you in your tracks and make you want to know more.  We’ve also found that the best way to engage people is to feed them – it starts conversations.”

Squash has just secured funding for the Village Farm Orchard in Stockbridge Village, Knowsley to the east of the city.  “There’s loads of green land but mainly mown deserts” says Becky.  “The idea is to provide people with free fruit. We did a cooking project with residents two years ago and those involved came up with the idea to plant fruiting trees and bushes all around the village.

“Rather than an orchard in the traditional sense, we’re interested in creating pockets that are part of the estate.  We’re going to plant 250 trees and 200 bushes, and organise training on tree care and cooking to help sustain the project long term.  We have funding for ten beehives.  The bee products can be used to generate an income for the project.”

Hope Street Honey also sees bees as a valuable community resource.  Lesley Reith from the project raves about the delicious honey Liverpudlian bees make.  “People think city centres are barren places but they’re not.  Our car park alone has ten mature trees and there are good parks nearby” she says.

“Our bees honey is the colour of Baltic amber and tastes beautiful.  2011 was a strange year for bees – they kept swarming and we didn’t harvest that much, but what we did won prizes.  I want us to become a city centre urban beekeeping hub and to make beekeeping more accessible and socially inclusive.”

The project is based at Blackburne House and the hives are managed by four members of the local WI.  They run basic beekeeping courses and plan to set up an informal monthly bee club for people who want to be beekeepers or who are interested in helping bees.

“There are lots of elderly beekeepers – we need younger beekeepers to come onboard and become experienced” says Lesley.  “I want to mentor people who can then become mentors themselves.”

Urban growing does more than put food (or honey) on people’s plates.  Projects can offer people in need of support a safe haven.  Jennie Geddes explains how Family Refugee Support is quietly using gardening as a way to help families in Liverpool find their feet.

“Our clients are refugee and asylum seeking families who live in the worst quality housing in the city.  Few have any outside space they can use.  They have the lowest income of any population, often existing below benefit levels, which impacts on their ability to access fresh and healthy food. We’re able to offer them space to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers on three different sites.  All the produce is used by the families.”

“We’re privileged to be able to engage with families who’ve survived tough situations and who bring us a richer understanding of the issues facing people in the world today. Projects like ours provide people who are often excluded from society with a chance to engage with nature and benefit from a sense of empowerment and ownership.  We’re quite quiet about what we do, as our clients often experience judgement and racism” says Jennie.

One asylum seeker explains how important the project is to her. “I feel very lucky to have my own garden because it makes you feel like you are normal.  You feel like a useful person – not like a burden to other people but that you can also produce something.”

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