The autumn winter 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in December.
Our cover feature – ‘The people versus oil’ – was about how Greenpeace is challenging the oil industry on all fronts, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from boardrooms to court rooms.
The issue also featured an interview with Sir David Attenborough, an article about how offshore wind is powering ahead, and an update on a growing campaign to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans.
Lawns left to grow long and living walls; a productive city that’s pesticide free; and air that it’s a pleasure not poisonous to breathe. Continuing the Londonist’s look at the environment as an election issue, here three London NGOs tell us how the next Mayor can make London a more sustainable city.
Protection needed for the unofficial countryside
Mathew Frith from London Wildlife Trust doesn’t think the natural environment has been given nearly enough attention in the Mayoral debate so far, and argues that green spaces and gardens currently don’t have enough protection.
“London is rich in wildlife and the Mayor needs to safeguard this asset by strongly protecting and conserving London’s 1,500 wildlife sites. By committing to deliver the All London Green Grid, the Mayor could help bring more people into contact with the natural world, contribute to biodiversity conservation targets and improve the capital’s ability to cope with extreme weather events like flash flooding.
“There are significant advances currently taking place in sustainable and biodiversity-friendly design. World cities like London need to keep abreast of these advances to compete on an international level. Design for biodiversity (including things like swift and bat bricks, and living roofs and walls) helps encourage wildlife, reduces surface water run-off and mitigates the urban heat island effect.
“Despite the drought, many local Councils are still cutting the grass short in parks and green spaces. Landscape management contracts should be flexible to account for the need to leave lawns longer during dry periods so that more water can be retained. It’s such a simple measure but would have a positive impact to save water across London.”
London needs to be a more productive place
Ben Reynolds from Sustain (who run Capital Growth, Capital Bee and London Food Link) thinks the new Mayor should make it much easier for people to grow food in the city, as well as clamping down on junk food, pesticides and litter.
“We are looking for support for the next phase of Capital Growth, which will focus on increasing the sustainability of these food growing spaces, primarily through productivity. By increasing the amount produced through these Capital Growth spaces, and by other food growers around London, we hope to meet an insatiable demand for local food.
“More support needs to be given, particularly from London’s landowners, to allow people to grow and sell food. The next Mayor could insist that suitable land that’s been unused for more than two years is made available for food growing, even if just for a temporary lease. The Mayor could also insist that new developments, particularly residential, have provision for food growing built in.
“The next Mayor could help London to become the first pesticide free city in the UK, following in the footsteps of Paris and Tokyo. Restricting the application of these chemicals would really benefit London’s wildlife, including bees. We want the next Mayor to back our call to make every borough bee-friendly.
“As well as benefiting people’s health, restrictions on the number of junk food outlets could help to reduce litter. Some boroughs have successfully trialled the use of planning measures to restrict these outlets, particularly in areas around schools. The next Mayor should back all boroughs to use similar powers.
“By promoting environmentally friendly diets – including buying sustainable fish, organic food and eating less meat – the Mayor can also support fish stocks, biodiversity and animal welfare, and reduce climate change. The Mayor should insist that the public sector, including schools and hospitals, adopt the Government’s buying standards (currently only mandatory for 30% of public sector).”
And finally, how about a breath of fresh air?
Siobhan Grimes from Climate Rush thinks the Mayor should prioritise cleaning up the poisonous air we’re all currently forced to breathe.
“Air pollution on London’s busiest roads breaches air pollution laws by a factor of two every day. It means we are breathing in dangerous particles that are making us sick and causing climate change. In London, over 4,000 people die early every year as a result of air pollution, and between 15-30% of childhood asthma is linked to traffic pollution.
“Black soot emissions, including the traffic emissions that we see blackening tunnels and buildings in our city, contribute to up to 30% of global climate change emissions. Instead of being poisoned by the air we breathe we want the next Mayor to prioritise our health by investing in safer cycling infrastructure, by implementing a very low emission zone over the most polluted parts of the capital, by reducing the prohibitive cost of using public transport and by opposing airport expansion.”
Welcome to the English capital – a beautiful, hulking behemoth filled with would-be farmers. Research suggests half of the UK’s urban agriculture projects are found here and that demand for food growing land is as high as ever. It is in London that a single borough can grow and sell 28 tonnes of salad, and land in the wake of Heathrow Airport can be squatted and made productive again.
“Talk of the ‘good life’ drives us insane!” says Kerry Rankine from Growing Communities, the social enterprise that’s responsible for all that salad. “Very often the food gets forgotten about, but we grow to sell. Our sites are lovely to look at but it’s not an exercise in making scenic lines of cabbages. Our visibility is a side effect rather than an aim.”
Based in Hackney, east London, Growing Communities runs three market gardens, a veg box scheme and a farmers’ market. “We’re serious about changing the food system, about providing an alternative that involves supporting small farmers in the surrounding area and bringing food as close as possible to the people who eat it. There are 18,000 people in the square kilometre around our office – it makes sense to grow here, for them.”
Growing Communities runs apprenticeships and offers people paid work. Their Patchwork Farm is a collection of micro-sites that are given to graduates of the apprentice scheme. “It’s an experiment to see if people can generate an income from urban growing. They’re selling their produce to us and to cafes” explains Kerry. “In 2012 we’re also planning a much bigger scale project in Dagenham, with 1.89 hectares.”
Kerry is realistic about what can be achieved within a city’s walls. “It’s not possible to feed London from inside it, but the Hackney grown produce has significance beyond simply being food. We have a big volunteer programme and our sites are open to visitors, so people can see what we’re doing. We serve 700 households, and so are feeding about 3,000 people.”
“We’ve been going since 1997, but still haven’t quite cracked making urban growing pay for itself. We have to cross subsidise from other projects to pay the grower’s salary. It highlights how difficult the life of a small farmer is. The current food system is deeply flawed. Food is really under-priced, and those prices are distorted by agribusinesses and supermarkets. The urban farmer’s role is to both produce and to act as an advocate.”
Clare Joy from Organiclea would surely agree. “In the future I hope that London will have more productive green spaces, but this is only viable if people are willing to pay more for food”, she says. “It’s the urban grower’s job to teach people about the real value of food every day and the hard work that goes into producing it.”
Organiclea inspires many of London’s urban growers, especially its Hawkwood site in Chingford. It’s a handsome slice of land on the edge of Epping Forest that’s producing unusually large quantities of food. Clare confesses they are able to grow on a scale they sometimes have to pinch themselves to believe.
“The Lea Valley used to be the bread basket of London, and local people saw food production as meaningful employment” explains Clare. “Our aim is to see more London grown food that’s produced with integrity. Our project is about people as much as it is plants – they’re the muscle of our production.”
The professional grower
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, coordinates the high profile Capital Growth project, which aims to have kick started 2,012 new growing projects across London before the year is out, by providing small amounts of funding and lots of advice. Ben Reynolds from the project is thinking about its legacy.
“We’ve seen 50,000 people getting their hands dirty through Capital Growth to date. Groups’ main driver has turned out to be transforming spaces and the main benefit has been a community one. How do we motivate and mobilise those people to think more widely about food issues, and to grow more food?” asks Ben.
“A small number of people involved with Capital Growth will take steps to become professional urban growers, but their path isn’t clear. The next aim for us is to help create a meaningful amount of social enterprises that employ people. There is land but it’s complicated to access it. It’s time consuming, hard work, and we need to make it easier.”
‘Roots to Work’, published by the City & Guilds’ Centre for Skills Development, explores how employable urban growing can make you. “Food growers can play a very supportive role in their communities and the food itself is only half of what they achieve” says Olivia Varley-Winter, who wrote the report.
“Most jobs in urban horticulture seem to be part-time or entrepreneurial and, while opportunities have been growing, there are still not that many jobs. But it’s important to recognise the transferable skills that people gain in the process of food growing, and that the experience can be a real asset when going into employment.”
Growing as activism
For some, urban growing is a form of activism as much as it is a chance to learn new skills. “It’s a political act to reject unsustainable food systems” says William Ronan from Grow Heathrow. He is one of six ‘Plane Stupid’ campaigners who moved to Sipson in 2010. They’d been working with residents since 2006, after a proposed third runway threatened to flatten the village.
“In March 2010 we swooped on some derelict land that sits a mile and a half from the airport – half an acre with three, 100 foot glasshouses on it. It used to be a market garden and we wanted to reinvigorate it. Heathrow Airport was built on farmland and the land around here is very fertile” explains William.
“Our growing is largely an experiment – we have limited experience and have been learning as we go. We’re using permaculture methods and working with the environment to get the highest yields. We had an abundance of black chillies last year, but our most successful crop was salad – we had it coming out of our ears!”
Ten people live in the garden, and their intention is to become self-sufficient and also to share their produce with local people. The site welcomes visitors and the growers see themselves as educators as well as producers. They have a weekly gardening club, organise special events and run projects out in the community.
“There are misconceptions about what squatting is – the transformation of this land challenges media stereotypes. On our first day residents were representing our case to the local police. We’d built good relationships with them before we arrived” says William.
“We were negotiating to buy the land but the landowner pulled out. We are due back in court in spring 2012 and are currently working on a community campaign – we have lots of statements of support including from the local MP. We’d like to have a long term future here.”
This feature appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine
It was 6.30pm on a Thursday and impeccably dressed women in sparkling dresses, hats and heels had started gathering outside the rather swish Landmark Hotel in London. Furtive looks and whispered hellos hinted that something was brewing. That, and the huge number of police circling the block.
A glamorous looking woman talked urgently into her phone. Suddenly she cried ‘now, now, now’ and the group dashed off to a side entrance and into the hotel. I dashed off with them. Through secret back passages that usually only the staff would see, our well dressed group headed deeper into the hotel before emerging into a huge atrium. Chanting ‘no new coal’, and now sporting bright red sashes emblazoned with the same message, we sat defiantly around a sweeping staircase as two of our number unfurled a large banner from one of the balconies facing into the hall.
This was a Climate Rush action, organised in protest against the UK coal industry, which had been planning a dinner at the hotel that evening. Climate Rush isn’t an exclusively female movement, but the organisers proudly take their inspiration from the Suffragettes. They declare they are “a diverse group determined to raise awareness of the biggest threat facing humanity today – that of climate change. We demand deeds not words”.
Environmentalism is not gender neutral
Research suggests that men and women approach environmental issues differently, that the relationship between communities and their environment is not gender neutral.[i] Forget Tupperware or Anne Summers parties, women have been meeting up and determining to fight for a better planet for years, and the movement seems to be gathering a new momentum of late.
Back in the early nineties, 1500 women from 83 countries met for the first Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet. More recently, in 2007, the Women’s Institute (WI) and Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) joined forces to produce the Women’s Manifesto on Climate Change. Last year a networking group called WISE – Women in Sustainability and the Environment – set themselves up, calling for more female voices within the environmental movement.
“It is time now for more females to be informed, to become influential spokespersons and promoters of the solutions required to mitigate climate change, to push for a seismic shift in consciousness that recognises that we owe a duty of care to our wild and beautiful planet” say the WISE founders. Born out of an email to six people in April last year, the network already boasts 9,500 people on its mailing list, including quite a few men.
Fighting for planetary rights
Polly Higgins is an environmental lawyer and one of the founders of the WISE network. She’s behind ambitious eco-projects including the Trees Have Rights Too call for global planetary rights. She puts the success of WISE so far down to a huge appetite from women, and men, for a pro-active, solution based approach to environmental problems.
I asked her how people responded to the women only thing. “A small minority think it’s ridiculous but most see it as non-threatening and actually I’ve found it’s a selling point. Men are very interested in it! It’s about positive discrimination and balance, not about excluding men” she explains.
Green tasks are pink not blue
It’s not all about direct action and political campaigning either. Women are a powerful force on a much more personal level too. A joint WI/WEN survey found that women make most household decisions, that 80% are very concerned about climate change and that a massive 98% recycle. “Green tasks, like similar chores, are it seems more likely to be pink than blue” say Caroline Oates and Seonaidh McDonald in their research paper ‘Recycling and the Domestic Division of Labour’.
Our ladies only eco-group
About a year ago I joined a group that was meeting in my local area to talk about environmental issues. There were no rules, except that I was female. As with all these kinds of things, I went along not knowing what to expect but with all kinds of expectations. It was like a first date, and a blind one at that. I was attracted to the group because it was for ladies only, but I did, I confess, feel slightly awkward about that fact.
We wanted our first event to be fun as well as informative, so we picked a gorgeous venue and there was wine and goody bags, as well as talks and advice from experts. Our local MP Emily Thornberry even showed up. It was a lot of work but it felt important to try and talk to women who hadn’t yet been converted to environmentally friendly ways of working.
These days our meetings tend to focus around talking about our eco problems. It’s incredibly useful – an environmental concern shared is a concern halved, etcetera, etcetera. We’ve researched and debated things like plastics, organics and cosmetics. We explored how to hold a green wedding when one of us announced her engagement and environmentally friendly parenting when one of us got pregnant.
All this, plus some great evenings in our favourite Islington pub. We really enjoy the supportive dynamic created by the ladies only rule, valuing the fact the women’s movement seeks to challenge the default ways of doing things and gives us the courage to take action, both personal and political.
A different kind of energy
“Women offer a different energy and perspective” says Polly Higgins of WISE, who explains the network “is about helping more women step up to the podium to deliver messages that are not doom and gloom led but offer big solutions. There are so many women out there with so much expertise that we should be tapping into”.
Previous climate change talks have been dominated by men, but something is beginning to shift. In December the UN vowed to address gender imbalance in climate change negotiations and women are working hard behind the scenes to make their presence felt more strongly at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen. “We are different creatures, we look at things differently” says Polly, and it seems that that different approach can only make the environmental movement stronger and able to engage more people, male and female.
This article appears in the May issue of Organic Garden and Home magazine
Useful facts, figures, resources
A joint survey of UK women by WEN and WI found:
Women make most household decisions
80% of women are very concerned about climate change
87% refuse plastic bags
Useful web links
[i] Climate change: learning from gender analysis and women’s experiences of organising for sustainable development by Irene Dankleman; Gender and Development Vol. 10, no. 2, July 2002