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The Case for Urban Gardens
Five cities: Glasgow, Beirut, Bristol, Chengdu, and London
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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It is a feature of our age that not only is everything measurable, that everything must be measured. As Amelia Horgan points out in her excellent book Lost in Work, the advent of neoliberalism coincided with the introduction of new methods of measurement, to quantify everything from how efficient a train network runs to how good a teacher is. “How do you record data on something so inherently relational and reciprocal?” Horgan asks. “The first step is to change the tasks…so they can actually be recorded”.
This is where food miles comes in, a way of quantifying the goodness of a food by how long it’s taken to travel to our plates. There is some usefulness in this metric, particularly in the way it was initially conceived, but the media focus on food miles has not only led to an undue emphasis on distance as a measure of ethics, but also a backlash to the idea of local food being important. A part of Jay Rayner’s publicity for his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World focused on (correctly) debunking the idea that less food miles meant a lower carbon footprint. Localism was just a shibboleth, some commentators insinuated. For some food writers, the pendulum of discourse swung back to there being absolutely no harm shipping our meat from across the world; that to eat locally and seasonally was a nice but valueless idea.
Of course, there are many things that cannot be measured, which is where today’s newsletter─written by six writers in five cities─comes in. In a newsletter tackling the backlash to food miles, Lisa Elaine Held talks about the unquantifable aspects of local eating ─ the protection of land, the building of relationships between producer and eater, sustaining rural and urban communities. In a world where most of us now live in the sprawl that means looking at the urban garden seriously, not as a way of self-sustaining a whole city, or reducing our food miles, or cutting down our emissions (even if they may end up doing so) but for something more ineffable: because they enrich our lives.
The Kailyard Precedent, by Meg Bertera-Berwick
‘The colewort or green kail was for long the chief vegetable of Scotland.’
~Glasgow’s 1911 Scottish Exhibition catalogue
From the time it was introduced to Lowland Scotland by the Romans, kale (or ‘kail’) loaned its name to everything it touched: the insect that preyed on it (green kail worm), the bell that heralded mealtime (kail bell), and the meal itself (your kail). For the working classes of the early modern era, the kailyard was the space around the home where one grew vital green things to supplement bought-in oats and barley. It was functional – at its most grand, there might have been a cow or a patch of bere – but not unromantic: Patrick Neill’s 1813 Board of Agriculture report details that the kailyards of manufacturing towns in the west of Scotland were particularly famed for their pinks (dianthus) and carnations.
As both the Highland and Lowland Clearances led to mass displacement and rampant urbanisation of Lowland towns, access to kailyards spelled the difference between a grim life and a good one. In his 1854 book Rambles Around Glasgow, Hugh MacDonald wrote about the village my own now densely urban Glasgow neighbourhood used to be: ‘The majority of the inhabitants are weavers, who manage to make ends meet better than the generality of their city brethren, by the cultivation … of their bits of kail-yard, the produce of which adds materially to the comfort of their families.’ But by the early twentieth century, the kailyard was largely extinct. No access to land meant limited access to vegetables, meaning it was easier to force unlanded people into a diet of white bread, jam, and tea, which in turn created a stable consumer base for trades developed through the exploitation of land and people in the Global South.
Where the future of sustainable agriculture is posed as a creative resurrection of historic practices (reviving hedgerow systems, replanting woodland, revitalising soil life), urban agriculture is presented as something ultra-modern and innovative: vertical hydroponic ‘farms’ cast in the purple-blue gloom of grow-lights. But the historic precedent for urban agriculture is not the factory – it’s the garden. In the UK, the garden as a place of subsistence was destroyed post-war, when it was commodified as a place of leisure, but the kailyard offers an accessible model for what it could look like if we redistributed land to the unlanded and made it a political right to once again grow food around our homes. Cities do not suffer from lack of space: in 2019, Glasgow had 954 hectares of vacant land. Despite the fact demand for allotments has never been higher, the council continues to green-light developments that offer no interactable green space, thus perpetuating the work of their nineteenth-century predecessors who transformed citizens into consumers.
The modern kailyard need not be large enough to keep a cow, but it does need to be protected by law from the whims of landlordism. In Glasgow, this might look like replacing the environmentally unfriendly landscaping of housing developments with plots for residents’ use, creating more allotments on vacant land instead of selling to developers, and making it illegal for landlords to deny or restrict tenants’ use of gardens. A kailyard system wouldn’t merely address Glasgow’s food apartheids or promote urban biodiversity – it might also recover, for many, an intimacy with land that has been made to seem unnecessary; a historic relationship we long for nonetheless.
Foraging produces the forager, by Kathryn Maude and Christian Sleiman
In October 2019, mass protests, known here as thawra – ثورة (revolution), began across Lebanon. After signs of economic collapse, downtown Beirut was filled with people claiming the streets. This part of the capital had been sold off after the end of the civil war in 1990 to Solidere, a private company that turned it into an area of expensive shops and empty investment properties. However, in the revolutionary moment, people moved into the privatised part of the city. A tent encampment sprang up, and people from all over Lebanon started settling there.
One of the protesters, Togo, pitched his tent next to a plot that had been kept intact after an excavation uncovered an important archeological site. The site suddenly became accessible after protestors removed the fence during the revolution. In Togo’s short period of time there, foraging for food from this site offered him a way to map out the area through the lens of shrubs. He identified where a frog pond had formed; which type of shrubs were taking over; where anises, dandelions and mallow leaves grew. Foraging became a tool with which to reclaim the land at the heart of the city, as well as connecting ancestral knowledge and day-to-day survival.
Foraging in Beirut’s private lands does not just happen in explicitly revolutionary moments. During Lebanon’s Covid lockdown, in an empty parking lot in Hamra-Beirut, one of us witnessed an elderly man walking slowly around the plot with a carrier bag in his hand. Every few steps he leaned down and plucked some leaves to add to the bag. After around fifteen minutes he wandered off with a bag full of mallow leaves – bitter-delicious dark green leaves normally sautéed with onions or used to make a tea to relieve stomach ache. This shrub grows in the climate of the city; it occupies places with direct sunlight and a source of water. The roots grow deep in the soil which makes it more likely to sprout again once picked.
There is always a difference between foraging in the city and rural areas. You have to accept the fact that, when in the city, you also gather some toxicity as the land is more polluted – though perhaps embracing a certain level of impurity is part of the protest while foraging on private land. More importantly, collecting foraged greens and flowers in the city brings community involvement back into the food production process.
When you forage, you take what you need, leaving some for another person to take their share, with the rest of the shrub left intact so it is able to rejuvenate in the next season. It’s an activity that is performed individually, but practiced collectively. You can’t easily learn to forage alone: someone needs to teach you how to pick the chard, leaving enough for others and ensuring the plant regenerates the following year. Someone needs to show you how to dry the flowers to make tea, ensuring you pick out all of the bitter stems. A community starts forming around gathering and processing shrubs; people sit together to sort out the collection, discuss local politics, and share their own discoveries and recipes. This is how knowledge spreads.
Foraging isn’t a means of food production in the traditional sense; rather, it is about knowing which plants to pick and when to pick them, and how to turn them into food without poisoning yourself. Once you learn to forage, you take the knowledge with you wherever you go, and it changes your relationship with the city you inhabit as somewhere that changes with the seasons. You see food on every private plot of land. Foraging produces food but, perhaps more than that, it produces the forager too.
Back When This Was All Farmland, by Charlie Harding
Before the Industrial Revolution, Windmill Hill, a hill south of Bristol, was all farmland, used for growing crops and rearing livestock. The march of progress brought with it factories, warehouses, shops, pubs and urbanity, while heavy bombing in the war reset the area again. In the 1970s, a small four-acre plot of derelict land was earmarked by the council as a lorry park. Seeing the potential, a group of residents called The Dustbin Group successfully lobbied the council to be allowed to create a farm again. By the 1980s, the Windmill Hill City Farm had found its feet and was selling fruit, vegetables and meat to locals.
As the farm grew, adding polytunnels, greenhouses and a café, the city grew around it. Windmill Hill now sits in the looming shadow of a large Asda, a metaphor that is slightly too on the nose. There is a notion, mainly imported by outsiders writing about Bristol’s independent food scene, that the city is vastly populated by the sort of people that want to know the name of the farmer whose produce they’re eating and do their weekly shop via the butcher, the baker and the brewer (reports that the Stokes Croft riot in 2011 was down to a new Tesco Express opening ignored the fact it was mainly due to a squat eviction). Yet I don’t recognise this version of Bristol. When I took over the social-media management of the farm for a year from 2020, I found that families who were happy to use the cafe were less interested to know they could buy potatoes grown in BS3 soil to take home.
One small farm can’t feed a whole community – according to an article in AG Daily, a city of 500,000 residents would need more than 10,000 acres of urban farming to achieve self-sufficiency. Yet the city farm still plays a vital role in imagining an alternative food system. Of course, back when ‘this was all farmland’, people grew what they could, kept what they needed and sold the rest, but as the food system becomes more complex, the role of the city farm isn’t simply to look backwards. Hyper-local set-ups, where what you eat has been harvested within your city limits, means you can access, even for a part of your diet, a more equitable model of communal food production, with money going back to the community rather than shareholders. Bristol has retained its abattoir, which means that the few animals at Windmill Hill destined for the table are able to be processed in a calm environment with a focus on welfare, something other small-scale farms and smallholdings are struggling to do up and down the country. Instead of just selling produce, the cafe also creates ready meals for customers to take home and enjoy.
Yes, you can trace the apple, the cabbage, and the pork chop back to one place, but that place is one that also contributes to the community with volunteering roles. It’s a place for families without access to outside spaces to experience nature and greenery, and to meet animals face-to-face for the first time. It’s a place for children and adults to learn about the food cycle and make connections between what grows and grazes on the land and the food on their plates. City farms are much more than urban nostalgia for ‘back when this was all farmland’; they are a modern solution to a modern problem.
The Guerilla Gardeners, by Joseph Attlee
The sun hasn’t risen over Chengdu’s towering high-rises, but I’m already sweating as I leave the pavement and scramble over the old brick wall. The space I land in looks like an overgrown wilderness, but is actually a cornfield. Concealed from the surrounding suburbs by high walls, the space is interspersed with plots bearing tomatoes, squash and chillies; it’s as if I’ve been transported back several decades to the village that once stood here. Half-hidden in the grass, a sign reads: Cutting, planting and burning are all strictly prohibited. No random construction!
When the CCP began using its centralised banks to fund the wholesale urbanisation of China at the turn of the millennium, vast swathes of productive land such as the space in Chengdu were buried under new urban infrastructure. As well as a radically reduced rural-to-urban ratio, the result was a country full of newly urbanised farmers.
Displaced but not deskilled, farmers grow food wherever they can, but these spaces for growing produce are not part of Chengdu’s master plan: China’s ‘Western Capital’, with a population of sixteen million, is undergoing an unprecedented period of government-driven urban greening. Tens of thousands of trees have been planted, entire landscapes have been constructed, and the world’s longest pedestrianised greenway is being built.
The stated intention of such greening is to improve residents’ quality of life by ensuring they are never more than ten metres away from accessible green space. But clearances and resettlements have attracted criticism and, in his PhD on Chengdu, Edwin A. Schmitt examines the limitations of top-down greening projects. While they do provide ‘affordances’ to locals, when a population is disconnected from actively caring for and maintaining their lived environment, those affordances ‘are not necessarily anchored into a web of meaning that [is] central to residents’ environmental consciousness.’
It strikes me as ironic that, while the city is eager to project itself as a gongyuan chengshi – a city within a park – its guerilla gardeners always operate under the radar, precisely where urban beautification is absent: they squat land encircling slums; on railway embankments; along abandoned stretches of canal. The miniature greenhouses and growing frames on this site are all made of salvaged materials, and its periphery is marked by shattered tiles and netted hardcore.
A few of my elderly neighbours arrive and hand me some caigua – loofahs. While I’ve seen the fibrous husks of mature loofahs sold as sponges in the market, I’ll follow their advice and fry these still-tender gourds with ginger. My neighbours don’t seem too bothered about the warning sign, but of course they understand its implications: when construction commences, a team of Chengguan (‘urban management officers’ with a reputation for heavy-handedness) will show up in an unmarked van, drag nets over the crops and drive everybody out.
As I leave, I ponder the contribution these farmers make, forging such webs of meaning themselves while drawing nutrition from the most unloved corners of this megacity. After decades of rapid urbanisation, green space has become a scarce, luxury commodity in much of China, flaunted by property developers to entice potential buyers. Chengdu’s urban gardeners disrupt this negative cycle, discreetly restoring land’s true value to the community.
The Garden of Memory, by M.Z. Adnan
The first thing you smell when you enter the community garden of the Nubian Life Resource Centre is the clean scent of citrus. A trellis in the middle of the patio is overrun by lemon verbena, green and unwieldy. The Palestinian lady who everyone here knows as ‘Wissam’s mother’ is picking the leaves, which she will use to make a tea with sage that she says is good for sufferers of long Covid. Growing nearby there is African basil that becomes more potent in flavour and smell after it is crushed between one’s fingers, alongside false daisy, or bhringraj, that chef Sumati has planted to use in an oil for greying hair. To the left, in the garden area itself, a jiaogulan plant Sumati recommends for stress relief; ashwagandha that is good for the bones; marshmallow leaves for chest ailments. Elsewhere on the patio there are jasmine, geraniums and canna lilies whose tubers are edible and which, gardener Susannah Hall tells me, serve as a reminder of the Caribbean.
Nubian Life was established in 1995 to provide a culturally specific daycare service to the elderly Caribbean residents of Hammersmith, Fulham and Shepherd’s Bush, before expanding its services to Asian residents. The garden, named after Nubian Life member and gardening enthusiast Josiah Braithwaite, opened three years ago as a sustainable and wildlife-friendly space. It sits, incongruously, in the shadow of the Queens Park Rangers’ football stadium. Carrots, potatoes, kale, mint, squash, courgettes, parsley, tomatoes, apples, and cherries have all grown here, among other vegetables, fruits, and herbs for use in the elders’ meals.
It is the Saturday after Diwali and Sumati, who is from Bangalore, is preparing a celebratory feast. We will eat chicken biryani, lentils, lasagne, and a salad of pea shoots and nasturtium leaves that were harvested moments ago, with spaghetti bolognese for the children whose parents live near the garden. Today, Susannah is teaching the children about quails. She has brought her own, three or so, and will give the children eggs to take home. She puts a small portion of the dishes on offer in a pink bowl and tells the children that they can give thanks by breathing on the dish. ‘Your breath is like your signature. So when this arrives in the soil, those little tiny creatures, they’ll go, “oh yes, oh, that’s right … that’s Ethan, oh, that’s Nina saying thank you.”’
Susannah’s gardening philosophy is rooted in a celebration of both horticultural and human diversity, and what she calls the beauty-making of different traditions. In the past, she has planted South American tubers like mashua and oca, callaloo, corn beans and squash. She questions the notion of a crop being native to British soil (‘How native is native?’), citing past ice ages. She and Sumati both see the garden as a place that can nourish and heal the elders and the community. In this way, the garden’s abundant harvest also becomes a collective community resource.
But the fundamental purpose of the garden – with its sensory component and its ingredients – is to evoke and remind. Many of the elders have Alzheimer’s or dementia, and they will often tell Sumati that her food reminds them of home and their mothers’ cooking. She makes an aubergine dal with chapati that they love; a nettle soup using leaves from the garden; a tea of ginger, black pepper and turmeric with the leaves of an ajwain plant that she boils, which is good for colds. Sweet cicely helps sweeten desserts made with apple and rhubarb and, in the coming months, she and Susannah will plant rosemary. They say it is good for memory.
Christian Sleiman is an artist examining the vegetative souls through minor rituals and recipes. His practice weaves a collection of invitations between foraging, cooking and serving food. You can find him on Instagram @chrisssleiman.
Kathryn Maude is an academic at the American University of Beirut who writes about the Middle Ages, gender and food. You can find her on Twitter @krmaude.
Charlie Harding is an ex-food blogger, barmaid and FOH who now works as a freelance social media manager working with hospitality in Bristol and the South West. You can find them on Twitter @charlievivante .
Joseph Attlee is a writer and adventure cyclist living in Chengdu. He travels China on bamboo bikes with his partner and their two Chinese rescue dogs, seeking out grassroot solutions to the climate Crisis. Their newsletter is called Dogmatic and you can find them at @dogmatictweets.
M.Z. Adnan is a writer based in London.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.
Photos all authors’ own.