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Transforming England's towns into green and pleasant land

  • Story Highlights
  • Urban farming and guerilla gardening groups springing up across the UK
  • Attraction of self-sufficiency and being environmentally-friendly
  • Success of urban farming found in many countries including Cuba and Argentina
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By Matt Ford
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(CNN) -- To begin with, visitors to Todmorden, Yorkshire, might think it looks like any other small town in northern England.

Working allotments are becoming more popular in Great Britain, as locally grown-produce becomes increasingly economical and environmentally-friendly.

But look closer and you will notice some unusual features that have placed the town at the forefront of a new food revolution.

There are herbs growing in flower boxes at the bus stop, raspberry canes on waste land, cabbages in the flower beds at the local park - and even beans between the graves in the local cemetery.

In fact, wherever you look food is growing, free for anyone to pick and take home to cook.

The architects of this remarkable landscape are two local women, Pam Wallis and Mary Clear, who are on a mission to make their town self-sufficient within 10 years.

The duo became frustrated at the number of allotment sites available -- only four in the whole town -- and so decided to find their own sites through a bit of what is known as "Guerilla Gardening".

All across the world planting fruit and vegetables is becoming a new form of non-violent direct action for a diverse group of environmentalists and food campaigners.

It has a long history in the UK: 350 years ago the Levellers, or Diggers, seized land for food production.

But the modern movement began in New York in 1973 when the Green Guerilla group transformed a vacant lot into a productive garden.

In recent years the movement has become increasingly popular as rising food prices, fears about food security, peak oil, climate change and a desire to reconnect with agriculture become more widespread.

In Todmorden it has its own name -- the 'Incredible Edible' campaign -- and the local authorities are beginning to take notice, giving permission to plant 500 fruit trees around the local sports fields and promising to look for ways to expand the number of allotments available.

But taking a radical new approach to food production is not just the preserve of activists.

Architect and academic Fritz Haeg, whose work has been exhibited at Tate Modern in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art, has written a book, "Edible Landscapes", in which he calls for our lawns to be replaced by beautiful spreads of fruit and vegetables.

To illustrate his ideas he turned a patch of grass near a housing estate in South London into such a garden, inspired by the flower beds at Buckingham Palace, and incorporating beans, salads and many other foodstuffs.

His designs have influenced similar projects in the U.S. and Europe.

A mini green revolution

As the global population continues to become more and more urban -- according to the United Nations, already 50 per cent live in cities -- and pressure mounts not only to feed ourselves - but also to cut carbon emissions at the same time -- localized, urban agriculture is likely become more and more important.

It something that already seems to have grabbed public consciousness in the UK.

Waiting lists for allotments can be many years long in some areas as city dwellers return to the land in search of the "good life". Many others are using balconies, window boxes and roof gardens, and according to the British Beekeeper's Association, there are 1,000 beekeepers in London.

Many people are taking their inspiration from the Second World War "Dig For Victory" campaign, which encouraged households to maximize their vegetable production.

British TV chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has helped a group of Bristol residents turn a piece of derelict land into a smallholding, complete with pigs and ducks for a TV show.

While Jamie Oliver's most recent series has seen him trying to encourage the northern town of Rochdale to eat better through a "Ministry of Food"-style campaign.

In Hackney, East London, Growing Communities is a social enterprise "working to create a more sustainable food system through our projects which provide practical alternatives to the damaging food system that currently exists."

They run a community garden that supplies an organic vegetable box scheme they operate locally, and the group also started the first farmer's market in the UK where all produce is organic and sourced from within 100 miles.

Their director, Julia Brown was named as one of the top ten sustainable business leaders in 2008 by Forum for the Future.

In nearby Walthamstow, OrganicLea offer a "social scrumping service" that picks unwanted apples from gardens in the capital, gives the owners a share, and sells the rest on a community market stall.

In South London, Food Up Front, "the Urban Food Growing Network", encourage people to use spaces such as balconies, gardens and window boxes as kitchen gardens.

For around $40 members get a start-up kit of seeds, compost and instructions -- as well as the support of one of dozens of community representatives that help sort out any horticultural problems.

A ground force of community action

All across England community gardens are springing up.

In Bristol neighbors were spurred into action when a developer tried to seize a piece of local land.

They formed a committee, got local government support and now 'Easter Garden', as they call it, is a thriving local amenity that resident Ilse Hambrook says feels "like a church."

"It provides a place for the community to get together, something for us to work at and feel proud of. If it wasn't there, we just wouldn't know each other," she says.

The trend seems to be catching on in Government circles as well. In the spring British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "We need to make great changes in the way we organize food production in the next few years."

There is already a proposal before the London Mayor that all of the 14 million meals consumed at the 2012 Olympics will be provided from new urban farms on 6,000 acres of land in East London.

The question is, of course, will it work.

For an answer we need to look abroad where urban agriculture is already providing a large contribution to food production.

There are urban farms all over, from Argentina to China, but it is in Cuba where they have transformed the countries food economy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was suddenly without its main source of fossil fuels and had to rapidly adapt to a "post oil" world, with more food produced locally and by hand.


There are now over 400 horticultural clubs in Havana alone, with residents claiming community spirit, as well as fresh food, has blossomed in the city's green spaces as the countryside came to town.

If the growing band of green-fingered citizens of Todmorden, London, and many other towns have their way, the urban landscapes of the United Kingdom could soon be equally transformed.

All About Nature and the EnvironmentCapital Cities

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