Climate Crisis

Urban farms: Models for a new economic order

Starting at the level of the allotment and working up to the level of national and international strategy, we need to design systems which allow ecologies to govern themselves.

A small group speaking in an urban allotment, behind a row of terraced houses

It is clear we need to heal both the planet and our society. My research addresses how these two tasks are connected in relation to food. Food chains can, at many points, leak waste or greenhouse gas, and embed exploitation, injustice and exclusion from the land.

The first place I look for answers to these issues is my allotment in Spa Hill, West Norwood. This is where I practise agroecology: both a farming technique, and social movement, emphasising agency and autonomy. Agroecology treats complexity as a resource, and encourages the cultivation of the maximum diversity, including self-seeding crops. The plot self-organises, develops its symbioses and always surprises you; picking crops is more like gathering than harvesting. On the Masters module that I teach, Food and the City, I ensure I take my students for a visit there, using it to explain how agroecology was derived from indigenous practices. Seemingly pristine landscapes – the Amazon, precolonial Australia – were actually ‘built’ environments, using principles so in tune with nature that they seem evolved.

I also bring my undergraduate students to Calthorpe Community Garden regularly to demonstrate and explain ideas around agroecology. It has been a revelation. From its origins in a campaign to defend space from predatory development, Calthorpe brings together a diverse and multi-cultural community, assembled through a series of migrations, sharing a strong attachment to this place just because it preserves the culture (through food) of their places of origin. This hints at a new cosmopolitanism, a common resistance against both narrow nationalism and exploitative globalisation.

Shed in allotment

I have learned how the defence of allotments and of social housing are linked, through themes of the memory and story attached to place. This holds another lesson for system-design: you resist the bad circuits of land-grabbing, through corrective feedbacks from working-class communities. And you encourage the good ones. With UCL Engineering, and several of their PhD students, we designed a small-scale anaerobic digester for Calthorpe, embedding community inputs at each point in the creative process, while, by incorporating off-the-shelf components and open-source design, we also linked to a wider digital commons, where peer-to-peer collaboration carries forward the spirit of traditional knowledge and farmer-based research. Thus, we can defend science by anchoring it socially.

Allotments aren’t just productive in the sense of food, however. UCL is currently building the new UK Dementia Research Institute, which happens to be situated right next door to the Calthorpe Community Garden. We would like to see an innovative future collaboration, in which patients could join gardening activity, leading to evidence-based analysis of benefits. Existing literature focuses on mental health benefits from gardening activity. However, I feel an innovative hypothesis would consider gardening as memory... not just the growth-cycle of the plant, but immunities as memories, which plants transmit across generations. This would again link to indigenous approaches where the mind itself is rooted within cycles of nature.

Urban allotment

Broadening out the specific condition of Calthorpe I have worked with Marina Chang (Coventry University) on two projects: Creating a living lab for transformative urban agroecology and Mapping the Current Landscape of Food Co-operatives in London. Both these projects used traditional perspectives in a way relevant to contemporary urban experience. The basic agroecological vision – avoid futile efforts to predict the unpredictable, and instead focus on designing the system itself for resilience – can supply a paradigm for different aspects of food/nature-related urban planning and design. Above all, the sustainability transition must be a movement of society, rooted in the realms of culture and consciousness.

Here, the notion of ‘food sovereignty’ (with historical antecedents in land and freedom struggles throughout the world) enables exploratory learning to embed sustainability firmly within autonomous social and institutional regimes. Which is why the UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training is so important. This is a very innovative approach to PhD research, which will help design the UK food system of the future. The centre presents a great opportunity to work with a group of young researchers with activist backgrounds, to explore commons-based solutions not just as an object of research but in the co-design of the programme itself. We relate urgent contemporary challenges to a deeper change in consciousness, and how to link science-based solutions with societal change, emphasising how indigenous approaches can surmount these dichotomies.

Open gazebo-like structure in small park, autumnal colours

There is some sense that we, as a society, are ready to use these lessons at a larger scale. After all, it’s hard to separate food from all the other issues that exist, right to the city. The 2008 financial crisis was also an ecological crisis, with food price-spikes and a shift of speculative capital into land. The pandemic highlights a deficit of care (both for nature and fellow humans), and an understanding that injustices (including food-related ones) are systemically reproduced.

But it is not all negative. Quitting the Common Agricultural Policy presents a unique opportunity to re-imagine a country’s food system from basics. We have also seen several Green New Deal propositions in the UK and abroad which herald a practical discussion of coupled environmental and social renewal. It is cheering to consider that we can apply the agroecology approach to all systems: don’t control too much, design the system itself for resilience. Energy transition is not just solar panels and windfarms (however important), but the free energy of self-organisation. This applies to society too: commons-based institutions are regimes to manage physical resources or knowledge.

We have damaged the planet and our society. It is possible for us to heal both with a unified strategy.


Prof Robert Biel

Professor of the Political Ecology of Sustainable Food, Development Planning Unit

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