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Grow your own food security? The hidden potential of urban horticulture

Logo: The University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food

By Dr Jill Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Fellow, Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield

An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmonson)
An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmondson)

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food supply chains as never before. The empty supermarket shelves that marked the early stages of lockdown prompted many of us to recognise the UK’s reliance on imports and just-in-time deliveries for the first time. As we look towards recovery, building a more resilient food system is crucial – and we can make a start in our own backyards.

Urban agriculture is increasingly recognised by policymakers, from local councillors to transnational diplomats, as an important contributor to food security. As things stand in the UK and Europe, that tends to mean individual households growing fruit and vegetables in allotments and gardens – although there has been a rise in community growing spaces in the UK over the last few decades.

An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmonson)
An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmondson)

This form of food production has historically played an important role in local and national food security, for example during the World War Two Dig for Victory Campaign, which saw households grow an impressive 18% of the country's fruit and vegetables (by value) in allotments and gardens.

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in interest in urban horticulture, with waiting lists for allotment plots growing from 10 people per 100 plots in 1996 to 50 per 100 plots in 2013. Demand has only increased further this year during the Covid-19 pandemic, with evidence suggesting that more people have started growing their own food during lockdown. This is in part as people were spending more time at home, but also a direct response to that increased awareness of the fragility of the UK’s food security and its reliance on the global food system, which is particularly apparent in the supply of fruit and vegetables. UK producers currently grow less than 20% of the fruit and just over 50% of the vegetables consumed domestically (Defra 2018) – but urban horticulture has the potential to transform that precarious picture.

Availability of land is often discussed as one of the biggest limitations on the expansion of urban horticulture. However, in a recent study, my team at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food used a geographic information system-based modelling approach to demonstrate the true potential of our urban landscapes.

We found that allotments account for less than 2% of Sheffield’s green space, but nearly 40% of the total greenspace was made up of gardens – which have immediate potential for growing food. A further 11% of greenspace is suitable for larger allotment-style growing and 4% of the city’s greenspace is suitable for community garden-style growing.

The city of Sheffield. a, Current land-use within the local authority boundary. b, Current land available and green infrastructure suitable for UH. c, Grey infrastructure with flat roofs potentially suitable for UH within the city centre (Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield)
The city of Sheffield. a, Current land-use within the local authority boundary. b, Current land available and green infrastructure suitable for UH. c, Grey infrastructure with flat roofs potentially suitable for UH within the city centre (Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield)

If all this land was converted to urban horticulture, it would be equivalent to 98m2 of greenspace per person and could potentially feed 122% of the population on their recommended 5-a-day (400g of fruit and vegetables a day). This equates to more than four times the 23m2 per person currently used for commercial horticulture across the UK (Defra, 2018). Obviously, this is an upper estimate that demonstrates potential – not all green space would be useable in practice for urban horticulture – but even using just 10% of gardens in combination with 10% of the land available in the wider green space network across the city could feed 15% of the population on their 5-a-day diet.

There is clear potential for urban horticulture to make a significant contribution to local food security, but provision of allotment land is at a historic low. In a recent study of 10 UK cities, my team demonstrated that allotment land provided by local authorities has declined by 65% from its peak in the 1940s-1960s. This decline was most pronounced in the deprived areas where food insecurity may be more prevalent, with eight times more allotment land lost there than in the wealthier areas. However, of the allotment land lost, a quarter remained green space with potential for reconversion to allotment sites, almost half of which is in the most deprived areas of the cities – suggesting that the most food insecure communities stand to gain the most from such an initiative.

An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmonson)
An allotment in Sheffield (Mike Edmondson)

Access to land is not the only barrier to the expansion of urban horticulture. One key challenge is the socio-cultural factors that may drive or constrain growing food within cities and towns. For example, understanding the potential competition between horticultural production and other uses of urban green spaces, such as recreation or formal parks. These tensions could be reduced by research targeted at a better understanding of the co-benefits of using greenspaces for urban horticulture.

A further challenge is that extensive adoption of urban horticulture in gardens cannot be achieved by simply changing laws and regulations. Instead, on encouraging cultural and social changes such as those observed this year in response to the global pandemic. It’s not enough to create the allotments – we must create a culture of growing our own food.

We need research and trials to better understand the barriers to and enablers of household growing, with initiatives exploring knowledge exchange and education to support own-growing or raise awareness of the benefits for people’s health and wellbeing.

With the public’s new awareness of the fragility of our food system driving a surge of interest in own-growing, local and national governments have an opportunity to drive an own-grown revolution. They must use this momentum to encourage urban agriculture in our gardens, parks, roadside verges and allotments, working with communities to increase local food security and the sustainability of our cities and towns.

Find out more at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/sustainable-food

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