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Rosie Boycott on Capital Growth and scaling up urban agriculture

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Rosie Boycott is the Chair of the London Food Board, working for the Mayor, Boris Johnson.  She was the force behind the Capital Growth initiative which has been a remarkable catalyst for urban agriculture across London.  We wanted to hear her thoughts on what she has learnt about scaling up, about how top-down initiatives can support (but not drive) bottom-up initiatives.  It's a remarkable story.  We started by asking her to sum up what Capital Growth is and what it’s achieved since it began.

"Capital Growth was launched in 2008. It was to some degree a steal from what has happened in Vancouver, which had a project whose aim was to create 2010 new vegetable growing sites in the city by the time of the 2010 Winter Olympics. So we did 2012 sites by the time of the Olympics last summer.

Rosie launching Capital Growth with London Mayor Boris Johnson

We differed from Vancouver quite a lot in that they counted every single plot within one, say, communal garden, whereas we only counted a communal garden as one site. What I’m trying to say is we did much better!  It was one of those things that started in a very low-key way and seemed a very large task. Actually, looking back on it, it seems an extraordinary thing to set up, to try to do. But somehow City Hall got behind it. We had an initial amount of money so that we could give small grants. Sustain (the Alliance for Better Food and Farming) became the delivery partner, so they worked on the ground doing all the actual setting up of the gardens.

It was very slow to begin with because we kept encountering lots of problems, such as wanting to put gardens into building sites, odd bits of derelict land because there were always issues with ownership of said building sites or derelict pieces of land. A worry on behalf of the owners of those places was that once they’d let a group of people in to start a vegetable garden they’d never get them out. So one of the key things very early on was the establishment of something called a ‘meanwhile lease’ which means that you are a temporary resident on that site, and it was a great persuader to the council.

We went about it in lots of different ways. There are 33 boroughs in London and we made all sorts of efforts to get them all to sign up. Efforts including writing directly to the Chief Executives, I would go to breakfasts held by the Mayor when the different leaders of the councils would come in, and talk to them. Sustain and I, we also talked to large land-owning institutions like the waterways, like the transport systems, the railways. We talked to the housing associations which are many, and there are a lot of in London.

Rosie BoycottThe housing associations were very instrumental in helping us establish gardens in high-rise estates. Quite often there would be an area that maybe at one point had been a playground and it had been abandoned. The estates saw very quickly that gardens were incredibly valuable and created something that was way more than just a bunch of people growing vegetables, because they brought safety, access and a sense of community to places where that had been destroyed. We saw many occasions where areas between tower blocks had been in the ownership or dominion of gangs, people smoking and taking drugs, fierce dogs, all that stuff which was very inhibiting to elderly people, mums with kids, all the sorts of people that those spaces were actually designed to be for.

Put the garden in and everything changed overnight. One of the things that has been really fantastic is that the theft rate is so low, almost non-existent. I’ve had residents say to me that even though they don’t have anything to do with their gardens, they’d be looking over a balcony on the fifth floor and if they see something they don’t like they shout, and then other people join in and shout.  They become very quickly a community asset.

As it stands now, some time after we finished, which we did, opening up the 2012th garden at the end of 2012, I think a few no longer exist. I’m not sure how many but it’s very few. We have over 100,000 volunteers signed up. We have been seen by the City and Guilds, who did a project on it, this kind of community gardening has been the best route back to work for the long term unemployed, which is brilliant. We’ve seen people with mental health problems improve, we’ve worked with doctors about using gardening for therapy. The police have commended the project as better than a bobby on the beat. They become self-policing and they become sources of pride.

It’s been an amazing project.  Whatt we’re seeing now is that quite a few of them are looking at ways to move on from just domestic consumption and start growing for sale to local restaurants, schools, or to turn things into chutneys or food. Small scale social enterprises are springing up on the back of it. How many more there are I don’t know. We get letters and emails every day from people saying they’re starting this, they’re starting that. These are way outside the remit of the 2012 and we think and Sustain think that it’s probably OK now to say that London, apart from Havana, the city now has more urban farming than any other city in the world. That seems pretty cool.

The driver for it was the people themselves getting on and doing stuff. What insights and lessons have you gained in terms of how best to support bottom-up action and activism in that way?

The network that Sustain put together was terrific. The money helps, but the money was small. The money was things like grants of £200 maybe up to £500, maybe up to £700, which got people going maybe in terms of being able to buy wood to build a raised bed or buy soil. We did a lot of deals with different companies, Bulldog Tools, B&Q etc. who gave good discounts. We ran a lot of training days which were really successful and people really liked. The one for beekeeping went particularly well. People like to learn something new. Certainly in an urban environment, being part of Capital Growth gives you something that is outside of the urban environment and it makes life in the city better to stitch that into it. 

Rosie Boycott

I think the network itself has been important. I think people liked being part of growing these 2012 sites. We do a lot of site visits and take people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who would come along especially in schools, and talk about the gardening and about the cool things that you could have happen like Big Dig days when people would volunteer. We still have all these things, it’s not in the past. We have open days when people can come and see the gardens. We have a very good network on the web whereby you can type in your own postcode and it will flash up where your nearest Capital Growth sites are that you could go and join. And the website has a lot of terrific info and good stories.

So you can enter it at all sorts of levels. I think that’s important. From a City point of view, one of the things that was attractive was obviously most boroughs, not all but most boroughs have no allotments left so you can’t get one. For busy people, an allotment is too big. I know a lot of Councils are looking at their allotments and when they become free, are cutting them up into smaller sizes, but actually they’re whopping.

In terms of the larger crisis and climate crisis and so on, some might argue that you can’t expect leadership or support for resilience building to come from government. Either local or national. But you’ve been one of those few people whose role has been working in government but specifically aiming to try and link and support the two. Is it possible…it is clearly possible,  and what are the limitations of it? How far can something like the Mayor’s office go in terms of driving resilience? What are the blocks you’ve come up against?

It isn’t a top down event. You can only do so much. But at the same time, you can do a lot. The fact of having the encouragement there from the top meant a lot. I certainly know that this was something that appealed to Boris, and Boris and I went and launched the project together on November day in 2008 and it seemed like a long way away. But he was very enthusiastic about it. He likes the idea of trying to create a village life within an enormous metropolis, to localise and make things smaller within the vastness. It suits him and he has backed it all the way.

The fact that we had that initial funding was incredibly important, because without the finding we would not have had Sustain. I think it’s fair to say that the presence of Sarah and Ben and Seb and Paola going around, seeing people, geeing them on, holding the whole thing together was probably as important as people getting hold of £500. The fact that you had them coming in and telling people how to forge relationships with local building firms so they could get the old scaffolding planks, all that stuff was invaluable. So the money, at the end of the day, was really important.

 You put that up against what Pam does up at Incredible Edible – maybe in a place that’s small enough a group of committed volunteers can make that happen and once you get to critical mass the whole system just sustains itself. But I think that in a city like London, when you’re coming up with something relatively new, you really need feet on the ground. A voice on the telephone. What we had, I think it was crucial, and I don’t think it would have worked otherwise. So the mayor’s involvement as such was really important because we were able to stump up the cash.

What would you see now as being the next step up in terms of urban agriculture in London? Does in require land reform?

One is what I alluded to – we will have lots of small businesses that are already happening. That’s great and we’ve got lots of projects afoot to encourage that and to increase the take-up of stuff.

The other big side of that is we’re now going to look at the outer boroughs where you’ve got much more land, and really start to see what we can do with more land in the sense of can we really start really serious urban peri-farming, which I absolutely think we can do – to get people on to 20 acres, 30 acres, that sort of size or more.

Walthamstow and Enfield are themselves very serious about this, especially Walthamstow with the Lea Valley within it, so they’ve already got a really long – hundreds and hundreds of years – tradition of supplying the city. That over the years has changed, diluted, and is now today specialising in cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. They are grown in vast glasshouses or plastic houses with very small numbers in employment, but they’re knocking out 80 million cucumbers a year. It’s just extraordinary, about 90% of British cucumbers are all grown in the Lea Valley now.

There’s quite a sense of let’s keep agriculture going in whatever way we can. We’re working with them to look at small farm creation. Obviously more sustainable farming, but also the whole issue of food security coming in here.

Part of Capital Growth’s success has been its messaging and the sense it seems to be that it’s something for everybody. How have you messaged it beyond the usual suspects and what are the wider learnings for the wider movement around this stuff?

The messages were really straightforward actually. We were responding to a growing interest in where food comes from and an increasing worry about processed food and what you buy. We did quite frequently do messages to do with what money you can save if you start growing your own. You’re not going to replace your entire shopping basket but through the summer you won’t have to buy another lettuce and you probably won’t have to buy another vegetable.

So we’ve come at it from every point of view. Plus the fact that this is community engagement and without a doubt the ones that were strongest seemed to be the ones that were really rooted in their communities and really involved old people, young people, middle aged people and kids, a bit of everything in the mix. There was a sense that the garden was a place to go as well as a project. The garden could answer a lot of needs.

Rosie Boycott

Actually, what’s amazing about vegetable growing is it does answer a lot of needs. An enormous amount of benefits do flow from a community garden. If we were talking to people in high-rise estate owners from the housing associations you might stress the community engagement, the ability the garden has to transform an unloved bit of land, to cut down the crime, increase security, that sort of thing. Talking to the waterways, it would be more what’s the point of having a derelict space, don’t you actually want these spaces looked after? We got lots of them neatly tidied up after being abandoned, that were going to cost whoever money to put back together again, and here was a free army of volunteers along to do something.

There’s usually a particular good reason why a place would want to do it. The places we failed were in the Royal parks. I’ve had conversations with people in the Royal parks over the past four years over having established gardens that could be used by local schools. Oddly you always seem to get much further when you’re using a bit of land that isn’t already in use.  I guess that’s blindingly obvious on one level but it always pissed me off that we never properly got anything in there!

One of your early career high points was setting up and editing Spare Rib for quite a long time. Have you noticed that urban agriculture has a well-balanced gender profile and what role can urban agriculture play in the empowerment of women, do you think?

Good question, nobody’s ever asked me that before!  I think that the gender balance is actually not too bad. In terms of more traditional farming, it’s still quite a male preserve, but in terms of what we’ve been doing I’d say that there were just as many women, if not more. I don’t really know the answer.

I think that anything like that is always very empowering to women because it’s physical. It’s doing, growing, it’s nurturing, and so it fits in pretty naturally.

The last question I had was that this month we’ve been looking at scaling up Transition; from your experience running Capital Growth, what advice might you have?

We did something that I suppose was uniquely around London and this city. We said this is about the capital, this is Capital Growth. That said, it has been adopted and through The Big Dig is now in other cities, in the same way that we have had a food policy in London now for quite a long time and now we have an organisation called Sustainable Food Cities and we have a lot of members and we’re working with a lot of cities now to get them to write food policies.

 So it’s about trying to explain the benefits that you can get. For instance, in the London Plan now there are things like no new building can happen without there being food growth spaces from the word go, which is kind of small but also huge in a way. It’s a big shift that they would look at that now.

What’s lovely about Transition is it’s people doing whatever seems right for their place. But at the same time, if you want people to take it up on a quasi-government level, you’ve got to be able to see why the benefits are there very, very fast.

We can always point to things like less litter, less police - all of which you can too, it’s exactly the same thing – but those tick boxes are really good.

So building an evidence base...

Definitely. All the time.

What would be your sense of how far this could go? Where could we get to? What’s your vision of London in 20 years’ time if this happened to the extent you would like it to?

We would have food growing on a tremendous amount of rooftops. I think we’re about to get the go-ahead to put the first huge growing space on top of a supermarket, which will be a Morrison’s in Camden Town. We’re trying to talk Tescos into it.

Captions on a postcard please...You would have a really mixed food economy. At the moment we have a mono food economy. I would hope that in 20 years’ time we have a really mixed one. We’ve got people starting to grow mushrooms under railway arches, it’s popping up all over now. What’s really nice is that 6 years into this job, we can get money for them all, well not all, but an awful lot. We can find pots and funds, and we have a pretty good grant system for food businesses.

We’ve done street food, we’ve done sustainable packaging, we’ve done all sorts of small things that have low start up prices, and a lot of people are now coming to us and saying well fund you to do it. We’ve got our first social supermarket open just before Christmas in Barnsley. Hopefully we’ll have the first one open in London within the next two months. There’s a real sense, if we can keep doing more and knitting them together so that one thing leads to another, that we’ll have a much healthier food economy.

Nothing will ever be perfect but a lot healthier and a lot more resilient, and there will be a great deal more grown around the city with really good access routes in. We’ve sort of got all that stuff primed and ready to go, we just have to change supply routes. All that we do is beginning to tie together and that’s fantastically great really. 

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