Spaces which accommodate urban food growing projects take on many different forms. They include the allotments of middle England, the rooftop gardens in Russia, and the Cuban vegetable plots. They may be located on large tracts of open space where, for example, one can find allotments and community orchards, they may be one component of a community garden, or they may include small patches of space in gardens or even window boxes.
The opportunity for food growing in urban areas represents a huge untapped resource. It has been shown that the amount of space available in urban backyards in Vancouver, for example, is equivalent to the amount of active farmland in the province. Whilst it is of course highly unlikely that all such spaces would be used for food growing, there remains a huge potential for food growing at the various scales and using different models of ownership and management.
Despite the diversity of urban food growing projects, there are some common threads which can be identified, in terms of the planning, design and appearance, and impact of food growing on the character of urban landscapes:
• an intensity of activity – food growing is generally a labour intensive activity; urban agriculture creates a peopled and well-loved landscape.
• a changing character – the inter-weaving patterns of cultivation and cropping, linked to the seasons, create landscapes which always change and evolve.
• introversion – the focus is on the business of growing; not outward focused or integrated within the landscape context.
• an unplanned, make-do culture – food plots tend towards the untidy with the use of recycled elements to create temporary or semi-permanent structures.
• greenness – the verdant and vibrant appearance of a healthy plot contrasts strongly with many other forms of municipal landscape.
• a fine grain – the patchwork of small-scale growing and the highly personal character of most urban food projects creates a fine grain or urban texture.
Another common theme relates to location: food growing areas in the public realm are often in leftover spaces, or on land unmanageable by other means. Environmental improvement schemes in public sector housing estates, for example, often need to identify new uses for large open areas, which are performing no useful function. One solution to these types of under-used spaces is to create community gardens, such as those developed through the urban agriculture initiatives in the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell. These types of project have shown the weaknesses in an approach to urban planning which is based on a designer focused, rather than the people focused, model of urban life. The post-war ideal of space flowing around high-rise buildings has been discredited for several decades, but is only slowly being replaced by an approach to urban planning which offers ownership and control to local people to manage their environments as they choose.
At the other end of the scale, food growing can fit into any unused corner in the ground, containers, or on buildings. Back gardens already produce a significant proportion of seasonal fruit and vegetables for families in the UK. Food crops in back gardens in urban areas also create a significant contribution to the biodiversity of towns and cities.
Approaches to the layout and management of food growing in urban layers also shows great variation, from tidy rows and raised beds, permaculture plots and orchards, and ornamental plots and portages. The inventiveness and opportunity for personalisation in the design and management of food growing areas is one of the most endearing characteristics. No two allotments are quite the same, and no two gardeners can ever agree on the best way forward. Creating urban landscapes which can accommodate this very personal and human interaction, is almost impossible with traditional approaches to urban master-planning. Community gardens, vegetable plots, and other models of urban agriculture, enable this people-centred approach to the management of urban spaces in a remarkable way.