Farming The City

Growing food in low income communities and the role of artists, artikel geschreven door:
Alex Wilde & Annechien Meier

Najaar 2013

Growing food in low income communities and the role of artists

Artists Alex Wilde (Scotland) and Annechien Meier (Netherlands) have been working together on a collaborative project A Growing Exchange since February 2011. They have been questioning and investigating an artist’s role in projects related to food, community growing and urban agriculture in The Hague and Glasgow. They have interviewed many groups and individuals to find out more about what is happening in the field of urban agriculture and how an artist does or could function in urban agriculture projects. How much responsibility should artists have? Are they the right people to be asked to solve social and economic issues?

There is a ground swell of interest in urban agriculture in many different disciplines and artists are no exception. As artists we have been engaging with the subject for the last ten years, working with a wide variety of different spaces and communities. In our experience this interest, though increasingly popular is not yet mainstream and there are many communities who are not part of the debate and their choices and experiences in relation to food are still very limited.

In Glasgow, over the last ten years a number of organisations related to urban agriculture have emerged, many in low income neighbourhoods. There are a number of factors that may relate to this; Glasgow's health record is very poor with a high rate of obesity and early mortality (the socio-economic factors leading to this being described as the 'Glasgow Effect'), additionally there are large tracts of undeveloped land in the heart of many low income communities in outlaying areas of the city such as Toryglen, Milton and Drumchapel, access to food in many communities is often limited to a large supermarket, which is not always in walking distance for most people. People are also looking for ways to re-skill and re-connect after generations of unemployment and lack of opportunity. It is perhaps this feeling of a crisis that has spurred communities into action and led to the development of these projects by charitable and voluntary organisations. The local government though supportive in principle is not yet putting words into action and is very much reliant on the enthusiasm of individuals rather than a strategic approach.

“Glasgow has a strong history of allotments and growing projects but they tend to be driven by keen individuals. There has never been a strong framework and it tends to be a piecemeal and patchwork approach, there is no support mechanism there” (Alistair Corbett, Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network)

Access to healthy food appears to be less of an urgent problem in the Netherlands. Urban agriculture community art projects often consist of a small prosperous middle class group of citizens in a neighborhood or shared street situation where people have lived for some time. Often these people are already have an awareness about good nutrition and see urban agriculture as a new kind of private leisure. Although the economy is in a deteriorating condition and there are levels of dissatisfaction, the situation is not urgent enough to get common agreement or collective action on these issues. In low income areas of The Hague there may be dissatisfaction but there do not seem to be the same opportunities for the citizens to get organized. In the restructuring of neighborhood areas large groups have already moved out when new groups move in and cohesion is missing. Besides this urban agriculture and healthy food are not the highest in the list of priorities, other issues get priority in these neighborhoods. However there is a rapidly growing network of pioneering green initiatives operating in The Hague such as Edible Park, Foodscape Schilderswijk, Pander Square Project, Local Urban Nature Center and a large number of green (school) squares.

Low income communities may be fractured by shifting populations, racial tensions, lack of investment, poor planning and low expectations and for many years artists have been exploring innovative solutions and seeking to bring awareness to these issues. Urban agriculture has been taken up by artists as a way to engage with communities, working with them to visualise alternative ways of improving their neighbourhood, testing out different models and means of growing produce and creating connections between people and places. 

“What you learn in the garden you can take to your community. When people start gardening they start thinking about things they didn't think about before” (Bob Hamilton, Glasgow)

The food produced is usually just one aspect of the project or for some people not a key outcome at all. “The food is not the product the project is the product” (Debra Solomon, Urbaniahoeve, The Hague)

We have found that in both Glasgow and The Hague most people have very positive experiences of working with artists and the projects working in low income communities are often very creative in their outlook, have a strong creative element to their programme and are often led by or involve artists or other creative practitioners on a long term basis. Love Milton, Urban Roots, The Hidden Gardens, Foodscape Schilderswijk and the Pander Square Project are examples of this. In Glasgow a new organisation, Sow and Grow Everywhere, set up to support and develop urban agriculture projects was started initially by an arts organisation NVA, who also set up the Hidden Gardens.

“Food topics generally come of a health or environmental perspective. Artists can bridge many kinds of ideas, not coming out of one agenda with specific targets” (Clementine Sandison, Hidden Gardens, Glasgow)

Many artists felt a strong commitment to the communities they worked with. We asked people about when an artist’s role is done and what would be a new step in the development of their projects. Many people who we have spoken to felt that artists and art projects play a very important role in visualising what is possible and can 'get away with' things that other initiatives wouldn't be able to. 

“Artists make smalls window into the future and take certain themes and make them sensible or put them to the test” (Paul de Graaf, Edible Rotterdam).

“Art has a special role and skills in society to stand outside borders and surprise people. People like to be associated with art. A councilor can drink a locally brewed beer of an artist and won’t allow a farmer to set up a brewery” (Jan-Willem van der Schans, LEI Den Haag) 

Once these projects have tested the boundaries, broadened horizons, engaged communities etc what should happen next? How can these projects be scaled up, become mainstream or sustainable in the long-term? Artists often play a role in bridging across different groups of people and interests, which is maybe why artists and arts organisations have been playing a strong part in the creation and development of urban agriculture. However they also do not have much power to make more strategic changes and it needs the backing of politicians, policy makers, economists and farmers to build these ideas into the infrastructure of a city. 

There is a feeling amongst some people that artists are brought it to make quick fixes and gloss over the difficulties. One such example is the increasing amount of space that is awaiting development as building projects slow down and developers hold onto land till it increases in value, particularly in low income areas. These spaces can become unsightly dumping grounds and cynically the government interest in urban agriculture projects in these spaces can be seen as a quick fix solution to this rather than any longer term strategy. In Glasgow there is funding available for temporary changes to 'stalled spaces'. The Dutch government has recently been offering lots of money to ‘Krachtwijken’ (so called Power neighborhoods) and creative projects to solve social problems that are the result of environmental planning. While these initiatives may give artists and communities opportunities to do make a positive impact to these spaces at least in the short term it doesn't fix the problem and can lead to unrealistic expectations from all sides as to what an artist can achieve. 

“Developers are always looking for the value of their land to increase and that puts the artist in a problematic situation” (Justin Carter, Artist, Glasgow)

Projects in low income communities often take a long time to develop and build trust with the community and urban agriculture is also not an instant way of engaging with people, literally taking time to grow. Urban agriculture projects initiated by or in collaboration with artists are more meaningful and on a constructive footing if a fixed group of people is found that takes on the project organisation in the long-term along with partner projects and funding. Long-term use and even purchase of the land needs also to be negotiated.

A structure is needed so that these projects can work together to be a serious partner with the government in future urban planning and to substantially improve urban communities access to affordable, healthy food.

We have asked ourselves what the future is for artists working in urban agriculture. We feel that artists are likely to be a feature of many urban agriculture projects in low income communities in the near future as there are still so many challenges and opportunities to connect people through food. Artists should also continue be part of a more strategic discussion on feeding our cities in partnership with environmental organisations, policy developers, planners and politicians. Artists will also seek to maintain a level of independence and continue to visualise alternative and innovative ways of looking at urban agriculture into the future.

Our research is ongoing and exploratory, raising as many questions as it does answers, and, much like urban agricultural practices, does not strive for one conclusion or solution but continually tests ideas, challenging our perceptions about the world we live in.

Alex Wilde and Annechien Meier

For more about A Growing Exchange and the people we have spoken to visit:

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