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Allotments and Food Strategies

How can food-growing be integrated into neighbourhoods and masterplans?


Food growing is increasingly popular but now it has to compete more than ever with the growing demand for housing developments.

The supply of allotment space has been on a steady decline for decades, as more public land is turned over to the provision of housing. It is imperative that we as designers, can integrate food growing opportunities within new residential schemes. This could work by designing growing gardens with resilience and longevity in mind. We believe outdoor growing space can also contribute to a sustainable food ecosystem.

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It is commonly accepted that growing food is innately good for our mental and physical health, as well as nurturing community values. Yet many do not have access to growing food, particularly those living in densely populated cities. We should look to alleviate the demand by integrating sustainable food systems wherever we can. How can we do this? By implementing a Food Strategy at a neighbourhood and masterplan scale and foregrounding the role of local food growing within food systems.

Landscape architects are trained to fulfil client briefs and policy requirements, while having to face a myriad of apparent and inextricably linked crises (i.e. biodiversity, climate and energy) at once. Furthermore, the ripple effect from Brexit and COVID exposed the fragility of our food systems, as captured in the Government’s Food Security Report in 2021. Since then, we have experienced a cost of living crisis affecting basic needs of food, heating and housing. Despite these revelations, food growing is severely overlooked within UK planning policy. Is it time to challenge the status quo and reframe the narrative of food?

221122 Food For Thought Exhibition Studio Egret West 32

At Studio Egret West (SEW), we held an exhibition entitled ‘Food for Thought’, which explored how cities can help to increase food production. This provided a platform to ask ourselves ‘How do cities feed a growing population sustainably’, ‘..ensure good quality nutrition for everyone’, and ‘..attain a higher level of food security’. Following the exhibition, these questions were applied to live projects and helped to inform a proposal for food. But first we will explore some of the reasons as to why food growing is less prevalent in our cities.

What are the barriers to people growing their own food? A Greenpeace study reported in The Guardian states ‘there are now at least 157,820 applications sitting on English local authorities’ allotment waiting lists, up 81% from 12 years ago’ (D. Gayle, 2023). The issue of supply and demand is fuelled by an evolving landscape of scarce public land, limited public resources and increasing privatisation. Allotments have traditionally been managed by local authorities and public bodies like National Rail on lands surplus to their central requirements. Public bodies are therefore under pressure to maximise the benefit of their land holding for the provision of housing. Perhaps it is time for the private sector and/or Private-Public Partnerships (PPP) to alleviate demand and provide more food growing opportunities. Could we explore a new residential model centred around access to growing healthy and nutritious food?

High Streets FINAL Jarrell Goh

Another barrier to consider is weak policy within the UK planning system. The Government’s Food Strategy (June 2022) looks to ‘support a resilient, healthier, and more sustainable food system that is affordable to all’, though it makes no mention of food growing, allotments or community gardens as a part of these efforts. At a more granular level, for example, the London Plan does not set prescriptive area targets within the G8 Food Growing policy . This is in stark contrast to Urban Greening Factor and Play Space requirements for residential schemes that could undermine efforts to prioritise growing space.

Development of existing allotment land also falls outside the planning system and its protection, and although there are other legal protections, they do not cover all allotment types. A recent example of this is the Judicial Review decision in favour of developing the Farm Terrace Allotment in Watford, signalling a major setback for the protection of local authority-owned allotments across the country. How could food growing be enabled within the planning framework? A starting point could be to establish a dialogue with policy makers by aligning prescriptive food growing targets with measurable environmental, social and governance (ESG) benefits. Through these metrics, we can determine the value of allotment land, and therefore strengthen the case for their protection, as well as advocating for food growing opportunities within new developments.

We propose that a Government Food Strategy is implemented at an urban planning and masterplan scale, whereby buildings and landscapes look to create a multitude of food growing opportunities. One way to do this is by categorising ‘food growing models’ within the following three themes;

1. Food at home

2. Food for the community

3. Food Future.

Food at home

A personal pursuit to grow food for oneself, household, family or social group. This could take the form of either growing herbs on a kitchen windowsill, pulling potatoes out from a back garden, or harvesting greens from a rented growing bed. Tending to a vegetable patch or fruit tree can connect people with nature, while sharing the fruits of their labour connects people with friends and family. The post-war Golden Lane Estate in the City of London is home to a successful grassroots allotment garden, now thirteen years old, offering 1x1m timber planters for its members to use.

Food for the community

A combination of urban agriculture, social capital and biodiversity value. When food is grown for others to consume, a degree of collectivism and organisation is required to maintain an adequate quantity and quality of food. Models such as community growing gardens (both profit and non-profit models) help to create a culture of sharing, learning and sustainable living with the ultimate gain of fresh produce. Well established allotments also benefit from biodiversity value and connecting with the wider green infrastructure. Situated in the Teviot Estate in Poplar is a small community hub called R-Urban, working towards prototyping a food and waste system with circularity and sustainability in mind. The framework is set up to respond to the needs of the local community and offer a programme of growing, cooking and composting workshops.

Food Future

An exploration of the emerging technologies in horticulture and urban agriculture. Models like hydroponic farms can achieve water, energy and space efficiency, all the while reducing waste and the use of harmful chemicals such as pesticides. They can be located on rooftops, within buildings and even underground. Urban food producers in London today (such as Square Mile, Harvest London & Growing Underground) provide a compelling vision of an emerging food network led by science, sustainability and density.

Vicarage Fields Food Hub Illustration Jarrell Goh

There are obvious trade-offs to every food growing model. This is because each typology sits within a broad spectrum of social value, organisation and productivity. There is also a question of who the producer is and who is the consumer. A degree of intent and structure is essential for a food model to produce and perform optimally. For instance, a resident who is privately renting an allotment space should have the agency and the know-how to grow seasonal food and maintain their space all year round. A community garden collective is dependent on sufficient resources to manage events, train members and recycle waste. Likewise, a hydroponic farm requires the expertise, horticultural infrastructure, and a working business model to produce food at a commercial scale and standard.

To create a sustainable food network, we believe there should be a mix of food growing models to fulfil a range of social, societal and environmental needs; from health and wellbeing through to food security. Can we start to loosen our grip from a mature commercial food chain and turn towards a new food ecosystem? By mapping out a hierarchy of food based on social value, consumption, low-tech to high-tech, scale and organisation, we can begin to reimagine how communities, neighbourhoods and indeed cities could feed themselves.

As we see the intensification of land development to meet housing, retail, office and light industry in cities, so too could we see food production thrown into the mix. We are accustomed to talk in binary terms when we think about food systems; indoor & outdoor, domestic & commercial, community & enterprise. Let’s stir the pot and put forward a Food Strategy that will embody the diversity of food growing, and a future food network that will ultimately be greater than the sum of its parts.

Martin Lee is a Senior Landscape Architect, leading on sustainability for Landscape Architecture within SEW, developing food systems and productive landscapes within public realm, residential and mixed-use schemes.


Allotments and Food Strategies