Power in Dirt: Two Urban Farms and their Strategies for Neighbourhood Cultivation

Growing up in a rural area in northern Maryland, USA, I formed my sense of self with dirt both embedded my soul and trapped underneath my fingernails. My family lives on a plot of land that my grandfather bought in the 1950s, and sits in a county with over 55,000 acres in permanent protection under conservation easement. Chickens, forest walks and wild honeysuckle made up the main components of my childhood, and I was not exposed to the rapid movement of downtown living or even the concept of locking the front door.

Even though I now value cities’ efficient density, and marvel at the fact that accessible public transit can decrease dependence on automobiles and walkable neighborhoods can build community identity, there is a part of me that feels suffocated in London’s polluted air. I cannot walk barefoot on lush grass, I cannot watch corn sprout up in the summer months, I cannot pick fresh raspberries from my garden, I cannot keep a chicken to provide fresh eggs in my flat. In this environment, I initially felt disconnected from natural earth processes in a metropolis that has been urbanized for over a millennium.

That is, until, I discovered that London does contain the same agricultural landscapes as my farmland home, albeit in smaller, more hidden spaces that create reminders of agricultural wonder. I visited the Kentish Town City Farm on an internship assignment for The Glass-House and found an idyllic haven between two railroads, placing cows, goats, geese, chickens, pigs, horses, and one beloved tortoise in a dilapidated, formerly industrial space in North London. The farm started 40 years ago, much before the modern era of trendy vertical gardening and rooftop green space, and has always focused on serving local residents.

With over 7,000 school group visits, the farm teaches around 20,000 London students annually about animals and plants. According to the farm’s educational director, most of these children have never been exposed to this subject matter in their urban lives, thus gaining an invaluable perspective provided in the farm’s colorful stalls and greenhouses. The farm also serves the community by offering services such as pottery classes, horse riding for disabled folks and children’s play sessions.

Except for the roaring train that races by the farm’s border every half hour, the farm does not match the chaotic streets in the surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, the plentiful visitors receive permaculture advice and the opportunity to stroke a horse. During my visit, I was amazed by the farm’s warm relationship with the local police – the personalized nature of their interaction seemed reminiscent of a small town, not a large borough inside the London city limits.

This past term at university, I worked for the likeminded Angier Avenue Neighbourhood Farm in Durham, North Carolina, and saw the same community-building effects stem from shared farming space. Although Angier Avenue Farm does not have enough land to keep animals, and instead focuses on increasing fresh food access and sustainable gardening practices in the economically depressed neighbourhood, it also strives to provide an outlet for residents to come together. After using online fundraising and grants to buy a vacant lot filled with old bottles and trash, the founders decided to construct a space to bring beauty and productivity to their street corner.

Locals can become members of the co-operative if they invest 30 hours of manual labor to plant, water, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables, receiving a weekly food share in return. Each Saturday, residents come to the farm to listen to music, barbeque and work on the garden, making an effort to teach and learn from each other in the best methods for reaping a good harvest.

While I still long to return to my mother’s garden and sample her asparagus, I know that city living does not rule out agriculture. Lucia, Marketing and Events Manager at The Glass-House, spends a great deal of time each year working on her allotment, growing vegetables such as courgettes and producing her own blackcurrant jam. The Kentish Town City Farm and the Angier Avenue Neighborhood Farm are merely two examples of the growing urban farm movement, starting a revolution in food sovereignty, regenerating empty space and increasing community unity.

Martha Isaacs is a student of Geography of Human Activity and City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is interested in the built environment’s effect on mental and physical health, and is currently undertaking a two-month internship with The Glass-House to learn more about placemaking in the UK.

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