Peri-urban agriculture: Feeding us where the urban and rural meet

  • 17.03.2022
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Local Food
  • Policy
  • Social and Cultural
  • UK Farming Policy
  • Vicki Hird

There are exciting opportunities for using land on the edge of cities – the peri-urban (areas adjacent to urban settlements) fringe – to provide more agroecologically produced food and to connect urban and rural economies through food growing.

Not that long ago, market gardens around most towns and cities used to ensure a flow of fresh produce to large conurbations. It makes huge sense now to recreate and improve on this earlier model, with food resilience ever more critical in the face of multiple threats, from the increasing cost of food and energy to growing global instability. 

Benefits to communities

Not only could more peri-urban farming solve some of the issues of urban access to diverse fresh produce, but it could also provide new jobs, training, and goods and services. In a new report, ‘Fringe Farming’SustainThe Landworkers’ AllianceShared Assets and city partners have condensed a year’s work with growers and communities in cities into some key policy recommendations for national government and local authorities. 

With the changes suggested, we could be driving increased production of, and demand for, sustainably and regionally produced, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods as part of a green economic recovery in the urban fringe. Such an approach would create so many additional social, economic and ecological benefits in peri-urban areas including:

  • the generation of goods and services that support community wealth-building;
  • provision of jobs and training in a regional economy such as provided by Organic Lea in London;
  • access to green space and outdoor learning at the edge of built-up cities;
  • support for community development through community-owned resources, events and volunteering;
  • sequestration of carbon, above and below ground, through farming approaches that work with natural cycles in effect creating ‘carbon-sinks’ surrounding urban space and even natural capital assets such as flood risk adaptation; 
  • increased biodiversity through companion planting and integration into agroforestry.

The new report shows how the edges of towns and cities, with close access to markets and histories of market gardens, could generate new green jobs, goods and services with money going back into communities. These kinds of community wealth building initiatives could be key to driving a resilient new food economy.

Evidence based

Examples of existing peri-urban farms show how they produce multiple benefits such as access to green space, outdoor education programmes, as well as public goods like increasing biodiversity and sequestering carbon into soils. Briefings produced during the project in 2021, show what can and is being achieved in BristolSheffieldGlasgow and London. This new report highlights how these activities can support existing government targets on climate change, enterprise and education, if policies were supportive.

As Fran Halsall and Gareth Roberts from Sheffield Food Partnership, ShefFood, note, ‘As our nation’s food security is tested and cities declare climate and ecological emergencies, there has never been a more pressing need to seriously engage with urban and peri-urban agriculture. “Fringe Farming” is a timely intervention that will help remove the barriers to land access, enabling citizens to grow food sustainably, live well and build resilient communities. This is an opportunity to collectively advocate for policies supportive of city growers and farmers.’

‘Fringe Farming’, the collaborative UK-wide partnership, brought together hundreds of farmers and growers in 2021 to discuss what was needed to enable the sector to meet increasing demand and growing waiting lists for regional food products. Farmer forums repeatedly highlighted the issue of gaining secure access to land, raising initial project costs and accessing skills and training as significant barriers to setting up new initiatives. 

“As our nation’s food security is tested and cities declare climate and ecological emergencies, there has never been a more pressing need to seriously engage with urban and peri-urban agriculture.”

Fran Halsall and Gareth RobertsShefFood

How do we get there?

So, what do we need to ensure a flourishing agroecological fringe farming sector? The report lays out policy ideas – for national and local governments and agencies – to challenge the very real barriers such as removing limitations to the size of farm that can apply for government farming subsidies, identifying land for growing and investing in economic activity by providing mixed loans and grants for new-entrants in post-Brexit farm policies. Key recommendations are:

  • The 5-hectare eligibility criteria for farm support needs to be removed to enable access for peri-urban agroecological growers who produce numerous public goods. There should be no size or other limit to peri-urban farm eligibility in any of the four nations’ schemes.
  • There should be a provision of start-up grants for new entrants, in assistance with capital costs and/or revenue support. This could be through blended finance (public and private loans and grants) as peri-urban agroecological farms are well placed to generate multiple streams of income once up and running. In England, this could be included in the soon to be launched New Entrants Scheme and via new public farm investment and technology funds.
  • Government planning policy should prioritise safeguarding land for peri-urban agroecological farming on Grade 1 and 2 soils, rather than it being used for other development, and ensure planning policy does not inhibit peri-urban enterprise growth.

Additionally, all local authorities should have a food strategy and related policies that incorporate agroecological farming, recognising the benefits this will bring. It is also important to increase the amount of land (and other physical spaces) available for agroecological farming, making this available for new initiatives and providing infrastructure, routes to market and training. Peri-urban agroecology should be integrated into an economic strategy that builds community wealth and creates a greener, fairer, resilient economy.

Land is key to a viable food future, as Kim Graham, Research Coordinator at Shared Assets, highlights. Fringe farming can and should be a solution: ‘Time and again we’ve heard from new entrants that getting decent access to land around cities is holding back new farming enterprises. With the demand for regional food products and educational opportunities increasing, national government can invest in long-term economic and ecological benefits by supporting local councils to offer land for agroecological market gardens. Council-owned farms particularly hold a lot of potential for developing training opportunities and patchworks of new entrant plots.’

new report from Lancaster University has found that the UK could grow nearly 40% of its current demand for fruit and vegetables if we made better use of our urban green spaces. Desk based research in London estimated that converting just 1.4% of land growing cereals and grassland to vegetables around the city, could produce an additional 1.3 million kilos of food for communities. Considering the increase in both demand for regionally produced foods, and demand for land by a new generation of growers, there is an opportunity for government, at different levels, to meet these demands. For example, they could mobilise land, infrastructure and investment to support new green economies that channel funds to local communities.

So, this is just the start of the peri-urban revolution. During 2022 the ‘Fringe Farming’ project will work with local authorities and farmers to implement regional action plans in five UK cities (Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, London, Sheffield) and host national events to bring together policymakers, researchers and practitioners to develop collaborative solutions on important issues.

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