Permaculture is much more than the design, cultivation and harvesting of edible crops – although that is an important part of it. It also proposes new ways for people to consider the communities they live in and the way society, at a local as well as a broader level, functions. One of the ways these two aspects combine is in community gardening initiatives. There are several forms such initiative can take.
Some people have the desire to cultivate food but lack the land on which to do it. Other people have land but do not have the time or inclination to cultivate it (but would not mind tasting some of the rewards from doing so). Land sharing is about putting these two groups of people in contact to meet both their needs. Via a communal database, those with spare land can be paired with those who lack it. Typically, in exchange for allowing them to cultivate the land, the owner will receive a percentage of the yield from the plot. Not only does this mean that land which may otherwise have gone unused becomes productive – with all the attendant benefits it brings not only to the people involved but also to the biodiversity of the urban area, the soil and the air quality – it also institutes a form of exchange separate from national currency, promoting more community-mindedness.
Urban farms occur when a community or group of people organize to lease a plot of land from the local authorities along with the requisite planning permission to turn it into a food-growing farm. Ideally the land will be reasonably close to the city center and to public transport links so that it is accessible to anyone who wishes to get involved, whether they have a car or not (and such a location also encourages less car use, either through taking public transport, cycling or walking). Besides fruit and vegetable cultivation, a city farm may also include community spaces, such as classrooms to teach children about food production, recycling and exchange programs, and seed banks to preserve native species. Depending on the ordnances, city farms can even include livestock and aquaculture. When negotiating a lease for an urban farm it is recommended that the lease be for not less than five years in the first instance, as this gives the garden – and the community that will prosper around it – time to establish itself and mature.
This refers to planting crops in locations that are currently available amid the roads and buildings of the urban landscape. Rather than derelict land, it includes things like verges along the side of roads and railway tracks, window boxes and herb beds on municipal properties, and cultivation on the roofs of, for instance, car parks and apartment buildings. These are areas that were not designed for food cultivation but which can, with a little ingenuity and effort, be transformed to provide local people with crops.
Urban areas are also likely to have edible crops already growing within them. They may less obvious than other forms of community gardening that have defined areas, but nature usually finds a way of providing even in the most seemingly innocuous locations. It could be that there are native fruit trees growing on pieces of common land, or that edible weeds grow along certain arts of riverbanks or canals. It could be as simple as harvesting nettles – which will grow almost anywhere – for nettle soup or nettle wine. Urban foraging offers several benefits. It not only provides free food, but also allows you to experience your town or city in a new way, looking at it with forager’s eyes rather than, say, the consciousness of an employee. It offers opportunities for exploration, often of areas that previously may have not had any immediate attraction. It also helps to bring people together as people swap tips for good foraging locations, and tap into one another’s experience. Furthermore, urban foraging, such as nettle harvesting mentioned above, can help improve the appearance and feel of an area, making it nicer for the inhabitants.
Often, local government agencies own many areas of land that has become derelict or at least not properly maintained. Perhaps it has not been deemed to have economic or aesthetic worth and has been left to be over run with weeds and feral animals. It may be, as in the case of, say, Detroit after the collapse of the economy there, that the local authorities simply lack the resources to maintain all the areas of land under their control. Communities can group together and propose that they tale over the management of the site in exchange for being permitted to cultivate it. It not only means that previously derelict land gets turned into a productive location, it is also good advertizing for the government, as being seen to be leaving land to run wild when there is the community will to make it productive is bad politics. These areas in turn can become focal points of a community, and the aesthetic blight of the derelict land is removed, making the neighborhood a more pleasant place to live.
If there are not suitable pieces of land that can be cultivated in an urban area, or the inhabitants lack the time or skills to grow their own food, they may decide to become part of a co-operative farm. A number of families in the city or town group together and approach a farmer to grow food to their requirements. Each year or each growing season the two groups meet to decide on which crops would be preferable over the next season, and the farmer – who has the skills to ensure a good harvest – works with those goals in mind. The farmer benefits by having a guaranteed market for his products, and a local one at that meaning that transportation and storage costs are reduces, while the families are able to source the food they want and know exactly how it is produced. Often, arrangements are made so that the families will send some time each year on the farm, helping with the production of food. A subsidiary idea around cooperative farms is where a group of urban inhabitants pool money to buy a farm in the surrounding countryside and employ a farmer to run it, although the cost in the first instance can be prohibitive.