Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Community Agriculture in Metropolitan Sandwell: A realistic vision?

Laura Davis, Elm Farm Research Centre, UK;
Veronica Barry, Project Development Worker, Sandwell Urban Growing Spaces, UK;
Dr. John Middleton, Director of Public Health, Sandwell Health Authority, UK;
David Rex, Food Policy Advisor, Sandwell Health Authority, UK.

Correspondence address:
Laura Davis, 43 Tree Lane, Iffley, Oxford, OX4 4EY, UK.
Tel: + 44 (0)1865 747402
E mail:

1. Introduction

"In agriculture, as in everything else, associated labour is the only reasonable solution. In such a case they would probably first of all associate for permanently improving the land which is in need of immediate improvement, and would consider it necessary to improve more of it every year, until they had brought it all into perfect condition. The labour that would be required for such an intensive culture would not be the hard labour of the serf or slave, it would be accessible to everyone, strong or weak, town bred or country born; it would have many other charms besides…From the technical point of view, there is no obstacle whatever for such an organisation being started tomorrow with full success. The obstacles against it are not in the imperfection of the agricultural art, or in the infertility of the soil, or in climate. They are entirely in our institutions, in our inheritances and survivals from the past - in the 'Ghosts' which oppress us." Peter Kropotkin, (1974 [1899])

During the last four years a project development team in the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell has undertaken a programme of research and development in the field of urban agriculture. The programme revealed valuable insights into the processes, benefits and problems of attempting to implement a vision of co-ordinated urban food production as a way of tackling the multiple health, social, economic and environmental problems of urban decline. The aim of this paper is to present the results, experiences and observations accumulated during this time. These experiences, and the specific obstacles that the project team has encountered, as suggested by Kropotkin (1974 [1899]), can all be described as rooted in the institutions and inheritances from Sandwell's past.

Sandwell is the 4th most deprived area in England outside of London. The borough has been subjected to at least 200 years of 'unsustainable development', and is continuing to experience major structural change due to the decline of traditional manufacturing industries. The area has recently been declared a Health Action Zone (HAZ), and receives substantial European and UK government funding for regeneration and health initiatives.

The original vision for the urban agriculture programme focused on the potential for linking the regeneration of health with that of the environment. Inspired by examples from around the world, Sandwell's approach was unique in that it is the first co-ordinated, borough-wide, multi-agency urban agriculture initiative in the UK. The barriers to the success of a project that sought to work through community development approaches, in the face of major structural problems, were acknowledged from the outset. However the potential benefits of reclaiming derelict parcels of land for the production of food and other crops in small units, with communities, local authorities and voluntary sector agencies working together, were also recognised.

This paper identifies and discusses four key, critical themes that emerged as a result of the programme and presented specific technical, organisational and human-scale challenges, raising searching questions about solutions and how to create the conditions for a successful urban agriculture initiative.

2. Why Sandwell?

The Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell was formed in 1974 from the amalgamation of the county boroughs of West Bromwich and Warley, in the West Midlands of England. Birmingham forms its eastern border. It has a population of about 300,000, and has the seventh largest housing authority outside London. Sandwell's history dates back to the industrial revolution. In the past, and, to a lesser extent, in the present, it has depended on heavy industry - foundries, metal working, chemicals, limestone and steel. Its landscape is post-industrial, with the remains of its heavy industry and much industrial dereliction. Its local wards are joined (or fragmented) by arterial roads.

Submissions by the Inner Area Programme Team (1987 - 1990) of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (SMBC) reveal a not-very-encouraging economic- health diagnosis. The reports highlight problems such as:

The public-health diagnosis, set out in the annual reports of Sandwell Health Authority, described patterns of physical, social and mental illness in the borough. The borough falls in the highest 15% of health districts in England for houses lacking a basic amenity, overcrowded housing, and unemployment. In 1988, it was estimated that over half the people in Sandwell were living in low-income households (Middleton, 1990).

Sandwell's disease indicators reflect the poor health associated with high levels of poverty and deprivation (Townsend and Davidson, 1982; Whitehead 1987). Perinatal and infant death rates are above regional and national levels. Standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) are above the national standards for all ages.

Such reports demonstrate the extent to which the public-health diagnosis reflects the economic-health diagnosis and show how the Public Health Department is attempting to describe the causes of ill-health from their roots in the methods and relations of production, in the goods produced and people's environmental and social circumstances. Sandwell and the surrounding Black Country present a legacy of over 200 years of unsustainable development, Middleton wrote (1996), and now face the consequences of industrialisation going back to the start of the industrial revolution, compounded by post-war town planning and modernisation which seemed immune to community participation. Economic forces are powerful determinants of health and disease. Sandwell is a clear example of the reality that, at a local level, inequalities in health are an economic problem, not a health service problem.

3. Initiating a community agriculture programme

The importance of food security and the implications of poor access to the constituents of a healthy diet for people living in Sandwell were recognised in annual Public Health reports dating back to 1989 (Middleton 1989), reflecting growing international concern about urban food security. The scope and urgency of the problems require analyses of food-security questions for urban areas and new policies and practices to encourage the adoption of sustainable urban food systems (Koc, et al. 1999).

The community agriculture programme for Sandwell was initiated in 1996 by the Sandwell Regeneration Partnership (SRP) through a feasibility study (Booth et al. 1996). The aim of the study was to establish whether urban agriculture would be practically, legislatively, and economically feasible in the borough and benefit local people. Drawing on examples of initiatives such as city farms, community allotments, local-exchange and –trading systems, food co-operatives and direct food link schemes, and urban agriculture in the Third World, the study focused on models of community development and economic diversification rooted in a bottom up approach.

Following the study, resources were committed to realising an urban agriculture project through Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and Health Authority funding programmes. The project was set in the context of government programmes to reduce health and social inequalities by encouraging communities to develop sustainable initiatives to address local problems. In early 1998, two project development workers were employed on a job-share basis, and Sandwell Urban Growing Spaces (SUGS) was set up as a community development project with charitable status.

The mission of Sandwell Urban Growing Spaces is:

To improve the quality of life for the people of Sandwell through creating and sustaining a network of urban agriculture and community gardening projects. The projects created may produce fruit, vegetables and flowers for local distribution, and pleasant green spaces for local communities, with particular emphasis on the needs of disadvantaged groups.

The principal aims of Sandwell Urban Growing Spaces are:

The project workers set out to identify and support a network of urban agriculture and gardening projects across the borough, acting either as the lead agency or by working in a supporting role with other lead organisations. Projects were identified, from very small, community and locality based gardening projects, to larger scale food producing and gardening projects involving more formalised partnerships. These two broad types and scales of activity in urban regeneration have been described as Networks and Partnerships (McCabe et al.1996).

The experiences that have resulted from over two and a half years of work at strategic and grass roots levels have revealed multiple, interconnected layers of opportunities and challenges. These opportunities, and the response of the project to the environmental, social and economic structural challenges, have reshaped the project's approaches and expectations. Some of the challenges have acted as profound 'reality checks'. The mission and aims of the project remain the same, but the focus and expectations have changed in the light of these experiences. In particular, it has become apparent that urban agriculture projects need to be located within the context of strategic approaches in health and urban regeneration, and that to deliver real and lasting benefits to local communities, organisational and funding frameworks are in need of reform.

4. Specific opportunities and challenges

4.1. Food access and food security

Sandwell, like the rest of the UK, has experienced a huge shift in food retailing. The growth of large 'superstores' continues unchecked, leaving those without access to cars to choose between using limited public transport to get to superstores, or buying from increasingly inadequate local shops. The problem in the UK is not lack of food security per se, but an imbalance in access to different types of food, compounded by systemic poverty.

The kinds of food that cause the most ill health in Britain tend to be very good commodities from the perspective of the local retailer on a deprived estate with a small turnover. Fresh food is, however, a poor commodity in that it has a short shelf life. Thus we have large numbers of people who live a shot distance from a shop selling chocolate and biscuits, yet fruit, vegetables and fresh meat are often a mile or more away on the other side of a busy and dangerous road.

To make matters worse, the areas with the poorest food access are also the areas where access to suitable land is most difficult. Food access is now being mapped, funded through the HAZ, with a view to targeting food projects, including the SUGS project, where they are most needed. This will require a longer-term strategic approach and co-operation between health and regeneration agencies, along with local community organisations.

Small-scale projects with limited funding and scope, such as the SUGS project and the Sandwell Food Co-operative, cannot be expected to tackle food access problems that are the result of structural changes to the food retailing industry, poor transport networks, or systemic poverty. However, there are opportunities for defining the nature and scope of the problem, and initiating a debate at policy level, both locally and nationally, through local food projects.

4.2. Availability of suitable land

Sandwell's history of highly polluting heavy industries has left a legacy of degraded and contaminated land that is difficult and expensive to reclaim for food and gardening projects. At the outset, the issue of land contamination was given high priority, and SUGS project workers undertook detailed site investigations as a first step in risk assessment.

The results of a series of site investigations on several sites, including allotments (individual food growing plots), some abandoned, some still partly used, were not encouraging, and some were alarming. The site investigations were thorough, often beginning with a preliminary sampling of the topsoils, followed by detailed and expensive borehole and inspection pit examinations. Together with studying maps showing patterns of development and landfill, and the growing ability to recognise the physical signs of landfill in the built environment, it became apparent that very little land in Sandwell was free of contamination and suitable for food production.

Tests revealed unacceptably high levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead and zinc, various forms of sulphur contamination, and organic compounds such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). One of the sites was even at risk of spontaneous combustion.

The cost of land reclamation, especially the removal of contaminated soils to controlled waste dumps, is extremely high, and beyond the capacities of small, voluntary projects and local communities. The results of the tests have created something of a dilemma for Sandwell's public authorities. Land is, in some cases, unfit for the purpose for which it is being used. There is a real dilemma with regard to whether to close the sites, thereby undermining a long UK tradition of local food growing and healthy leisure activities. There is also the question of how to justify the huge sums of public money that would need to be spent on reclaiming them, or in finding alternative sites.

It is clearly unacceptable for local communities and projects to be expected to take on the responsibility for dealing with Sandwell's inheritances from the past in the form of land contamination, and local and national government needs to develop properly funded strategies to tackle the problem. At present, vast sums of regeneration monies are spent on the reclamation of land for high-value capital 'new build' projects, but there is no adequate framework for the reclamation of land for social, health and community uses such as food projects.

4.3. Institutional structures

Although multi-agency partnerships are the preferred way of working, organisational structures, differing approaches and agendas, and centrally driven, short-term and competitive funding packages have all presented significant problems during the lifetime of the SUGS project. Sandwell has seen many funding packages come and go in recent years. These include the Urban Programme, City Challenge, and the Single Regeneration Budget. Some of these are area-based, others thematic. They are often driven by the particular development dogma prevalent at the time. While there have been significant achievements with regard to physical regeneration in Sandwell, in many respects the fragmented, competitive and short-term nature of these programmes has been deeply divisive at a community level, with some communities having missed out altogether, leaving them feeling more alienated as a result.

Secure funding is a critical factor in determining whether a project is sustainable and effective. Local food projects need two types of funding: money to help them set up and funding to cover project running costs. Both are equally important (McGlone et al. 1999), but many projects find funding for running costs difficult to obtain. The experiences of SUGS, and of several other community-based projects in Sandwell, confirm this view. As a result, projects have to constantly reinvent themselves so that they qualify for funding, and become trapped in this cycle. This is not only time-consuming, but hinders the natural development of the project.

Many projects find that it is only as their funding is running out that they are becoming established and working well. The challenge to the current funding system is to find a way to reward success by continuing funding into the medium- and longer-term, rather than to penalise it by stopping or reducing funding.

4.4. Community capacities

Individual and community capacities of people in Sandwell are 'blocked' by daily experiences of deprivation, poverty and ill-health, and in many cases whole communities are experiencing overwhelming problems associated with Sandwell's structural health, social, economic and environmental decline.

Under such circumstances, the widespread notion that significant progress can be made towards realising a network of self-help community projects based on a culture of voluntarism is misplaced. The ideal of cohesive communities is severely tested in places like Sandwell. Although the SUGS project was able to identify and work with some communities, including youth and inter-generational projects, that were building more positive approaches to the development of their own areas and relationships, in other cases people were deeply divided by conflicts and relative deprivation.

Furthermore, it can take a long time to build the genuine involvement of local people as active participants and equal partners whose concerns and experience are intrinsic to the project's success. An unstable funding and organisational environment often deepens people's scepticism and distrust in the public and voluntary agencies that attempt to play a role in local projects. Community-based work seldom happens quickly, nor to order. Working constructively with communities, so that they are viewed as part of the solution and not only as the problem, takes time and trust, both of which are often lacking in Sandwell.

5. Successes and ways forward

The most significant progress to date has resulted from working with people and agencies that support specific groups of people who are vulnerable to food security problems because of age, health or disability limitations. Sandwell Health Authority and the Metropolitan Borough Council's Department of Heritage and Leisure (which administers the allotments) have been consistently supportive of the SUGS project.

The Garden of the Future project has secured both land and funding, and employed a development worker to reclaim an area of derelict land alongside a new, purpose built centre for people with physical and sensory disabilities. A new project, which is being funded through its development stages by the HAZ, will undertake the reclamation of a three-acre semi-derelict allotment site. The project aims to develop a user-led market garden, on a social enterprise model, focused on people at risk of, or recovering from mental health problems.

At the outset, the SUGS project was located mainly within an environmental and physical regeneration agenda. However, it was realised at an early stage that the project needed to be located in a health agenda and strategy, as these are broader in scope than the environmental agenda, valuing people and putting them at the heart of sustainable development. Good progress has been made integrating the project within local health initiatives with the HAZ, the Healthy Living Centres initiative. Through the debates and discussion that the project created, the potential of food projects to work with diverse communities of differing ages, abilities and culture through positive messages about health was acknowledged.

Local food projects have great potential for improving the lives of all those who participate in them (see McGlone et al. 1999). Food has an important place in people's lives; it has a cultural as well as an economic value, and the potential to add value to food as a social product through production, exchange and trade, also values the person through the building of relationships and skills. Urban agriculture and food projects have the potential to realise this through programmes that link the regeneration of people's health with that of their environment.

However, as Jolly wrote (1999), urban agriculture presents opportunities, but it also faces substantial constraints. In the industrialised nations, its success depends on the demographic characteristics of the community; the local structure of support; the availability, quality and permanence of land; leadership; and local organisation. If urban agriculture is driven by entrepreneurs, its success hinges on access to capital, risk management instruments, cost and availability of labour, and a complex array of other factors. Some of these constraints have been discussed above.

Jolly concludes that urban agriculture has a potentially important role to play as one component in a complex food security system, but that we must not oversell its potential. The notion that cities can feed themselves through urban agriculture and local food projects may be as successful or as unsuccessful as previous development fads. This is an important message for activists everywhere, and one that we fully endorse.

Public authorities need to learn to respect and trust people, without creating unrealistic demands and expectations, and learn that the systemic problems of urban food systems, and their failure to deliver a satisfactory level of food security for the urban poor and excluded, cannot be tackled by quick fixes. As Jolly observed, advocates of urban agriculture need also to be mindful and supportive of all other avenues to food security. To do less is to be short sighted and to court another failed experiment.

The original vision of 'mass production in small units', of improving people's health and social experiences through a network of co-ordinated urban agriculture projects has undergone its own transformation in the four years of the pilot. Sandwells' profound and deeply rooted inheritances from the past have acted as a reality check. Just as first world solutions are no answer to third world problems, the Sandwell experience suggests that first world problems cannot be tackled by third world solutions.

However, through this unique opportunity to test the community agriculture vision in one of the most difficult environments in Britain, it has been possible to evaluate the problems and the benefits. Although some aspects of the original vision now seem unrealistic, many tangible benefits and reasons for continuing the work, specifically in terms of the potential of making the links between health and environmental regeneration, remain high on the agenda of local people and their agencies. Urban agriculture must be seen in the context of a far wider vision of change and regeneration: it has a value, but is not a solution in its own right, and should never be used to mask the failure of public policy to tackle profound structural problems.


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Revised Sunday, April 8, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture