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The power of small actions

Posted on 04 December 2013

Above: Incredible Edible has made Todmorden a force to be reckoned with.

By Julian Dobson

They call it the power of small actions. A group of neighbours changing the look and atmosphere of their street by planting food to share. A school chef deciding to use locally sourced ingredients for children’s dinners. A shopper deciding to buy groceries from the market rather than the edge-of-town superstore.

But small actions can make a big difference. Groundwork projects across the country have been powered by small actions. In Peckham, south London, Sue Amos and her colleagues at the Burgess Park Food Project started a community food-growing project on a derelict plot in a local park.

The project, on land where boats on the Surrey Canal once loaded and unloaded, uses permaculture principles to be self-sustaining. The project is a registered permaculture land learner, demonstrating the concepts of permaculture to volunteers and visitors.

Such actions can lead to big results. The Burgess Park Food Project received a £46,000 grant from the Big Lottery Community Spaces fund, managed by Groundwork UK. A Groundwork-appointed facilitator helped them with planning and initial management, including negotiating with the local council, which owns the park.

You have to be ready to make a start, whether it’s by getting people together or going out and digging the ground. Sue Amos (pictured right with her fellow volunteers) says: “We have a small core team of committee members and we now have a much bigger pool of active volunteers willing to run sessions for local people to learn more about growing food and using the crops we produce.

“We have all developed our skills and people have increased in confidence. We have a much better insight into what a community garden needs. We are able to share our knowledge of things like planting, permaculture, forest gardening, foraging and pickling. We also supply local restaurants with fresh produce, which has been a good way of learning about commercial food production.

“Our project has become an informal hub for local people who are keen to learn more about gardening and in particular the principles behind permaculture.’

To see the possibilities that small actions can open up, travel to the north of England, where Incredible Edible Todmorden now attracts visitors from all over the world. A project that began six years ago with the “propaganda planting” of fruit, herbs and vegetables in public places is now attracting global interest, with around 50 related groups across the UK, 300 in France and many more worldwide, from Montreal to Mali.

Pam Warhurst, Incredible Edible’s co-founder, is a great advocate of the power of small actions – just getting on and doing stuff, whether it’s planting beans and brassicas in the grounds of the derelict health centre where Harold Shipman, Britain’s worst serial killer, once practised, or turning a soggy lawn outside an elderly people’s home into a colourful and productive source of food.

That “just do it” philosophy is anchored in a belief that real change can happen and that ordinary people can stimulate it. Incredible Edible is much more than a community growing project or a bit of anarchic fun, although community growing and fun are part of what makes it work.

Behind the small actions lies a much wider vision of what can happen when you use the shared experience and language of food to communicate a purpose of reconnecting communities, reinvigorating learning and reviving local business and bringing them all together to create a future that the next generation can look forward to.

Part of that vision is designing urban space in a way that not only creates a more pleasant and liveable environment but restores the connection between a town and the land around it, bringing production and consumption together and enabling people to understand the consequences of their choices about food, shopping, business and community.

Todmorden’s Green Route, for example, shows how a town dominated by motor traffic can once again be a place to walk in.

As importantly, the Incredible Edible ethos is filtering into the thinking of many other organisations. Urban designers are looking at how they can rethink towns with edible plantings. Schools and colleges are putting growing and horticulture into their curricula. Universities like Leeds and Leeds Met are creating edible campuses. In Lambeth there’s an Edible Bus Stop.

Pam Warhurst has now co-authored a book with writer Joanna Dobson, telling the Incredible Edible story and explaining why it matters.

Incredible! charts its progress from its earliest days, when co-founder Mary Clear ripped out the roses from her garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Food to Share’, up to the present, when people travel thousands of miles to be inspired by what’s happening in this once overlooked town in the north of England. 

In true Incredible Edible spirit, the team are now testing the power of small actions by crowdfunding the resources to get it published. They have until 7am on December 12 to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join in.

Julian Dobson is a writer, speaker and researcher on creating better towns and cities. He is director of Urban Pollinators

(Wednesday, December 4, 2013 6:52 PM)
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