Deirdre Shaw is Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research, University of Glasgow.
Here she writes about her research – in collaboration with Professor Andrew Cumbers, Professor Robert McMaster and Dr John Crossan, University of Glasgow – which explores the environmental and social implications of urban agriculture and sustainable food, working with a group of public, private and voluntary sector organisations through the Glasgow Food Policy Partnership.
When I think of Christmas I think of people coming together, with food playing a vital role. Sharing food, cooking skills, conversation and good company. These are the very alities that we found in evidence in Glasgow’s growing community garden movement. In the report Sustainable Communities of Care, we found communities expressing care for their neighbourhoods, health and wellbeing and each other.
Like many other post-industrial cities, Glasgow has a long history of deindustrialisation and urban deprivation and has one of the highest levels of derelict land in the UK. Those living in close proximity to derelict sites tend to experience an increase in adverse effects, including, poor health, social alienation and political disempowerment. Across a diverse set of neighbourhoods, we found community gardens re-envisioning these derelict sites and the negative effects of their proximity on their communities.
Involvement and participation in community gardens fostered a host of benefits in addition to, and beyond, vegetables to take home for dinner. Through the development of community gardens, citizens and community groups came together, actively investing their time, labour and emotions in long neglected parts of the city. We found inhabitants transforming derelict spaces into living places, which became incubators for new and more participatory social relations around food and growing. The gardens foster individual and community empowerment through the acquisition of new skills, related to growing and organising, facilitating participative engagement and citizenship. Social inclusion and cohesion is generated by relationships created across diverse groups, where the exchange of stories, ideas, skills and working alongside each other in the garden lead to greater knowledge and understanding of others.
Community gardens can offer many activities, including, growing food, skills development, therapeutic, educational, cultural and recreational events that facilitate the development of these many benefits. As one garden volunteer highlighted “yes grow something, that is great, what do you plant, when do you plant it, what do you do with it so it doesn’t die and once you have grown it what do you do with it… trying to do all that on your own is scary”. Events, such as the Kale Fest, both support and celebrate growing endeavours.
At Christmas when pressures to consume are particularly acute, the community gardens we visited did not promote dominant notions of consumption and the necessary forms of participation required to consume. Christmas is also a time of year when feelings of loneliness can be heightened and community gardens do promote an equality of participation in place and community making, and the sharing of surplus produce. They enable people to step into new practices and relations that interrogates mainstream food practices. Such experiences can be transformative for individuals, groups and wider communities. ‘Shopping skills’ are being rebalanced with growing, building, organising skills, moving beyond an identity as a ‘good consumer’ to the development of capacity and competency to advance sustainable and pleasurable production-consumption lifestyles. For now, at least, the community gardens in our study appear unbound by the constraints and cycles of consumer society.
Beyond our example of Glasgow, there are over 1,000 community gardens across the UK, offering the opportunity to nurture food, health, relationships and communities. If that sounds like the sort of benefits you’d like to see on your new year resolution list, check out a garden near you and get ready for the next growing season and your own batch of kale.
Deirdre also runs an ESRC-funded seminar series Ethics in Consumption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives and recently published the book Ethics and Morality in Consumption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
For further reading see Urban Agriculture Growing Care by B Cunningham (Aye-Aye Books, 2015).