Leaving BedZED

A version of this blog post appears here on Bioregional’s website.

On a crisp, early morning a few weeks ago, I took a final stroll around BedZED, my home for the last four years. I’m excited to be moving to the Dorset coast. Yet there are many things I’ll miss about living here and it’s been an important part of my life.

Built over 15 years ago, BedZED (short for Beddington Zero Energy (fossil) Development) is a pioneering 100-unit ecovillage of homes and workspaces initiated by sustainability charity Bioregional in partnership with the Peabody Trust and ZEDfactory architects. I learned about BedZED soon after it was built whilst on work experience at a chemical engineering company in Finland. With very little to do and plenty of time to browse the internet, I stumbled across WWF’s 2004 Living Planet Report which featured BedZED as a case study. Feeling alarmed by the state of our ecosystems, I was inspired to hear of practical actions being taken. I kept a mental note of Bioregional and went off to University to study engineering. Four years later and eager to pursue a career in sustainability, I was over-the-moon to land my first job at Bioregional.

So before living at BedZED, I worked there for several years, commuting in from various leaky homes across South London. One part of my job was being a tour guide for the development. Each week I would take groups around the site, discussing different aspects of the design. Some of our work at Bioregional involved taking the learnings into other built environment projects. We also used BedZED to help inform our understanding of One Planet Living. Being based at BedZED felt important for working in sustainability, providing some first-hand experience of the benefits and challenges of designing more sustainable communities.

Much has been written about BedZED over the years but less on what it’s like to live there. So as I move away, here are five things that I’ll miss the most.

1. BedZED looks different

BedZED looks noticeably different from other developments. Its unique character comes from the combination of its colourful tops, curved edges, green roofs, weathered oak cladding, cabin door-windows, walkways, bridges and roof gardens. I find there’s a lot to enjoy looking at.

Whenever I’ve explained where I live to other locals they will often say: “oh, that place with the colourful things on the roofs?“. Those distinctive things are wind cowls, helping to provide ventilation for the buildings. They spin around with the wind and you’ll often find a cute line-up of small birds perched along the ridge. They are the most iconic feature.

The way that BedZED looks does have something to do with its sustainability but not as much as you might imagine. Curved edges and bridges, for example, aren’t environmental features, rather they are attractive features that would have added costs. As a comparison, one of the developments Bioregional were involved with after BedZED was One Brighton, which was 172 apartments plus offices. Many of the same principles were applied, yet these flats appear much more conventional and the project turned a profit, which was impressive given that it was built during the depths of a recession.

2. The warmth

The all-year-round warmth and natural light is one of the most noticeable differences. For the last four years, I haven’t had to think about heating. There was no heating system to turn on! I have found it warm enough in the winter and certainly hot enough in the summer. This is thanks to the homes being south-facing with thick, insulated walls, good quality windows and sunspaces to help trap the heat. Every home should be built like this and it’s a great pity to now be moving to a home that requires heating.

3. The neighbours and the BedZED bar

Once a month, one of the ex-residents runs a community bar in the BedZED Pavillion. Children play in the field while the adults unwind with a refreshing beverage. Lately, there’s even been a chef cooking dinner too. What a great way to get to know the neighbours. I will miss the BedZED bar and the lovely neighbours I’ve been able to spend time with there.

4. Car-free streets

The road skirts around the outside of the estate with walkways between the units. Many have climbing plants that cut across from the ground level gardens up to the roof gardens, creating a little oasis of greenery. Children can play safely in these walkways and will run around the blocks without the worry of cars. As the sun sets in the evenings, there’s a feeling of intimacy around the estate as dinners are being prepared. The architecture is clever because despite the homes being close together, there’s enough privacy and it doesn’t feel like you’re living on top of each other.

The car-free streets are one of the reasons I believe it’s easy to meet and get to know neighbours. Roads divide us. In the city, more often than not, they are places of pollution, danger and fear. It’s better when they are quiet or simply removed away from the front door.

5. The BedZED field

I was lucky to live with a view of the BedZED field. For many years, this field was a blank canvas. There were many inspired ideas from residents to do something, but little action. However, in the last few years, the field has come alive and has turned into an ecologically diverse, permaculture garden. Residents Tony and Danielle have been instrumental in making this happen and there are weekly gardening sessions every Saturday for anyone that would like to join in. While I can claim no part in helping out with this, I have a huge appreciation for everyone that goes out to make this space what it is.

Final thoughts

Living at BedZED, like many places, isn’t always bliss. You’ll hear neighbours often complain about Peabody, who manage the estate. The wider area is not much to speak of, in my opinion. Yet the homes are warm and the immediate landscape is clean and green. The neighbours are friendly and well-connected online and in-person. There’s a fantastic community centre, that’s in daily use by local residents. A green gym and permaculture garden. As a result, it’s an attractive place to live, particularly for families, many of whom don’t leave. One neighbour, I’m aware, has moved house three times within the development as their family has grown in size.

For a few years, I managed a nearby farm called Sutton Community Farm that was also initiated by Bioregional and is now a thriving community-owned business. I often said to visitors at the farm, that if it wasn’t for BedZED, this farm would probably not exist. The ecological footprint studies of residents at BedZED, which showed food being the largest impact category, provided an important rationale for my colleagues to want to improve the local food system through a farm. I think having the experience of BedZED (not to mention Carshalton Lavender and other Bioregional enterprises) gave us more confidence to start a farm. In designing for sustainable communities, we found that it’s not enough to just build homes that perform well on energy and materials. To achieve One Planet Living, it’s necessary to design our communities with much more in mind.

I sometimes found pessimist folk remind me of the inconvenient truth that BedZED was an expensive project with many failures. Well, I’m an optimist and my take is that BedZED was a pioneering and important development that’s gone on to inspire many. Indeed, it turns out the 99 electric car-charge points were excessive for the time (only now are electric cars starting to gain some popularity). The solar array system is not working (it was installed before the incentives of feed-in tariffs and has suffered from poor management). The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant was far too experimental and sized wrong (it’s now been placed by a biomass boiler). The Living Machine, a biological system for wastewater treatment that mimics the water purifying functions of wetlands, was also rather ambitious. It’s important to experiment though; that’s often how we learn the best lessons. Thankfully, many of the important aspects do work and BedZED provided a comfortable, warm and friendly place to live.

Today, for various reasons, sustainability is still not at the forefront of the building industry. Sustainable builds are not happening with the ambition or at the pace they should be. My hope is that we continue to learn from BedZED but also remember it’s over 15 years old now. It’s old news. There should are hundreds of other developments we can look to for inspiration – unfortunately, I am struggling to name many of them.

Useful information

To find out more about BedZED, Bioregional’s website has lots of information including the history, key stats and performance data: bioregional.com/bedzed

Hackbridge Ecology Park

Over the last few years I’ve been working with my neighbours in Hackbridge to try and establish a 25 hectare ecology park on some disused fields, opposite to where I live at BedZED. The park will help connect people to Beddington Farmlands (a 400 acre nature reserve) and the wider green corridor of the Wandle Valley Regional Park, a new park that winds along the River Wandle, stretching from Croydon and Sutton through Merton and Wandsworth to the Thames.

The land we are considering is unused and neglected, without official public access. We would like to see this land become a productive, sustainable, engaging space that demonstrates how we can benefit from and improve our natural environment. It will be an outdoor hub for recreation, education and most importantly, habitat restoration. Some of the ideas include:

  • Outdoor activities: such as nature tours, cycle paths, bird watching, photography, walking and running.
  • Renewable energy generation: solar panels that generate renewable energy for the community and income to cover the ongoing running costs for the park.
  • Habitat restoration: increasing the ecological value of the land whilst also creating places for people to engage with and learn about the wildlife.
  • Sustainable food growing: providing healthy, sustainable produce to the local area.
  • Natural swimming pool: a low impact pool providing a unique, local place for people to swim and exercise.
  • Social support services: providing volunteering, mentoring and construction opportunities to help people integrate with the community, gain skills and confidence.

About the land

The land is divided into two sections by existing woodland habitat, as shown in the map below. It has a range of planning designations, including Metropolitan Open Land, Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation and Safeguarded for Mineral Extraction.

The bottom section of land is owned by Sutton Council and was previously used for gravel extraction and sewage works. The upper section of land is owned by Day Group and was also used for gravel extraction – once this was halted, it was utilised as a non-hazardous landfill by SITA. On the upper section of land we have been exploring the feasability of integrating a solar park into the ecology park.

Hackbridge Ecology Park Map

A place for wildlife

The 2016 State of Nature report, compiled by over 50 wildlife organisations reveals the severe loss of nature that’s occurring in the UK. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The biodiversity index also suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Biodiversity is the backbone of our ecosystems which we depend on for survival and there’s no time like the present to act on conserving and enhancing natural habitats, which is why projects like this are vital.

One of my heroes in Hackbridge is Peter Alfrey, a zealous ecologist who works tirelessly on bird and wildlife projects across Hackbridge and Beddington Farmlands. Peter is a key person that helps document the wildlife on the nearby Beddington Farmlands; this includes 258 species of bird, 476 species of moth, 9 species of bat and over 300 species of plants. One of the central parts of Hackbridge Ecology Park will be enhancing the neighbouring landscape which connects to Beddington Farmlands, helping make better spaces for wildlife to thrive, such as wetlands, grasslands, scrub, additional trees and hedgerow.

Work to date

The project is voluntary-led and has been slow to develop while we all have day jobs and other commitments. Despite this, we’ve done a fair amount of work so far, with particular thanks to the drive of Sue Riddlestone, co-founder of Bioregional and an instigator of BedZED, the famous ecovillage in Hackbridge. Sue’s team at Bioregional have helped raised some initial funds for our group to complete a pre-feasibility study, facilitate community workshops and undertake a solar feasibility study.

The pre-feasibility study examined the current status and issues surrounding the site, identifying key stakeholders and delivering some initial consultation to determine a vision for the land. This included:

  • Briefing presentation to local Councillors (Jan 2015)
  • Visioning event (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing presentation for Area Committee (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing provided to quarterly Board Meeting of Mitcham Common Conservators (Mar 2015)
  • Engagement with Hackbridge School community and design team (Mar 2015)
  • Community engagement for solar feasibility study (Summer 2015)
  • Engagement with Day Group on land use
Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey
Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey

Resulting from the visioning workshops, the following objectives were established for the ecology park:

  1. Enable the proposed site to become a safe, publicly accessible piece of open land;
  2. Facilitate and enable the community to engage with nature in a sympathetic and positive way;
  3. Carry out grassland, scrub and wetland habitat restoration and preservation to maintain the natural and wild feel of the land;
  4. Provide amenities for the local residential and school community, such as formal and informal play areas;
  5. Provide the opportunity for food growing and associated training opportunities;
  6. Engage with the community and encourage volunteering;
  7. Educate and train the local community on the importance of nature conservation;
  8. Incorporate renewable energy generation where feasible;
  9. Position the site to visitors as a gateway to the wider Wandle Valley Regional Park.

The solar park

In 2015, our group won funding from DECC’s Urban Community Energy Fund to progress a solar feasibility study. The area of interest is the northern section of the land, which may be contaminated and has four large electricity pylons cutting across the field. Potential public uses for this section of land are limited, so ground mounted solar panels could be an ideal solution. This could allow the land to remediate for a further 25 years or more, while providing green electricity to the local area and generate an income for the Ecology Park to be used for maintenance and visitor facilities.

solar-park
Image of a solar park

Climate change policy advocates for more renewable energy and this also fits with The Mayor of London’s target to supply 25% of London’s energy from local sources by 2025. A study of decentralised energy capacity by the GLA concluded that Sutton has the potential to generate 230GWh of electricity and save just under 100,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2031. Installations like this are an important part of this decentralisation. Furthermore, Sutton Council’s One Planet Living Policy BP6 seeks to maximise the potential role of renewable energy sources and de-centralised energy infrastructure in Hackbridge. Policy-wise, everything points in the right direction. 

The study examined various site issues such as land designations, connection points to the grid, key stakeholders, market demand and drivers, biodiversity impacts, business models and generation capacity. Layout configerations were also considered, for 1.5MW and 2MW installations:

Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park
Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park

In early 2016 the government made an 87% cut to feed-in tariff income that has made the financial feasability of solar less attractive. Our study still shows promise and one of the routes that remains financially viable is to sell the energy generated to a customer through a power-purchase agreement.

In terms of investment, we are interested in raising finance through a community share offer. To support this, Repowering London have stepped forward with an interest in working with us. However before we can continue on this, further work needs to be done to secure the land.

What next?

The pre-feasibility work helped us have a solid understanding of the routes forward. This year, Viridor were granted permission to build an incinerator to burn South London’s waste, very close to the proposed ecology park. While bad news for air quality and wildlife, it ironically could provide a route for funding the beginnings of an ecology park. Viridor are in the process of launching a grant programme to support community projects with funding up to £30k, with preference for projects within 2km of the incinerator. However from what I’ve seen of the grant criteria, it does not cover staff or running costs of a project – a frustrating spanner in the works, but perhaps not insurmountable.

What’s certain is that the project will have to be implemented in phases. In the next phase, we need to work with the landowners to open up the land for limited public access to deliver some practical, educational activities for the community, helping them learn about the wildlife already on site. We’ve began these dicussions with the landowners.

We also want to make some simple improvements to make the site safe such as installing paths and fencing, creating routes for the public to use. We then need to deal with longer-term land governance issues and establish a more comprehensive development plan, working with stakeholders such as the Wandle Valley Regional Park. Ultimately, this is a multi-million pound project with grand ambitions and it’s exciting to be here at the beginning.

Further resources

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

On Trying to Open a Community Farm Shop & Cafe

I recently wrote about my involvement in trying to establish a community-owned ecology park and a community-owned microbrewery. In these projects, I’m working collaboratively with others, aiming to get each project into a position where we can raise investment and employ an experienced manager to drive the project forward. I see my involvement as helping move the project to this point and thereafter, my aim is to continue as an engaged member, hopefully enjoying some locally brewed beer, looking out over a beautiful ecology park abundant in wildlife, and picking up ingredients for my dinner from a shop that cares deeply about the provenance of its food.

From personal experience and meeting many community-owned businesses through my involvement with the Plunkett Foundation, perhaps I’m being too optimistic on the amount of work this will take. The process of starting-up a community enterprise takes a huge amount of energy, possibly more so than a conventional business as there are more people involved in the journey.

Nurturing the idea

Both the microbrewery and the farm shop are ideas that have spun out from my work at Sutton Community Farm – London’s first community-owned farm which bustles with many wonderful people. We started seriously considering a Community Farm Shop & Cafe in 2015 after we conducted a survey asking our friends, supporters and customers whether they would like us to open a Farm Shop. We had a fantastic response from 200+ people, displaying a huge amount of enthusiasm and pledges of time and money to help make it happen.

With some promising survey results, we sat down and debated whether to pursue the idea. It was an attractive idea for our farm that felt complimentary to our work, giving us a new outlet to extend our social impact. On the other hand, we didn’t feel we had the energy or resources to work on it. The truth was that we were incredibly busy, working long hours to keep the farm going on shoe-string budgets. How could we start thinking about a new enterprise?

The role we felt we could best play was to facilitate a public meeting, bringing everyone together that expressed interests in a farm shop, making it clear that the community or someone else with the time, skills and enthusiasm, would have to take it on.

I facilitated two community meetings at St Nicolas Church in the centre of Sutton because this was where the survey responders expressed their greatest desire to see the farm shop. The Plunkett Foundation kindly helped cover the venue hire costs and gave a presentation about community-owned businesses. I shared some of my hopes for a farm shop from the perspective of the farm, presented the results of our survey (shown in the presentation below) and then invited people to discuss their hopes and ideas. We had a healthy turn-out of around 25 people to each meeting and from this, a small team of people came forward who were willing to meet regularly, forming a working committee to drive the project forward.An early meeting in St Nicolas Church, Sutton

Putting together the business plan

Our group of about 4-6 people met every 3 weeks. I was keen not to act as leader and encouraged others to take responsibilities of Chair and Secretary. This was partly because I didn’t want this to be considered a “farm project”. Knowing the limited resources of the farm, this project needs to stand on its own legs as a community business, even if it shares fraternity with the farm and its ethos.

In the first few months, it felt there was sometimes a danger of our meetings becoming more of a “talking shop” than an action group. It’s enjoyable to imagine together what our ideal shop or cafe would look like. What values it would have and how we would try to make it warm and welcoming for all. This was valuable and important discussion however I was worried about our momentum and keen to ensure there were well-facilitated meetings, agendas and action points. This happened with varying success but we did make progress and grew more confident as we visited other community shops, met a community business advisor and got to grips with who we were and what we wanted.

Summer evening shop meeting on the farm
Summer evening shop meeting on the farm

Around this time, the Plunkett Foundation launched a new programme called Our Urban Shop, which aimed to help communities come together to open an urban shop. Plunkett’s work usually supports rural communities so this was a very promising development for us. The opportunity was up to £30k grant funding matched by £30k loan finance, providing we also raised a similar level in community shares. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in our application for various reasons – one being that our business proposal included a cafe which the lenders were reluctant invest in. However the promise of funding spurred us on to write a fairly comprehensive business plan which I’ve shared below.

Not long after, we had a second knock-back on a smaller fund application which was aimed at helping us launch a scaled-back pop-up version of the farm shop. While I was disappointed, this may have been for the best. As a trading enterprise, the project feels more suitable for investment rather than grants. We also still didn’t have anyone in mind to manage the project if we were successful with funding. We wanted to find someone passionate about opening a shop and cafe, who understands and knows the business.

One of the challenges in the community business sector is attracting such entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs usually want to set up their own business, where they can reap the rewards of their own success and hard work. Community businesses on the other hand, are selfless enterprises, rewarding for many even if they are led by a few.

Public engagement on Sutton High Street
Gathering interest on Sutton High Street: further market research

The business plan and next steps

Over the seasons our group has dwindled somewhat; one member is having a maternity break, another moved to Indonesia, another to volunteer with Raleigh International. A couple other members felt they didn’t have much to offer anymore, perhaps because we had become so focused on writing a business plan. I also had a busy summer working on a project that left me too tired in the evening to think about this project. I was also feeling a little deflated, unsure whether this was right project to be investing my energies into despite my desire to see it happen.

We haven’t given up though. We are keeping in touch and keeping an eye out for opportunities. A huge number of hours have been spent on this project and it would be a shame to see it go to nothing. Even if it does, we’ve had a lot of fun along the way and learnt a lot about shop and cafe planning.

So besides the therapy of writing about it, I’m making the business plan public, in the spirit of the creative commons and with the hope that someone may come out of the woodwork with the right expertise who wants to help make this happen. Perhaps someone with similar ideas, money or a shop location in mind.

Our business plan does a good job of expressing our vision for the shop and cafe, the products and services we intend to provide, detailed market research, with governance plans and financial projections. The plan and financial spreadsheet are adaptable, ready to be adjusted to suit the given location, expected footfalls and staffing levels.

If we are to open this business, we need to unlock at least one of the triple challenges we have: 1) finding a suitable location, 2) getting someone on board who wants to run it, and 3) raising the finance. So if you know of anywhere, anyone or have a stack of cash you want to put towards a good cause, do drop us a line. And finally, without further ado…

Click here to download our draft business plan (PDF)

Further resources and examples:

Food as a relationship: a reflection on running a community farm

For over three years I’ve had the pleasure of managing a beautiful community farm on the edges of south London. It’s been one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had, combining my love of community work with social enterprise. With a heavy heart, I’ve recently decided to leave my job for new pursuits, but before doing so, I wanted to write some reflections about my time at the farm.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Sutton Community Farm means a huge amount to me and has taught me so much. Through the farm I’ve developed a deep interest in the role food plays in our culture, the impact it has our wellbeing, and how our food choices influence the wider ecosystem on which we deeply depend. These interests have led me to view food as more of a relationship that we’re in. We know how relationships are not always an easy ride; they require nurturing, understanding, listening and compromises – and they can go through periods of being healthy or unhealthy. Over time, relationships usually mature and grow in new directions. In the kitchen, we develop a more complex repertoire, build our confidence and develop a deeper sense of the positive roles food can have on our lives. Some relationships however can hit dead ends and turn stale. We become lazy, get into bad habits and stop looking after ourselves properly.

Many of our staff, volunteers and customers have a positive, healthy relationship with food. It’s inspiring to meet so many people that love to cook from scratch and work with the seasons to make nutritious, healthy meals from the food we’ve grown. We also meet many people who don’t have such confidence or adventurous attitudes. We meet children who are more familiar with tomato ketchup than tomatoes, parents who shield their children from leafy greens and teenagers who proclaim that they just don’t like any vegetables.

DSC00218

It takes time to loosen bad habits, develop tastes and nurture a healthier attitude towards food. I’d say people should come and join in with growing, cooking and eating good meals on our farm for at least 8 weekly sessions. Over this time, one is immersed in a positive culture of physical exertion and eating seasonal meals together. Time at the farm can make cracks in stubborn attitudes and motivate people towards a healthier lifestyle. This experience may only be a starter and while we don’t transform lives immediately, we provide a space that helps people take steps in the right direction.

We recently started a project called Sutton People’s Kitchen and it’s my hope that we can reach out and create more positive food experiences for people in the wider community, who perhaps won’t come to the farm. During 2016, we are running a series of community cook clubs and banquets, cooking demonstrations and food documentary film screenings. Behind the concept is the idea that giving advice, no matter how well-meaning, rarely inspires positive change. Rather, an integrated, variety of services and experiences will help motivate people to have healthier relationships with food.

Sutton_23

Local health and wellbeing data reminds us what we’re up against. In the UK, obesity affects about a quarter of adults and a fifth of primary school children. When it comes to eating the recommended 5 A DAY, just 16% of children and around a quarter of adults achieve this. A diet low in saturated fat, salt and sugar and high in fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. The evidence is on the table which is why it’s so heart-braking to see completely avoidable diet-related illnesses take hold in young children; their chances of living a full and active life being stripped away before they’ve even finished school.

This is a major public health challenge and it’s an incredibly complex area, having behavioral, genetic, environmental and social components. Our farm cannot offer a solution to such a public health issue as obesity. In fact, I don’t believe anyone can – there are no silver bullets. However, we can offer value as part of a comprehensive ‘whole systems’ approach to improving health.

Looking at the type of food available in our local communities, our bad state of health is not surprising. It’s not just the obvious fast food outlets like Chicken Cottage and Subway that are guilty, the big chain supermarkets are equally dangerous places to visit. When visiting such shops, I find it’s best to skirt around the edges, only taking the fresh food and any other essentials, then quickly getting out before any special offers grab my attention. The majority of supermarket stock, I’d suggest about 85%, is not doing us much good. It’s cheap, processed food-like stuff. This is one of the good things about our Veg Box scheme. It provides a regular source of good, wholesome and affordable food. After running a VegBox scheme for the last few years, I recognise how challenging this product can be for people who are picky about their vegetables or have chaotic lifestyles. In response, we’ve made our scheme as flexible as possible and we help people out with storage tips and cooking ideas.

Cooking demo at the farm

Community farms not only deliver good food; they invite people to join in with another part of the food journey – production. After years of involvement in the voluntary sector, I know how hard it can be for projects to attract committed volunteers. Yet on our farm, we are rarely short of people willing to join in. I believe one reason is because food growing is an incredibly inclusive activity, appropriate for people of all ages and abilities. One of our volunteers, a retired head teacher recently said that as soon as she steps onto the farm, all her worries and problems go away and she feels a great sense of peace.

Weeding the salad

Sowing seeds and working with the soil is an intimate experience and one that requires patience and dedication through the seasons. When we sit down to eat our produce at the farm, we treasure the food on our plates, appreciating every delicate flavour. There’s nothing like eating produce that you’ve grown and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had that pleasure almost daily over these last few years. And I hope this will continue for the rest of my life.

I believe more than ever before that community food projects like ours can have a powerful role in healing broken relationships. As I step away from the daily involvement at Sutton Community Farm, I hope it will continue to thrive and act as a role model to other communities, helping create more resilient, healthier food systems that we so desperately need.

Are community enterprises easier in the city?

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at an event organised by the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities.

The session explored the similarities and differences of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural settings and it sparked some interesting dialogue. Presented below are a scattering of notes from the session. My angle is mostly focused on the perspective of community food enterprises.

Bridging the gap: example of a peri-urban farm

I’ll start with a case study. I was invited into the discussion because of my work at Sutton Community Farm,  an enterprise on the edges of South London. We hover between the urban and the rural, a space we call peri-urban. Our land is designated as Metropolitan Green Belt, which means it has strong planning policy protections against future developments and restrictions on the use of land. The fundamental aim of Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.

SCF_Peri-Urban
The peri-urban zone: Metropolitan Green Belt land can be clearly seen in this photo of the southern edges of London where the urban sprawl stops. The estate in the photo is called Little Woodcote Estate and is owned by Surrey County Council.

Although small by rural standards, our seven acre holding feels luxurious in size, given our proximity to London. I often look across our field at the glimmering skyline at sunset as it bubbles with life, brimming with opportunities and full of promise. On grey days when I’m less optimistic, I see it weighed down under stress and congestion. The beautiful part about working on a farm, is that it offers you space to reflect, but I digress..

A farm positioned on the urban fringes has both unique opportunities and challenges.  In theory, the proximity to the city should provide us with an endless number of customers who seek super local, fresh produce. However at our small scale, there are various economies of scale that we cannot realise.  A VegBox scheme is the easiest way for us to distribute the variety of vegetables that we grow with minimal waste, however the margins are low and finding customers is still challenging under the shadow of supermarkets that offer cheap food at a convenience. 

We also sell our produce wholesale to restaurants. Our main challenge here is around matching demand and supply. While we have restaurants that are keen to source local, their ordering is often at short notice and very specific in the produce and quantity desired. Some of these challenges are being overcome as we nurture our relationships with the chefs. Scale is still a challenge though. It’s worth keeping in mind that London is a big and we aren’t that close to the centre. It’s a 25 mile round trip and the delivery costs and congestion charges rack up when we are supplying into the centre.

Farm map 8th May - Version 2
Sutton Community Farm’s seven acre holding

While urban and peri-urban farms may not have scale on their side, they do have the proximity of a large population that are a potential marketplace for services such as education, ecotherapy and business away days. The key in community farming is to identify your USPs and the understand the potential for each income stream, building your enterprise around this. It’s easier said than done. The primary motivator for most food enterprises is, understandably, to produce food. However this is the one income stream that pays such a measly amount; this can demotivate and undermine a project’s rationale. It’s a common tension for community farms and many are struggling to diversify to fill the revenue gaps so that everyone gets paid.

So in summary, my experience is on the fringes of the city where I’d argue that a community food project can harness a greater and more diverse income stream. The best of both worlds! But I’m not saying it’s been an easy ride.

How do the needs of urban and rural communities differ?

Behind every enterprise is a collection of people driving it. To help us understand the unique challenges of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural areas, it’s important to understand as best we can, the challenges faced by the people in each of these communities.

The needs and desires of urban and rural people are broadly the same, but the ability to fulfil these needs differs significantly. Those shared needs include a sense of community, safety and security; there’s also access to basic products and services, such as education and health. When these needs are not adequately fulfilled, those that are able to move away will leave and enterprises will struggle to make ends meet.

A common trend is people moving out of rural communities to find better jobs in towns and cities, and then people moving into rural areas because the housing is cheaper. The dynamics of these movements vary significantly around the country, depending on issues such as transport access, tourism and employment opportunities. 

Fragility of the rural

Rural communities have sparse populations, with jobs and homes scattered across a wide area. This gives rise to many complex inter-related problems spanning employment, transport, housing and childcare.

A few years ago, I almost took a leap and moved into the rural countryside for a new life, but it was some of these fears that held me back. I was researching the opportunity to invest and move onto a 7 acre holding of land in rural Devon. It was part of a scheme where the land had gained temporary planning permission for the intention of supporting a new small-scale farm enterprise. This made the opportunity particularly attractive; I could build the most beautiful homestead and run a commercially viable farm that would one day also serve the community through education and horticultural therapy. That was the vision.

homestead

As I plunged deeper into the details of business planning, it became  clear how difficult it would be. Because of the location, I could see that the marketing and distribution of produce as an independent retailer was going to require a huge amount of energy and costs. As an outsider, not familiar with local markets and production, competition was unknown. In rural communities, the networks are also smaller and your success relies more on word-of-mouth, relationship building and trust. My educational and therapeutic horticulture ideas were scuppered as I learnt about strict Council restrictions on business activities that increased traffic on the narrow, country roads – a concern apparently shared by the neighbours. At the end of the day, these were risks I was not prepared to take on at the time.

Two of the major challenges for people living in rural areas is proximity of work and finding suitable jobs. The city benefits from the density of people and businesses, while the rural is  challenged by the sparsity. These challenges make rural communities more fragile, meaning enterprises can be more vulnerable to collapse. This locks many people into cities, their scale giving a feeling of boundless promise and potential. The countryside offers a slower, simpler pace.

So community food enterprises in urban areas must be easier?

While rural community enterprises may feel more fragile, urban community enterprises have their own set of challenges:

  • Higher land prices: the competition for space in cities pushes up land prices. As an example, Sutton Community Farm pays around 6 times more in rent than the UK average for horticultural land (£703/acre compared to UK average of £115/acre – data from Savills).
  • Greater land insecurity: as urban populations grow, pressure mounts on any available land. Planning policies can be vulnerable to change and so land-owners don’t want to tie up their land in long-term lease arrangements. This stifles investment into enterprises.
  • Higher rents and living costs: mean that the enterprise will have higher staffing costs. For example, the Living Wage is calculated as £8.25 in the UK, and £9.40 in London. The average home in London is now worth more than twice the average home outside the capital – a difference approaching £200,000 (granted that London’s housing market is unique to the UK).
  • But the cost of food remains similar in urban and rural areas: in supermarkets, the cost of food is mostly immune from the location. Therefore if the primary source of income for the project is from food, then your margins are tighter, or even negative!

Another insight from experience: Londoners who come from deep in the city centre to our farm on the edges will say how much they yearn for the open space and connection with nature. These moments of access to nature are important. Yet it’s all to easy to go without connecting with the land for long periods.

Supporting community enterprise

This has been a fairly loose collection of thoughts and I’ll try to wrap up with some final thoughts that look ahead to solutions. These thoughts are rather rushed, but I’m keen to consider some practical steps forward.

I want to understand if there are some solutions that can simultaneously help the separate sets of challenges faced by urban and rural communities. And consider if we foster a stronger sense of connection between the two communities?

Some brief thoughts. Firstly, investment into food and horticultural education in schools is desperately needed to encourage a new generation of farmers. This will support urban food projects, create better links to rural communities and create more draws to the countryside. Second, agricultural policies are not working to support a wider range of thriving family farms, rather they incentivise industrialised farms (the Landworker’s Alliance have a range of policy suggestions on this).  Third, supermarkets, have too much power over the food chain and government policy to regulate their practices is too weak – this is a whole can of worms for another discussion. Open source technology or co-operative platforms can assist people in both communities to access local food affordably. And finally, in urban environments, planning policies should support increased food growing spaces and encourage garden cities, following in the vain of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas.

Petition to compensite the illegal destruction of trees

I visited a project called the Tent of Nations earlier this year on a trip to the Israel/Palestine and met members of the family there that have lived on this beautiful land for over 100 years, with ownership papers dating back to the Ottoman Empire. They are a inspiring, peaceful family that run an educational farm, with summer camps for young people, teaching peace and reconciliation. Since 1991, the family have been battling in courts as the state of Israel are trying to claim their farm as “state land”. It’s one of many sad stories I heard on my trip.

Despite the court case continuing, last week, military authorities uprooted 1,500 of their apricot and apple trees. Can you imagine the devastation this has for a family farm? The situation is absurd, unjust and makes my heart ache.

Feel free to read up on the situation if you want to learn more, and I ask that you stand by the Nassar family by signing this petition on Change.org:

Petition for the Israeli Government and military to compensate and replace the trees destroyed by the military.  

To learn more:

BBC Magazine Article on Tent of Nations
Tent of Nations Website
Greenbelt Festival Call to Action for Petition and Letter writing

The Borough Common

I’m part of a church community called the Borough Common that meets every Sunday night. Over the next 6 weeks, we are running sessions that explore the concept of “community”. Last Sunday, people shared their experiences of the community and this prompted me to write a bit about mine. So here’s a bit about my church: 

We call ourselves the Borough Common because we believe that church should be common property and we’re based in Borough, South London. If you’re into categorisation, then we probably fit into the category of alternative church (here’s one definition of what that might mean) because when compared with most expressions of church, we do things pretty differently.

We are about four years old and I’ve been going since the foundations with varying degrees of energy and commitment, where commitment can just involve attending, whereas energy is about getting stuck in and shaping things. I get the most out of Borough Common if I can give both.

Tea party for older people
Tea party for older people

We spun out from another evening service called Headspace at Oasis Church Waterloo which is a friendly, creative and experimental exploration of Christian faith.

Most churches have a declaration of what they believe which helps knits them together as one body. Ours is intentionally broad. We say we “want to grow together spiritually and do good in the world around us”. As well as valuing the idea of church as common property, we also quickly realised that inclusiveness is highly valued and we designed structures around this. Every 6 weeks we have an open planning session where anyone can participate in planning a service around a theme, which is also selected together. Here’s some examples of themes…

Leadership, growing together spiritually, stories from the bible, creed, building substance, our local community, Christian saints, taboos…

By having the opportunity to run a service, you can work with others to explore topics in depth, and curate an evening that might be discussion based, practical or meditative – variety is encouraged. Every 4 weeks or so, we have a big meal together. This structure means the church is shaped by the community. 

Sunday morning service in House Cafe
Sunday morning service in House Cafe

It’s a simple way of structuring church that feels right for me. However it’s not for everybody. There are so many expressions of Christian faith with churches formed to house. None can be perfect, and perhaps we shouldn’t wish them to be. We aren’t challenged or motivated when everything’s cosy and comfortable.

Sometimes people have proposed it’s a vulnerable structure. For example, what would we do if we are infiltrated by 30 Buddhists one evening! What type of church might we become then? Well, that’s yet to happen and it would be a great experience if it did. We aim to place value on the importance of being welcoming and engaging with all forms of opinion. This is a space where people can discuss and explore beliefs.

Our 2013 Greenbelt talk. Available to download here.
The Borough Common 2013 Greenbelt talk. Available to download here.

I love being part of Borough Common because it’s an honest community. A community that grapples with issues, seeks truth, and recognises that we don’t have all the answers. We go on adventures. We put on tea parties for older people. We help run homeless shelters. We drink ale. We explore our local community. We try and reconcile our place in the global community.

Borough Common Folk Carols
Borough Common Folk Carols Session

As we stride into the new year and we’re feeling fresh with new hopes for the year ahead, it’s a good time for us to explore this concept of community. When reflecting on something that is important for fostering community, a fellow commoner Jonathan picked out his passion for openness in all its forms. He also described an interesting distinction between complex and complexity. The idea came from this TED talk, which Eric Berlow explains how complex doesn’t necessarily equal complicated. 

Rather that hold a complex set of beliefs as a church, we start with  simple ideas and shared beliefs and from this we find beauty in the complexity that emerges. Life is complicated and no one should be alone in trying to navigate through life. I’m grateful to have good communities like the Borough Common to help me embrace the complexity and help identify some of the simple truths that lie within. 

complexity

The 3 Peaks (London Version)

The idea started as a six peak challenge. Rather than the real six peaks of Great Britain (potentially fun, but strenuous and costly), we thought about six peaks of London: beautiful places with beautiful views of London. We visited a bunch, mapped them (see here), and ended up choosing three (rather than six, more through laziness than anything else). Here’s the route.

The aim was an activity at each peak. Starting at Telegraph Hill Upper Park, where we ate lunch, played a bit of scrabble and had a good old traditional egg and spoon race.

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Then off to One Tree Hill, via Nunhead Cemetery, which is a vast and beautifully overgrown hidden treasure of London. Here, we were fortunate to get a spooky tour of the Crypt, from the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery.

nunhead

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Next, was One Tree Hill where there are amazing trees and lots of edible fruits.

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After snacks and cider, we headed through Peckham Park and up to Franks Bar, which is on top of the Multiplex Car Park, where there was a surprise orchestra and incredible sunset over the London skyline! A perfect day.

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Thinking about happiness at work

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom” – Marcel Proust

At work, we have champions for each of the One Planet Living principles and each month we choose one as a theme. With January usually considered the gloomy month, we tried to combat this with Health and Happiness as the theme. Being the champion for this principle, I put on a whole bunch of activities. This included lunch time movie clubs, more pub trips, competitions, lunchtime adventure walks, popcorn in meetings etc. To be honest, it’s stuff we do quite a lot anyway but I just made it known more.

I also delivered a seminar, presenting a rough guide to happiness – slides below (it might not all make sense without a presenter but you should get the gist):

All this Health and Happiness stuff was interesting and really got me thinking again about work-life balances and employee well-being. Friends were telling me about organisations where employees get free massages on Fridays, and other offices that offered a free laundry service.

All this is lovely, but such generous pampering might not be so easily afforded by all organisations. However given the high costs of employee absence/sickness, investing and looking after employees is certainly worth the effort. The economic costs of sickness absence and worklessness in the UK are over £100 billion a year – greater than the current annual budget for the NHS and equivalent to the entire GDP of Portugal (source, p.16). It doesn’t necessarily have to cost much, but it does require good management, some creative thinking and time. Finding good management is the hardest part.

The other thing that this month reminded me is how incredible NEF’s work on the Happy Planet Index has been. This is the first ever index that combines our environmental impacts and human well-being. It’s pioneering stuff and with other key publications in recent years such asProsperity Without Growth, we are slowly starting to see signs of a better way to measure national success. I just wish these things would happen quicker so we can lead the way. Our planet is already unwell and is on course to catch a terribly awful flu.

Useful happiness links: