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Insights into sustaining European urban agriculture projects

How can municipalities make urban farming projects thrive in the long term? This blog covers lessons from project leaders in Greece, Portugal and Bulgaria that range from cutting-edge digital mapping to creative ways to nourish soil.

Innovative and long-lasting European urban agriculture projects were highlighted during CityZen Good Practices Week last month.

These projects offer inspiration and guidance for local authorities globally, which are expressing interest in growing community gardens to address social and food challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The CityZen Good Practices Week was organised by the Institute for Rural Development Research (IfLS), based in Frankfurt, Germany, and featured a series of online talks from 28 June to 1 July.

The ‘Civil initiatives in urban farming’ session showcased Kipos³—a “garden in the cube” next to an urban vineyard in Thessaloniki, Greece—urban farming in the Municipality of Beja, Portugal and Urban Gardening-Sofia, a cooperative based in the Bulgarian capital.

Each project is part of a growing good practices bank on the CityZen project website, which features projects supported through Interreg Europe and more.

Greece: Kipos³, Thessaloniki

Kipos³ is a community garden used for food production, as well as film screenings, artist residencies, workshops and picnics.

However, it was developed using a very limited budget during an economic recession that limited urban intervention activities.

The project was established in phases from February 2015, starting as an academic pilot.

Project lead Eleftheria Gavriilidou said municipal staff were concerned about how the garden would affect the area’s safety and aesthetics and the disturbance its construction could cause.

To gain their support, the project team emphasised the low cost of the project to the municipality and gave reassurances there would be no obligation to maintain the project if it was not a success.

Ahead of construction, the team conducted in-depth comparative research of urban agriculture projects in other European cities, which they presented in a booklet.

Yiannis Boutaris—Thessaloniki mayor at the time—was a wine producer, so had a “sensitivity with food production” and saw the project as “innovative,” Ms Gavriilidou said.

Ms Gavriilidou said that gaining the local community’s trust was the hardest part of the project, as Kipos³ was the city’s first urban community garden, leading to confusion about the concept and numerous meetings to manage misunderstandings.

Kipos³ is located near local universities and an urban vineyard, which was created by the municipality in 2013 in a Greek first.

The garden now has a waiting list of more than 20 families.

Portugal: Urban farming in Beja

Manure from military horses is used to nourish soil used in a Municipality of Beja urban farming project which started in 2012. This creative approach helps to sustain more than 135 plots available through the project.

The Municipality of Beja is mainly rural and agriculture is a major profession locally. However, the plots were first set up in green spaces within urban housing developments, before being expanded out to rural parishes, in response to the needs of families in these areas who were judged to be financially insecure.

Senior Technician Joao Margalha said municipalities looking to start similar initiatives should know it is essential that urban farming sites are reachable by foot or bicycle, and ideally by public transport as well, to ensure they are accessible and sustainable.

However, he warned that that changing land values in cities can pose challenges to securing good sites for urban projects in the long term.

Mr Margalha said his local authority provides services such as water and sanitation, which are crucial to maintaining community garden projects on a day-to-day basis.

Bulgaria: Urban Gardening-Sofia

Urban Gardening-Sofia, a community-led cooperative, has looked after a network of community gardens across the Bulgarian capital since 2012.

More than 100 volunteer gardeners tend over 50 plots across a number of solidarity gardens and demonstration vegetable plots.

The volunteer structure is non-hierarchical, with participants working together to manage plots and develop resources to meet growing needs.

Friendship, independence and collaboration are central principles for the gardens.

In future, the cooperative intends to maintain and extend a digital map of Sofia that identifies land which may be suitable for more community gardening, said Denitsa Marinova from the Applied Research and Communications (ARC) Fund.

The cooperative successfully managed to incorporate urban gardening into the Sofia Municipality’s ‘Vision Sofia 2050’ strategy: a collaborative long-term plan for the city and its suburbs.

Looking ahead, they hope to embed urban farming in existing municipal regulation and gain more support from the local authority to help grow the project further.

Comment

Support from local authorities was highly valued by speakers at the event for assisting with regulation and providing essential services needed to keep gardens going.

The speakers emphasised that clear, open communication between local people and project leaders is crucial to ensure urban agriculture projects realise their full potential and become a real asset to their local community.

Whether run by a municipality or a community organisation, urban farming projects need leaders who are passionate and can commit to the project in the long run.

Collaborating with local organisations was recommended as a way to reduce projects’ carbon footprint and help support a local circular economy.

For example, a zoo in Dobrich, Bulgaria provides manure for a local gardening social enterprise, said Ms Marinova.

While in Bonn, cargo bikes are used to transport fertiliser to urban farming projects and the use of bokashi is encouraged to produce nourishment for the soil, noted IfLS Project Assistant Lisa Gebhard.

With cities from Sydney to Chicago seeking to advance urban farming initiatives, learning from existing long-term projects can help local authorities garner the greatest social and environmental benefits from their community gardens.

Community gardens are the theme of this week’s Global Local Recap – our new weekly newsletter highlighting inspiring local responses to pressing global issues faced by communities everywhere. Click here to find out more.

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