What would happen if all vacant public spaces in UK became mini farms?

That’s the question a group of researchers tasked themselves with answering. Here are their findings

Communities should have a right to improve the unloved public spaces around them by growing fruit and vegetables, according to a new campaign that’s calling for a “right to grow” law in the UK.

This law is similar to the Countryside & Rights of Way Act that first gave the public the right to roam across parts of Britain’s countryside in 2000, aims to get local councils and landowners – such as the NHS and water companies – to open up parts of land in towns and cities for cultivation by local citizens.

Initiatives like Incredible EdibleThe campaign’s leader,, has been successfully taking over public spaces that are used for food growing projects for more than a decade. We set out in order to understand how opening these spaces to anyone who wishes to grow food could help improve environmental, mental and physical health across the country.

It is of increasing importance to ensure that the UK has adequate food supplies. Brexit and the pandemic have shown us what food shortages can look like. With the invasion of Ukraine and rising fuel costs, more turmoil seems inevitable. These vital food groups are particularly vulnerable to supply shortages, since 46% of the fruit and 46% all vegetables consumed in the UK are imported.

Our researchIt is estimated that if all of the green space in England, Scotland, and Wales were used to grow food it would provide 40% of the fruit and vegetables currently produced in the UK. Public land accounts for just under half the total green space. This means that even if only a small percentage of it was used, it could make an enormous difference in the availability of healthy food.

While this kind of urban agriculture is unlikely to ever replace conventional farming, it could play a big role in boosting food supply resilience and perhaps help ease some of the UK’s growing food insecurity.

Community farms

Food security could be improved by using unloved public spaces for growing food. Image: Patrick Federi

Harvesting health

People get more than just fresh fruit and vegetables when going outside to grow: there’s now heaps of evidenceFor the health and well-being benefits of spending time outdoors. Our researchIt is possible to reap some of these benefits by getting involved in food production.

Our surveys revealed that urban growers were more likely than non-growers to have a better quality diet. Our research suggested that growers may be more concerned about the quality of the food they eat and where it came from.

Enhancing ecosystems

Today, food comes with a significant environmental cost. Around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions is due to agriculture and food. Other environmental impacts of agriculture include the main contributor to biodiversity loss, and the major driver of water quality issues.

Urban growing may have a smaller environmental footprint than conventional farming, but the jury is still out. a recent studyWe need better data to make informed decisions. Urban growing is not only a way to produce healthier, more local food but it also has a positive impact on the environment.

Community farms

Better wellbeing is linked with engaging people in food production. Image: Kenny Eliason

Recent evidence review suggests that urban food growing areas like farms and allotments may provide as many ecosystem benefits as other urban green spaces like parks and school grounds. They can clean the air, regulate local climates and store more carbon to reduce flooding risk.

Growing food in cities and towns could be a great way of making the most of our land and addressing the urgent issues we face in terms food, health, and environmental inequalities. The House of Lords Land Use in England Committee, which was appointed earlier this year, has recognized that the best way to use our land is becoming a priority for the nation.

Urban farms clean the air, regulate local climates and store carbon to encourage biodiversity.

We need land that promotes better nutrition and lifts people out of poverty. We need land to fight climate change by encouraging biodiversity and carbon sequestration, while still providing affordable housing and thriving places where people can live and work.

This means that we can’t afford to ignore the little pieces of land in cities and towns that have been neglected and are unused. A “right to grow” law could be one way to bring these to life, while empowering people who love where they live to help improve it.

Jess Davies is chair professor in sustainability at Lancaster University, England; Charlotte Hardman is a senior lecturer in psychology of appetite and obesity at the University of Liverpool, England; and Sofia Kourmpetli is a lecturer in plant sciences at Cranfield University, England. 

This article is republished under Creative Commons license from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Main image: Priscilla du Preez

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