A few years ago I heard about Providence Youth Club in Battersea, London, welcoming a group of farm animals from The Shallowford Trust’s Dartmoor farm to a local city carpark for a week. Londoners could come to see the calves, lambs and pigs in the straw in pens just across the street from shops and cafes. Remembering this has spurred me to learn more about actual city farms – not like this event, where a rural farm brought animals to the city for a while, but farms literally rooted and grounded within cities.
So what have I discovered? There are over 200 city and school farms in the UK. Far more than I’d imagined. Many have been running for forty or fifty years, such as Vauxhall City Farm in London (which began in 1976) and Stonebridge Farm in Nottingham (1980). They’ve stood the test of time. Over these years, urbanisation has deepened, but so too has awareness of our need to interact with nature. “Nature Deficit Disorder” has entered the language, and nature connection has become more recognized as a model for mental health care. Most city farms have threefold aims: education, recreation, and wellbeing.
London is home to many city farms, and no wonder for the need is immense in such a large city. But they’re also active in smaller cities countrywide, like Bath. It must be more and more of a struggle now to open new city farms as demand for urban land is so high, and that land is so costly. But the movement continues. Many diversify – growing vegetables, rearing animals, running farm shops, setting up animal adoption initiatives and opening for pony rides and a chance for children to feed the animals. All creates an income stream but also engages local communities, making these farms a strong presence.
Even living in the countryside, farming can still feel like the unknown. I have lived in rural villages most of my life. The round of the farming year feels familiar – lambing, calving, sowing, harvesting. Yet I rarely set foot on a farm or in a barn, and know little about farmers’ everyday tasks. Yes, I feel connected to the land as I walk in the countryside – but it strikes me that city farms have far closer community links than do most rural farms. A city farm is there in the midst of busy neighbourhoods, and reaches out, day by day.
Feeling part of the cycle of nature is known to have a positive impact on mental health – connecting with the land beneath our feet. We all depend on food and farming to survive from one day to another. Seeing how this farming happens, and even contributing to it or sharing in it in some small way, is empowering. Feeling disconnected, on the other hand, is known to contribute to mental health issues. Whether that is feeling disconnected from place, from other people, from community or from work, all can produce rootlessness, lack of purpose and issues with identity.
City farms, then, can be far more than a green space in the city. Have you been to one? It would be interesting if you would like to share any thoughts or responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you.