Partnering for Urban Food Gardens: In conversation with Karen Washington

Author: Anna du Plessis

In November US activist and urban gardener Karen Washington visited the EDP and shared three crucial elements that are necessary for urban food gardens to thrive

The Covid-19 pandemic spurred renewed interest in urban food gardens as a way of protecting vulnerable communities in cities, and there are numerous food growing initiatives underway across Cape Town. Indeed, urban food gardens now form part of both the Western Cape’s provincial food security plan and the City of Cape Town’s approach to urban agriculture.

Expanding food gardens is not easy however, given the hugely unequal access to land and resources. And, while urban gardens have a host of proven benefits for communities, they cannot solve food insecurity alone. 

Learning from other global cities is key, especially from those ‘breaking new ground’ in raising the food garden agenda.

During her recent visit to South Africa to understand the country’s food security issues in the face of climate change, American food justice activist and urban farmer Karen Washington joined an EDP ‘Recipes for Partnering’ dialogue to discuss the role that urban food gardens can play in food security. 

Karen shared lessons from her extensive experience in setting up, running, and supporting thriving community food gardens in New York City. In turn, participants – who included urban food gardeners, civil society representatives and government officials working in the food and agricultural sectors across the Western Cape – shared insights from the ground. 

Watch the 5-minute highlights of the EDP Dialogue with Karen Washington:

While urban food gardens are not the panacea for food insecurity and hunger, the dialogue confirmed that they can increase food security in some communities, bring people together, and harness collective action for larger initiatives. 

The conversation revealed three crucial elements that are necessary for urban food gardens to thrive: access to resources, connected communities, and collaborative systems.

Access to resources

“In the beginning, the guerrilla gardening movement took over spaces and just started growing. But we realised that we needed help.” Karen Washington

Starting an urban food garden requires access to land, water, good quality soil, and funding. The New York City municipality supports urban gardeners by sponsoring vacant plots of land on four-year leases, and providing free water and compost, plus fencing and insurance. This wasn’t always the case: initially, food gardens were set up by ‘guerilla gardeners’, including Karen, claiming empty sites and planting without approval. However, it was soon clear that these gardens couldn’t be run without support, and growers lobbied the municipality. 

Could this approach work in Cape Town? Land is a deeply contested resource here. The urgent need for housing, community facilities, and economic opportunities puts extreme pressure on vacant land. New York City’s use of short-term leases could be applied to counter this, where land still awaiting development could be used to grow food in the interim. These food gardens could then be incorporated into larger developments. We need to look at vacant land beyond its economic potential, as community assets that can feed and support local communities.

The City of Cape Town may not be able to provide free water and compost, but it could promote circular economies where food waste is turned into compost, and grey water treatment processes and other water-saving initiatives can provide water. We are already seeing the impact of some micro-initiatives supported by the state. The private and NGO sectors could also help to plug gaps through funding, donating resources and sharing their expertise. 

Connected communities

“Food is at the centre, but it is all interconnected.” Karen Washington

Community gardens are more than just vegetable beds – when they work, they are places of connection and empowerment. Community food gardens allow people to reconnect with the land and each other, and to share know-how on growing and preparing healthy food. Community gardens are also places to build connections between generations and to share inter-generational knowledge. 

In New York, gardeners share information about medicinal plants, culturally significant food, and historical gardening practices. In Cape Town, where many communities are still fragmented by the legacy of Apartheid spatial planning as well as poverty and social struggles, spaces for reconnection, knowledge and story-sharing are essential.

Urban food gardens are also gathering points for people to unite around issues affecting their communities. In both United States and South Africa, where people of colour continue to be marginalised, community gardens can provide a space for collective action around injustice. Activism around food security could become broader activism for societal change. 

Collaborating for food security

“There is this mindset that by helping poor people, you’re taking away something from people who are wealthy. But this just isn’t true – you lift everyone up… It’s a win-win for everybody.” Karen Washington

Collaboration and partnerships between the state, civil society, private sector, and communities are critical for flourishing food gardens. In New York, after years of activism and lobbying, the municipality now has policies that support and regulate small-scale food production in urban food gardens. During the Covid-19 pandemic, community activists lobbied for the city’s 400-plus gardens to remain open despite lockdown regulations, proving the power of urban food gardens as connection spaces and sources of affordable, healthy food. 

Food gardens are popular in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest urban settlement with many gardens located in school grounds. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

In Cape Town, the Covid-19 pandemic also showed the significance of community food gardens and feeding schemes which saw communities collaborating to grow vegetables and coming together to support each other. There is a greater understanding of how these initiatives can help the municipality reduce hunger and malnutrition, and that both parties need one another. The private sector also has a role in supporting these initiatives. 

A way forward

With so many families going hungry, food gardens can play an important role in providing affordable, nutritious food, and we need to work together to find the most effective way forward. 

To do this, we need to understand the system first: where are Cape Town’s urban food gardens, and who is running them? What are their needs? How can they be supported, and who needs to support them? And where do new urban food gardens need to be set up? 

The Western Cape Food Forum, which is convened by the EDP, will continue to provide a platform for discussion and collaboration around this important issue.

With special thanks to Karen Washington for her generous participation, and the US Consulate General Cape Town for supporting Karen’s trip to South Africa.

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