Green Growth: the Incredible Edible effect

Julian Dobson is a writer, speaker and researcher interested in how to make towns and cities better for everyone. He previously edited New Start magazine and now runs his own company, Urban Pollinators.

Why has a local food movement that started in a rather run-down Yorkshire mill town turned into a phenomenon that’s catching people’s imagination around the world?

Incredible Edible Todmorden has been going six years since its co-founder, Pam Warhurst, came back from a conference inspired to take action in her community; since community worker Mary Clear dug up her rose garden and planted vegetables with a big sign saying ‘help yourself’; and since ‘propaganda planter’ Nick Green turned the derelict medical centre where mass murderer Harold Shipman used to practice into a free feast for passers-by.

Today there are more than 50 Incredible Edible groups around the UK,linked under the auspices of the community network Locality. In France more than 300 groups have sprouted up, loosely connected via social media; and there are many more worldwide, from Montreal to Mali.

More importantly, the Incredible Edible ethos is filtering into the thinking of many other organisations. Urban designers are looking at how they can rethink towns with edible plantings. Schools and colleges are putting growing and horticulture into their curricula. Universities like Leeds and Leeds Met are creating edible campuses. In Lambeth there’s an Edible Bus Stop.

Todmorden continues to attract media coverage from around the world. This isn’t because there’s anything particularly unusual about the stuff that’s grown there – why would a TV crew from Brazil turn up at the far end of Calderdale to look at turnips? It’s because what’s happening in Todmorden provides clues about how to rethink places and communities in an era of continuing austerity.

The work of organisations like the Trussell Trust has demonstrated the need to take immediate action to help the rapidly rising number of people in the UK who are going hungry because benefits are delayed, a crisis such as sickness has struck, or because low wages are simply not enough to pay the bills and feed the family.

In such circumstances actions that empower people to take control over food, that most basic of human needs, become essential – not just a nice thing for nice people to do to make their towns look nicer. Where political action has run into the ground, communities are deciding they can’t wait for the government or the council to get it right. They are leading, and some politicians are starting to follow.

What Incredible Edible Todmorden and its many offshoots are finding is that people can take action where they live to reconnect neighbours through conversations about food; they can rethink learning and teach their children skills and knowledge that have been lost in a supermarket culture; and they can provide new opportunities for businesses.

There are market traders and cheesemakers whose work relies on Incredible Edible Todmorden, while the nearby Incredible Farm is teaching apprentices horticulture skills and providing learning opportunities for children and young people. What started with slightly anarchic plantings in public places is actually a model that can begin to reconnect communities and local economies.

In Todmorden people are thinking differently about the town as a whole too, with an edible Green Route that connects the health centre, theatre, market, station and canal towpath, bringing a sense of unity to the town and creating important habitats for pollinating insects.

Encouraging people to think differently is the reason why we’re now publishing the book of Incredible Edible. Written by co-founder Pam Warhurst with Joanna Dobson, it will explain why the Incredible Edible effect has caught on in so many places and how it could happen near you. It aims to tell the story, encourage those who are planting their own Incredible Edible ideas, and enthuse a new wave of potential changemakers.

In true Incredible Edible spirit, we’re crowdfunding the resources to get it published. You can pledge as little as £1 and if we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. We have a week and a half to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us. As they say in Todmorden, if you eat, you’re in.

In such circumstances actions that empower people to take control over food, that most basic of human needs, become essential