The area surrounding Spitalfields and Stepney city farms in Tower Hamlets, East London, looks very different to when they were first set up in the 1970s. The farms grew from wasteland left over from the war and the de-industrialisation of London and were started by squatters intent on bringing some countryside to the middle of the city. Since then, the ever- expanding reach of the nearby financial district has arrived on the doorstep, and East-End gentrification combined with immigration – from both near and far – has changed the make-up of the local communities immeasurably.
“We are right in the middle between what I like to call the Shoreditch trendees, who have lots of disposable income, and the poorer communities in Whitechapel”, says Mhairi Weir, Manager at Spitalfields City Farm. “It sounds cheesy, but this is a proverbial oasis that’s open to everyone.”
The city looks very different but, according to Hannah Leigh Mackie, Education Officer at Stepney City Farm, the role of the farm is similar. “We’re in a very different social, political and cultural climate from the late ’70s, but the themes are broadly the same – community cohesion and bringing a bit of rural fresh air into the city”, she says. “If anything, people are more disconnected to their food with the globalisation of the food industry, supermarkets, increased consumption of processed foods. So it’s even more important to have these sites.”
The farms have adapted with their changing surroundings and have themselves come a long way from their roots. Most are now community interest companies, adept at running projects that connect people to where their food comes from. Spitalfields and Stepney both run outreach programmes that introduce kids from nearby schools to real-life animals.
“I thought it was an urban myth that kids didn’t know that eggs come from chickens”, says Mhairi. “One child asked, ‘Where is the boneless chicken?’ On the one hand it makes complete sense – the chicken she knows doesn’t have bones in it. But rather than make fun, you can use it to start a conversation.” The farm found that so many local schools wanted to keep their own chickens that they built a collapsible coop to lend to schools for a month.
Alongside the animals, Stepney and Spitalfields run myriad projects including vegetable growing, cookery clubs, craft sessions and social events. “I see it as one giant community centre”, says Mhairi. For Hannah, meanwhile, the diversity of ways to get involved is what helps ensure the farms can be representative of their communities. “There’s lots of different projects and lots of different people coming through. That means that they are really open for people to make their own journeys in them and not be excluded by a certain way that it is supposed to be”, she says.
Both farms are located close to Tower Hamlets’ large Bengali populations and make connecting with these communities central to their mission. Stepney has signs in both English and Bengali, and Spitalfields runs a ‘Coriander club’, where a group of volunteers grow traditional Bengali vegetables, and ‘cook up Tuesdays’, where people take it in turns to cook up meals traditional to their culture. “Gardens and farms are universal spaces”, says Hannah. “Whatever country you are from, there will have been a garden or farm somewhere. Through food, you can really find connections with people with different cultural heritages.”
Looking to the future, the biggest challenge, according to Mhairi, is simply “continuing to be here at all”. Indeed, it is remarkable that such large areas of land are devoted to food and farming in such desirable areas of London.
At the same time, there is a growing recognition of the importance of food to a whole number of different debates, and city farms, once outliers for urban food production, have a continuing part to play in this. Hannah says: “If you are thinking about food, you are thinking about the environment, workers’ rights, human health, compassion for animals, land use... all of these different issues come together, and that is reflected in these community food spaces. They cover all the different angles and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the world we live in, the struggles that we have and the way that humans should work together.”