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London’s urban oases offer a lesson in climate survival

Brixton Orchard has become a haven for bees and beetles.

Brixton Orchard has become a haven for bees and beetles.Credit:Bertie Pavlidis

There are 35 fruit trees, edible hedges, long grasses and billowing wildflowers. It is a beguiling, rambling space that an estimated 500,000 bus passengers pass every day. When I was there, locals ambled through, picking plums. Extensive signage spells out how this edible cornucopia is a haven for bees and beetles in the face of shifting environmental conditions.

It is one of the community green spaces included in an exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum that looks at more than 70 food-related commissions and collaborations by artists, designers, farmers, scientists, chefs and local communities around the world.

Called Food: Bigger than the Plate, the exhibition includes all sorts of concepts for reshaping how we feed ourselves in light of world hunger, climate change, the depletion of natural resources and the loss of biodiversity.

While domestic gardening is not at the core of the show, there’s plenty of relevance for gardeners, even if some of the concepts outlined will be a step too far for many.

Verbena bonariensis and Echinacea purpurea grow among fruit trees and grasses in Brixton Orchard.

Verbena bonariensis and Echinacea purpurea grow among fruit trees and grasses in Brixton Orchard.Credit:Bertie Pavlidis

It starts with the subject of composting – including the use of both human excrement and urine as a fertiliser – and ends with the topic of eating and what sort of plants (nutritious, resilient, wild, local, organic, affordable or other) we want to eat and therefore grow.

As for the sort of urban food-growing initiatives – think community gardens, city farms and roof-top plots – that have been gaining popularity in Australia, Britain and elsewhere, the exhibition is frank in its appraisal of how much food they can produce.

While these initiatives might have a raft of health, social and educative benefits, British urban planners Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen are among those who make the case for a bigger and more coherent integration of urban agriculture into urban space planning if city dwellers are to start growing food to feed themselves.

The show includes a Hong Kong collective of artists, designers and farmers who salvage soil from development sites, grow unashamedly small quantities of food on rooftops – space in Hong Kong being at a premium – and then make zines to share practical tips on growing food.

An American community of farmers called Farm Hack and a French one called L’Atelier Paysan are highlighted for how they design and share open-source farm tools. In Mexico, designer Fernando Laposse is encouraging villagers to plant some of the country’s 60 different types of heirloom native corn by developing a secondary product (marquetry) from the colourful husks.

We hear about people who are variously cultivating oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, incorporating reclaimed materials into their farms or designing tool kits that can be used for the hand-pollination of plants in the face of a total collapse of bee populations.

While the central tenet of the exhibition is the need to make food systems more sustainable and fair, it also serves to highlight how food growing, and gardening more generally, can be radical, experimental and fun. Like the long wildflower- and weed-strewn grasses growing in public spaces all around London, the best gardening is ornamental and environmentally friendly at the same time.

Food: Bigger than the Plate, edited by Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, (V&A Publishing) is available online.

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