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TEDSalon London Spring 2012

Pam Warhurst: How we can eat our landscapes

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What should a community do with its unused land? Plant food, of course. With energy and humor, Pam Warhurst tells at the TEDSalon the story of how she and a growing team of volunteers came together to turn plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens, and to change the narrative of food in their community.

- Cofounder, Incredible Edible
Pam Warhurst cofounded Incredible Edible, an initiative in Todmorden, England dedicated to growing food locally by planting on unused land throughout the community. Full bio

The will to live life differently can start
00:16
in some of the most unusual places.
00:19
This is where I come from, Todmorden.
00:22
It's a market town in the north of England,
00:24
15,000 people, between Leeds and Manchester,
00:26
fairly normal market town.
00:29
It used to look like this,
00:31
and now it's more like this,
00:33
with fruit and veg and herbs sprouting up all over the place.
00:36
We call it propaganda gardening. (Laughter)
00:40
Corner row railway, station car park,
00:44
front of a health center, people's front gardens,
00:47
and even in front of the police station. (Laughter)
00:51
We've got edible canal towpaths,
00:55
and we've got sprouting cemeteries.
00:58
The soil is extremely good. (Laughter)
01:00
We've even invented a new form of tourism.
01:06
It's called vegetable tourism, and believe it or not,
01:09
people come from all over the world to poke around in our raised beds,
01:12
even when there's not much growing. (Laughter)
01:16
But it starts a conversation. (Laughter)
01:19
And, you know, we're not doing it because we're bored. (Laughter)
01:23
We're doing it because we want to start a revolution.
01:27
We tried to answer this simple question:
01:32
Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age
01:33
and income and culture that will help people themselves
01:36
find a new way of living,
01:40
see spaces around them differently,
01:42
think about the resources they use differently,
01:44
interact differently?
01:46
Can we find that language?
01:48
And then, can we replicate those actions?
01:51
And the answer would appear to be yes,
01:55
and the language would appear to be food.
01:57
So, three and a half years ago, a few of us
02:01
sat around a kitchen table and
02:03
we just invented the whole thing. (Laughter)
02:04
(Applause)
02:08
We came up with a really simple game plan that we put to a public meeting.
02:11
We did not consult. We did not write a report.
02:14
Enough of all that. (Laughter)
02:16
And we said to that public meeting in Todmorden,
02:19
look, let's imagine that our town
02:22
is focused around three plates:
02:25
a community plate, the way we live our everyday lives;
02:26
a learning plate, what we teach our kids in school
02:28
and what new skills we share amongst ourselves;
02:32
and business, what we do with the pound in our pocket
02:34
and which businesses we choose to support.
02:37
Now, let's imagine those plates agitated
02:39
with community actions around food.
02:42
If we start one of those community plates spinning,
02:45
that's really great, that really starts to empower people,
02:47
but if we can then spin that community plate
02:50
with the learning plate, and then spin it with the business plate,
02:52
we've got a real show there, we've got some action theater.
02:55
We're starting to build resilience ourselves.
02:59
We're starting to reinvent community ourselves,
03:02
and we've done it all without a flipping strategy document.
03:06
(Applause)
03:09
And here's the thing as well.
03:15
We've not asked anybody's permission to do this,
03:17
we're just doing it. (Laughter)
03:20
And we are certainly not waiting for that check
03:22
to drop through the letterbox before we start,
03:24
and most importantly of all, we are not daunted
03:27
by the sophisticated arguments that say,
03:29
"These small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow's problems,"
03:31
because I have seen the power of small actions,
03:35
and it is awesome.
03:38
So, back to the public meeting. (Laughter)
03:40
We put that proposition to the meeting, two seconds,
03:43
and then the room exploded.
03:46
I have never, ever experienced anything like that in my life.
03:48
And it's been the same in every single room, in every town
03:52
that we've ever told our story.
03:55
People are ready and respond to the story of food.
03:57
They want positive actions they can engage in,
04:01
and in their bones, they know it's time
04:03
to take personal responsibility
04:06
and invest in more kindness to each other
04:08
and to the environment.
04:11
And since we had that meeting three and a half years ago,
04:13
it's been a heck of a roller coaster.
04:17
We started with a seed swap, really simple stuff,
04:20
and then we took an area of land, a strip on the side
04:23
of our main road, which was a dog toilet, basically,
04:25
and we turned it into a really lovely herb garden.
04:28
We took the corner of the car park in the station
04:31
that you saw, and we made vegetable beds
04:33
for everybody to share and pick from themselves.
04:35
We went to the doctors. We've just had
04:39
a 6-million-pound health center built in Todmorden,
04:40
and for some reason that I cannot comprehend,
04:43
it has been surrounded by prickly plants. (Laughter)
04:45
So we went to the doctors, said, "Would you mind us taking them up?"
04:49
They said, "Absolutely fine, provided you get planning permission
04:52
and you do it in Latin and you do it in triplicate,"
04:55
so we did — (Laughter) — and now there are fruit trees
04:57
and bushes and herbs and vegetables
04:59
around that doctor's surgery.
05:03
And there's been lots of other examples, like the corn
05:06
that was in front of the police station,
05:08
and the old people's home that we've planted it with food
05:10
that they can pick and grow.
05:12
But it isn't just about growing,
05:14
because we all are part of this jigsaw.
05:16
It's about taking those artistic people in your community
05:18
and doing some fabulous designs in those raised beds
05:21
to explain to people what's growing there,
05:23
because there's so many people that don't really recognize
05:25
a vegetable unless it's in a bit of plastic
05:28
with a bit of an instruction packet on the top. (Laughter)
05:29
So we have some people who designed these things,
05:31
"If it looks like this, please don't pick it, but if it looks like this,
05:34
help yourself."
05:36
This is about sharing and investing in kindness.
05:38
And for those people that don't want to do either
05:41
of those things, maybe they can cook,
05:43
so we pick them seasonally and then we go on the street,
05:45
or in the pub, or in the church,
05:48
or wherever people are living their lives.
05:50
This is about us going to the people and saying,
05:52
"We are all part of the local food jigsaw,
05:54
we are all part of a solution."
05:57
And then, because we know we've got vegetable tourists
05:59
and we love them to bits and they're absolutely fantastic,
06:02
we thought, what could we do to give them an even better experience?
06:04
So we invented, without asking, of course,
06:07
the Incredible Edible Green Route.
06:09
And this is a route of exhibition gardens,
06:11
and edible towpaths, and bee-friendly sites, and the story
06:14
of pollinators, and it's a route that we designed
06:19
that takes people through the whole of our town,
06:22
past our cafes and our small shops, through our market,
06:24
not just to and fro from the supermarket,
06:28
and we're hoping that, in changing people's footfall
06:31
around our town, we're also changing their behavior.
06:33
And then there's the second plate, the learning plate.
06:36
Well, we're in partnership with a high school.
06:40
We've created a company. We are designing and building
06:41
an aquaponics unit in some land that was spare
06:45
at the back of the high school, like you do,
06:47
and now we're going to be growing fish and vegetables
06:48
in an orchard with bees,
06:51
and the kids are helping us build that,
06:53
and the kids are on the board, and because the community
06:55
was really keen on working with the high school,
06:58
the high school is now teaching agriculture,
07:00
and because it's teaching agriculture, we started to think,
07:03
how could we then get those kids that never had a qualification
07:06
before in their lives but are really excited about growing,
07:09
how can we give them some more experience?
07:12
So we got some land that was donated
07:13
by a local garden center.
07:15
It was really quite muddy, but in a truly incredible way,
07:17
totally voluntary-led, we have turned that
07:20
into a market garden training center,
07:23
and that is polytunnels and raised beds
07:25
and all the things you need to get the soil under your fingers
07:28
and think maybe there's a job in this for me in the future.
07:30
And because we were doing that, some local academics said,
07:33
"You know, we could help design
07:35
a commercial horticulture course for you.
07:36
There's not one that we know of."
07:38
So they're doing that, and we're going to launch it later this year,
07:39
and it's all an experiment, and it's all voluntary.
07:42
And then there's the third plate,
07:45
because if you walk through an edible landscape,
07:46
and if you're learning new skills, and if you start to get
07:48
interested in what's growing seasonally,
07:51
you might just want to spend more of your own money
07:53
in support of local producers,
07:55
not just veg, but meat and cheese and beer
07:57
and whatever else it might be.
07:58
But then, we're just a community group, you know.
08:01
We're just all volunteers. What could we actually do?
08:03
So we did some really simple things.
08:05
We fundraised, we got some blackboards,
08:07
we put "Incredible Edible" on the top,
08:09
we gave it every market trader that was selling locally,
08:10
and they scribbled on what they were selling in any one week.
08:12
Really popular. People congregated around it.
08:15
Sales were up.
08:17
And then, we had a chat with the farmers, and we said,
08:19
"We're really serious about this,"
08:22
but they didn't actually believe us, so we thought,
08:23
okay, what should we do? I know. If we can create
08:26
a campaign around one product and show them
08:28
there is local loyalty to that product,
08:31
maybe they'll change their mind and see we're serious.
08:33
So we launched a campaign -- because it just amuses me --
08:35
called Every Egg Matters. (Laughter)
08:38
And what we did was we put people on our egg map.
08:40
It's a stylized map of Togmorden.
08:44
Anybody that's selling their excess eggs
08:46
at the garden gate, perfectly legally, to their neighbors,
08:48
we've stuck on there. We started with four,
08:50
and we've now got 64 on, and the result of that was
08:53
that people were then going into shops
08:55
asking for a local Todmorden egg, and the result of that
08:56
was, some farmers upped the amount of flocks they got
08:59
of free range birds, and then they went on to meat birds,
09:01
and although these are really, really small steps,
09:03
that increasing local economic confidence
09:06
is starting to play out in a number of ways,
09:11
and we now have farmers doing cheese
09:13
and they've upped their flocks and rare breed pigs,
09:15
they're doing pasties and pies and things
09:16
that they would have never done before.
09:18
We've got increasing market stalls selling local food,
09:20
and in a survey that local students did for us, 49 percent
09:23
of all food traders in that town said that their bottom line
09:27
had increased because of what we were actually doing.
09:30
And we're just volunteers and it's only an experiment.
09:32
(Laughter)
09:35
Now, none of this is rocket science.
09:37
It certainly is not clever, and it's not original.
09:39
But it is joined up, and it is inclusive.
09:42
This is not a movement for those people
09:46
that are going to sort themselves out anyway.
09:48
This is a movement for everyone.
09:50
We have a motto: If you eat, you're in. (Laughter)
09:53
(Applause)
09:57
Across age, across income, across culture.
10:03
It's been really quite a roller coaster experience,
10:08
but going back to that first question that we asked,
10:11
is it replicable? Yeah. It most certainly is replicable.
10:14
More than 30 towns in England now are spinning
10:17
the Incredible Edible plate.
10:20
Whichever way they want to do it, of their own volition,
10:22
they're trying to make their own lives differently,
10:26
and worldwide, we've got communities across America
10:28
and Japan -- it's incredible, isn't it? I mean,
10:31
America and Japan and New Zealand.
10:33
People after the earthquake in New Zealand visited us
10:35
in order to incorporate some of this public spiritedness
10:38
around local growing into the heart of Christchurch.
10:41
And none of this takes more money
10:46
and none of this demands a bureaucracy,
10:48
but it does demand that you think things differently
10:52
and you are prepared to bend budgets and work programs
10:54
in order to create that supportive framework
10:58
that communities can bounce off.
11:00
And there's some great ideas already in our patch.
11:03
Our local authority has decided to make everywhere
11:06
Incredible Edible, and in support of that
11:09
have decided to do two things.
11:11
First, they're going to create an asset register of spare land
11:13
that they've got, put it in a food bank so that communities
11:16
can use that wherever they live,
11:18
and they're going to underpin that with a license.
11:20
And then they've said to every single one of their workforce,
11:22
if you can, help those communities grow,
11:24
and help them to maintain their spaces.
11:27
Suddenly, we're seeing actions on the ground
11:29
from local government. We're seeing this mainstreamed.
11:31
We are responding creatively at last to what Rio demanded
11:33
of us, and there's lots more you could do.
11:38
I mean, just to list a few. One, please stop putting
11:40
prickly plants around public buildings. It's a waste of space.
11:42
(Laughter) Secondly, please create -- please, please create
11:46
edible landscapes so that our children start to walk
11:49
past their food day in, day out, on our high streets,
11:52
in our parks, wherever that might be.
11:54
Inspire local planners to put the food sites at the heart
11:57
of the town and the city plan, not relegate them
12:00
to the edges of the settlements that nobody can see.
12:04
Encourage all our schools to take this seriously.
12:07
This isn't a second class exercise.
12:10
If we want to inspire the farmers of tomorrow,
12:12
then please let us say to every school,
12:15
create a sense of purpose around the importance
12:18
to the environment, local food and soils.
12:22
Put that at the heart of your school culture,
12:25
and you will create a different generation.
12:27
There are so many things you can do, but ultimately
12:30
this is about something really simple.
12:32
Through an organic process, through
12:35
an increasing recognition of the power of small actions,
12:38
we are starting, at last, to believe in ourselves again,
12:42
and to believe in our capacity, each and every one of us,
12:46
to build a different and a kinder future,
12:50
and in my book, that's incredible.
12:55
Thank you. (Applause)
12:57
(Applause)
13:01
Thank you very much. (Applause)
13:11
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Pam Warhurst - Cofounder, Incredible Edible
Pam Warhurst cofounded Incredible Edible, an initiative in Todmorden, England dedicated to growing food locally by planting on unused land throughout the community.

Why you should listen

Pam Warhurst is the Chair of the Board of the Forestry Commission, which advises on and implements forestry policy in Great Britain. She also cofounded Incredible Edible Todmorden, a local food partnership that encourages community engagement through local growing. Incredible Edible started small, with the planting of a few community herb gardens in Todmorden, and today has spin-offs in the U.S. and Japan. The community has started projects like Every Egg Matters, which educates people on keeping chickens and encourages them to sell eggs to neighbors, and uses a 'Chicken Map' to connect consumers and farmers. Incredible Edible Todmorden empowers ordinary people to take control of their communities through active civic engagement.

More profile about the speaker
Pam Warhurst | Speaker | TED.com