Incredible Edible Todmorden: an interview with Pam Warhurst
This interview accompanies our series of Lunch Box Talks about food and architecture - click here for podcasts and summaries the talks. Pam Warhurst talked to Louise Forrester from Architecture Centre Network.
Where did the idea for Incredible Edible Todmorden
It all began when I heard Professor Tim Lang speak at a Landscape Institute conference a couple of years ago - he challenged the audience to grow more local food, for the sake of the planet. On the train back to Todmorden, I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims and to start taking responsibility for our own futures. So Mary and I sat round her kitchen table and invented Incredible Edible Todmorden, a town that does what it says on the tin.LF:
The project has come a long way from the early stages of growing herbs in the town - did you ever imagine it would grow this big?PW:
We knew this was a forever project but in all my life - in both the public and private sector - I have never done anything more inspiring and worthwhile. And what’s more, people the world over just get it.LF:
How have you found the public response? How did you go about engaging the local community with the idea?PW:
As a general principle we do action not words, so we talk about three spinning plates: the community plate, the learning plate and the business plate. Spinning any one of these can bring real benefits, but by spinning all three together we believe we have a simple and engaging plan of action for a sustainable, local food town.
Every community will have a different menu for these plates: which plate is spun first, and what’s on it, is for each community to decide.
For us, the community plate includes propaganda gardening in public places that shows just what can be done. It starts the debate around local food.
The sense of civic pride from this project is great. LF:
Have there been any surprising sites for planting?PW:
Growing in the grounds of our health centre, supported by the doctors and the PCT; growing in raised beds in front of the police station on the request of the police; growing along the canal bank and wharf which attracts tourists interested in our ideas; growing on our railway station and in the car park - people getting home from work can pick the odd herb or veg; working with our social landlord at their request to put raised beds on our estates and to change their rules so tenants can keep chickens.LF:
Every school in the town is now involved - what do you think is the benefit for the children?PW:
Real benefits come from kids going to a place to learn, everyday, where they can see how their food grows and it becomes just a part of their everyday lives. There are other specifics for us like growing veg and fruit trees in all our school playgrounds and linking that to what’s in the curriculum; running a joint enterprise with the high school to deliver a £750k aquaponics unit, orchard and veg plots on high school land which will supply food for school meals and create two jobs. In addition, the young people themselves will be helping us build the units and learning how to run them.
Because the town was so keen on local food, the local authority chose it as the site to teach the new Diploma in Land skills - we could imagine the local food entrepreneurs of the future coming from a school like Todmorden High.LF:
What's surprised you most with this project?PW:
Not waiting for a report, or permission or funding to make it happen. Just going as far as possible with what we have already and only when we are really stuck, asking for help or finance. The number of people who have got involved has also been surprising. LF:
Is the food grown organic?PW:
We don’t start with the organic principle, as that could set the engagement bar too high. Through wanting to participate, people are already thinking there’s something good about growing more of their own food. On the whole, our experience is people don’t want to poison their children so they start to think about what they are putting in the soil - and so it goes.LF:
Did you experience any problems with planning?PW:
We spoke to senior officers of our council very early on, and this was our message. We will only ask for help when we can go no further with an action ourselves, and then we will probably be asking you to take an obstacle to progress away. This message was well received.
So our model is simple. Planners are thinking about how to identify food growing sites specifically, instead of including them in the general amenity pot, so people could better know where there are sites and where they are needed.LF:
What has been the most unexpected item grown?PW:
Lemons, artichokes and graveyard beans. LF:
Have you made a complete meal yourself with ingredients grown in the town, and if so, what was it?PW:
We had a harvest festival where 400 people brought what they had grown and we just cooked it all up for everyone to share: fish, meat, fruit, veg.LF:
Has the project changed the community's relationship with their built environment?PW:
The project brings people in the town closer together - it creates pride in the community and it gives everyone a part to play that helps us all feel better about ourselves.
And then there’s the impact in the business sector: reconnecting consumers to our farmers through sales on the local market. Through our Chicken Map, we encourage people to keep chickens and to sell eggs to neighbours, stimulating local brand loyalty to a Todmorden egg and demonstrating to our farmers that there is money to be made from producing local food. One farmer has started producing cheese as a result of our project; others are increasing their poultry flocks and investing in local processing units to supply sausages and bacon.LF:
What future developments are planned for Incredible Edible Todmorden? PW:
There is so much more we need to do. We have shown that people are up for this, but we need to make it easier for folks.
Also, people are interested in exploring what a 21st century market town might look like. What sort of investment in our market hall do we need? What about our public realm in terms of edibles? Could we have a growing structure that could show, as the Eden Project does, just what’s possible in a Northern climate, and attract visitors to boot?
We are getting a real sense of excitement from architects and developers around what they can do to put our principles into practice.LF:
Do you think the project is viable as a model for other towns in the UK? PW:
All over the world people are grabbing this idea and making it their own. Our world map shows the story and it’s very exciting.LF:
What advice would you give to a town considering becoming edible?
PW: We have made a list on our website. LF:
What have you learnt from this project?PW:
People know in their hearts things have got to change. People are ready to do stuff for themselves if obstacles to progress like
lack of local land are removed.
We are not starting empty handed. We have public buildings and land, we have budgets that could be better used, we have inspirational champions, we have private sector heroes.
By joining together the 3 plates (community to raise awareness, learning to re-skill and business) to create a local economy culture, any community, village, town, city neighbourhood, can adopt these principles and by remodeling them for their particular circumstances, create a more sustainable future for us all.
Our experience is if we stop passing the buck to someone else and start to bring our own skills to the table, we can most definitely contribute to a better legacy for our children. And have lots of fun in the process.
Food for Thought: what do you think about the relationship between food and the built environment?Food for Thought: Lunch Box Talks - what was saidURBAN FOOD - approaches from around the world.