From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, vegetable gardens became a popular way for European cities such as London, Paris, and Stockholm to help the urban poor become self-sufficient. In the wake of industrialization, London was transformed into a world center, but also a hub of slums, poverty and inequality. To address this issue, public plots and parks were introduced in the 1920s to provide land for residents to use, usually for a small fee. The city's first farm, located in Kentish Town, was established by chance according to one of its co-founders, David Powell. After World War II, London's population declined and by the early 1970s, entire streets with empty terraces and abandoned warehouses were commonplace.
This space was easily accessible and was utilized by groups such as Interaction, a community theater charity that rented a disused wooden patio from Camden City Hall in 1972. They discovered a row of Victorian stables on site and decided to borrow some ponies to create the only covered riding school in London that was not owned by the queen. A conversation at a bar led a group of volunteer retirees to walk to the campsite to dig in the community gardens. This marked the birth of the farm in Kentish Town. At a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D. C., they started by planting edible crops on community plots and then created the Incredible Farm and the Incredible Water Garden. The urban plans of Italian colonies included “spatial organizations rich in symbols” that reinforced the idea that Italians were superior.
In a subsequent conversation, questions were raised about the role that landscape architects should actually play in urban farming. Patrick Barkham meets some of the first pioneers of urban agriculture in the United Kingdom and discovers how the battles that were fought half a century ago are very similar to those fought today. He thought that the last thing an urban worker would want to do when he came home from work would be to do tiring garden work to produce some tomatoes. Public parks were one of the first “instruments” of social reform, an effort to bring green space to the poor masses, but urban farming soon became another tool to improve the conditions of urban masses. When farming in virgin territory, women experienced “a sense of self-realization, personal regeneration and new hope”.
Initiatives such as Kentish Town City Farm and Incredible Edible illustrate the possibilities available for urban spaces. Let's take a brief tour through history to understand how urban farming has evolved over time and its connection with city inhabitants and their gardens. Urban farms hope that the growth of “social prescribing” (doctors prescribing gardening courses or working with animals on a city farm as part of treatment for mental and physical illnesses) will secure their future. In the context of the United Kingdom (UK), these include farmers' markets, cash plans, urban farms, urban gardens, food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, and local food directories. Urban farming has been around since 3500 BC when farmers in Mesopotamia began setting aside plots in their growing cities. In Israel, the first Zionist settlers of the 1920s considered small urban farms essential for developing a new Israeli society.
Zef Hemel from the University of Amsterdam described how in the 20th century “polders” (tracts of man-made lowland with protective barriers or dikes) were created to create opportunities for urban agriculture in expanded cities. Less than 10% of cultivated land was used to grow organic materials and agriculture's total contribution to the economy (excluding diversification activities) was less than 8 million pounds sterling. As we can see from this brief overview, urban farming has been around for centuries and has evolved over time as an important tool for social reform.