Transition Culture

Ingredients of Transition: Ensuring Land Access

The Challenge

Promoting the idea of local food production and the rollout of urban agriculture, whether in the form of market gardens, allotments or back gardening, will clearly struggle if no land is made available to make it possible.  Many settlements, even if they are built to a high density, will have both land within them that could be used, and also land around them.  Ensuring secure access to this land will be vital.

Core Text

The localisation of the production of food, fibre, fuel and so on will, by necessity, require obtaining access to land.  Our towns and cities could be a network of intensive market gardens, productive fruit and nut-bearing trees, of fish and vegetable-producing hydroponics systems set up on areas of hard standing, of productive ponds and new allotments.  Such a tapestry of land uses would greatly increase the biodiversity and food security of the community, but of course none of it is possible if no-one has access to any of the land needed to make it a reality.

A look at an aerial photograph of any town or city shows plenty of unused pockets of land in or around it, but there are a number of reasons why that land may prove problematic to gain access to.  It may be that the owner is holding onto it in the hope of getting planning permission for development at some point in the future, it may be that its ownership is contested, that it is owned by the local authority to have no use for it, it may even be that nobody actually knows whose it is!  Before we look at the stories of how different initiatives have secured access to land, let’s first cover the basic principles.  In order to be able to own or lease land or property, your Transition initiative will need a constitution, and will need to be a legally recognised entity.  There are only 4 organisational models (in the UK at least) that can do this:

A Company Limited by Guarantee

Industrial and Provident Societies

Community Interest Companies

Charitable Incorporated Associations

If your Transition initiative is an unincorporated association or a Trust, legally speaking it is not able to exist as a legal person separate from the people who run it, and therefore it cannot hold or rent land in its own name.  However, this can be overcome by one person in the group doing so on behalf of the organisation, although it should be noted that in that example, that person would be taking on the legal liabilities for the purchase/lease[1].

So, how have different Transition initiatives managed to access land in their area for projects?  Here are some stories from across the Transition Network.  For Rachel Roddam in Transition Derwent, one of the keys to accessing land was active engagement in the community in a range of groups, which has proved a great way of embedding Transition, and also taking any perceived fear out of making land available to Transition groups.  She is a member of her local Hall and Recreation Ground committees, which had previously ignored engagement with the Transition initiative on particular projects, but now, with a re-energised committee, gives them a much fairer hearing.   This active engagement has opened the door to a number of potential local food projects.

Environmental Change Makers, the precursor to Transition Los Angeles and many of the local initiatives now springing up across the city, began by working with a local church in 2008, who were keen for them to dig up their lawn and make a food garden.  The garden is extended each season, and is maintained by a mixture of local neighbours and Transitioners, who also use the garden for running their reskilling courses.  Much of the produce is distributed by the church.  The success of this project led to the group being asked to support and advise other similar projects.  Joanne Poyourow from the group offers these tips gleaned from their work so far:

  • Land access that depends on a single decisionmaker (church priest, school principal) is MUCH easier to move forward.
  • It doesn’t matter if the groups align perfectly on why they want a garden.  For instance, the church members aren’t fully on-board our peak oil concerns, but they have other reasons for wanting a garden in that space.  if you can structure a “win/win” situation, you have the potential for a great partnership.
  • Land access that is tied up in large-scale politics is very challenging to obtain.  Despite high visibility, it is probably not the best place to start because it takes so long to show results.  It might be wiser to allow these laggards to follow at a later stage in the Transition timeline.
  • When you can get a shovel in the dirt early, even in a small way, it invigorates the whole team.  Enthusiasm builds, everyone gets a taste of the possibilities, and things get moving a whole lot faster.
  • Using resources (community connections, know-how, materials sources, etc) from one small project to build another small project helps spread impact quickly and very visually.  Environmental Change-Makers brought the community connections we had made via the church garden to bear on the middle school garden and that helped the groundbreaking happen much sooner.
  • Capitalizing on an existing trend — like the Alice Waters movement for school gardens — really helps move things along quickly.
  • Projects don’t have to be big to be very successful, and to get lots of publicity and attention.  The church garden isn’t a lot of square footage, but it sure gains media attention, has built community familiarity, and has won neighbourhood affection.
  • Starting small allows you to take care of and maintain the land well. There is a huge learning curve — how to take care of the land, how to build the soil back to fertility, how to achieve/maintain high levels of productivity.  Our society doesn’t have this know-how, we have been through “the dark ages” and now need to rediscover the knowledge base.  You don’t need criticism for under-maintained or abandoned-looking land to add to your burden while you’re getting geared up.
  • Design things so that the garden is highly visually attractive.  This point — to bring art into it — is emphasized in other aspects of Transition, but it is worth saying about land access.  Our first garden was built on a front lawn in an area where (we later learned) the homeowners association prohibited front-yard vegetables.  Yet those same people featured our garden on the neighborhood Garden Tour in spring 2009!  If you make it aesthetically beautiful, it wins people over.

Land access of a less conventional nature has been secured by the ‘Food From The Sky’ initiative[2] in Crouch End in London, an offshoot of Transition Belsize.  They have been working with their local Budgens supermarket to increase its stocking of local produce (it now stocks 1,500 products from within 100 miles of the shop), and have now started a food garden on the roof of the shop.  Getting access to the roof proved complex from a legal/insurance perspective, but now the garden is providing produce for the shop and for local people, and is attracting many volunteers, including pupils from the local school.

On the Isles of Scilly, Transition Scilly wanted to create a community orchard, and approached the Duchy of Cornwall, who own most of the land on the islands, to ask for a suitable plot.  The Duchy weren’t keen on letting land to Transition Scilly as an unincorporated organisation, being much happier with leasing land either to individuals or businesses, so one of the members who is already a farmer on the islands, leasing land from the Duchy, added to site to the portfolio of the land he rents.  The two-thirds of an acre was identified by a sympathetic and supportive land steward, and the orchard was planted at a community tree planting day (see left) in March 2010 and is now growing nicely[3].

The old saying “if you don’t ask you don’t get” is well illustrated in the story of the North Queensferry Transition Initiative in Scotland and their quest for a site for a community forest garden.  They began discussions with Fife Council, who invited them to look at the maps of land they own and to identify any sites they were interested in.  Fortuitously, the site they identified is owned by a part of the Council that has a very supportive allotments officer, who is taking their designs[4] to the planning department.  Turns out he is big on actively encouraging models of community gardens as opposed to traditional allotments because it simplifies things for the Council, who only need one contract with one organisation, rather than multiple leases to individuals.

The idea that a Council might actively encourage local community groups to take on land it owns is something that you might find a lot more interest in as government cuts mean that Councils are actively needing to find other ways of managing their assets.  Transition Newton Abbot found that very shortly after their formation, they were approached by their local Council who offered them use of a site in the town that had been unused for 20 years and had become a bit of a jungle.  Their advice for other initiatives is to find out what pockets of land the Council owns and have struggled to find a use for, those sites will be a good place to start.

Often though, the reasons for land not being available are more complex and are outside anything that a Transition initiative can influence.  Almost by definition, land in or on the edge of a settlement is subject to great pressures in terms of possible future development.  Darren Woodiwiss of Transition Town Market Harborough[5] told me that “we must be one of the most in-filled settlements in the country with every pocket of land having been built upon of speculatively purchased by Architects or builders apart from two plots”.  One site is owned by the local Council who have it earmarked for affordable housing, and the other by a family who don’t want it built on, but also don’t want it used by anyone else.  The group has decided to wait until the Local Development Framework is published in the hope that then some sites will be excluded from development.  This earmarking of land for possible future development and its resultant mothballing is one of the greatest barriers to innovative land use.

In Narberth, 10 years of trying to get the local Councils to provide new land for allotments had been unproductive and left many in the community to associate the word ‘allotment’ with feelings of intense frustration.  In 2008 a new approach was taken, and a new group approached a co-operative landowner who was keen to support their efforts.  The 3 acre site was leased on a 10 year lease at a reasonable rent, ploughed and divided into plots.  The allotments have been well subscribed and there are now plans for a community orchard on the site.  The group found input from local Transition groups and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens very helpful.  If your pursuit for land gets ‘stuck’, it may be worth adopting the lesson from Narberth of taking a fresh approach to the challenge.

One big success story in terms of opening up land for community food growing comes from the Isle of Man.  Three years ago the Permaculture Association launched a campaign called “I want an allotment”, where the public were told how to lobby their local authorities, while at the same time, the local authorities were alerted that this was going to happen.  Three hectic years later there are now 7 new allotment sites, most of which can be linked to the campaign.  An all-island planning guidance manual is now being prepared and landowners are being encouraged to see allotments as a form of diversification.

All of this need not take ages either.  The Transition Town Dorchester group, inspired by Transition Network’s ‘Local Food’ book, decided they wanted to start a community farm.  The used GoogleEarth to identify odd bits of land in the area, and identified five.  With the help of the local Town Council they looked into who owned the sites, and found that four were owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.  They called the Duchy office, expecting to be put on the long finger, but had a very productive conversation with an intrigued official who told them “put together a proposal, send it to me and I’ll see what we can do”.  The group duly created their proposal, described as “all very official and professional” and sent it in.

They met with the Duchy official, found that the site they had initially preferred wasn’t available, but that three other sites were.  They negotiated a 5 years tenancy (£200 per year for a 2 acre site), as part of which the Duchy paid for fencing the site, installing paths and also provided top soil.   The site was designed as a mixture of vegetables, a polytunnel, orchard, poultry and a wild area (see right).  The project now has a name, ‘Under Lanche Community Farm’[6], and membership is open to anyone.  When the agreement was signed, a public meeting was held, and now the project is well underway, a local comedy night donating over £1,000 towards the project.  Timing from initial idea to securing the lease of the site?  8 months.

The Solution

Access to land can be secured in a range of imaginative ways.  Work with landowners, seek land that is currently unused and which can be used for free (such as through a ‘Garden Share’ scheme), fundraise to buy some land into community ownership, or invite landowners to see opening up access as being in both their and the local community’s interest.