Hi-density Food Chain [ 1.2 ]

Experiments with local food supply in 2 hi-density urban estates
Maison Radieuse, Rezé, Nantes and Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, London

In this continued post I look at two initiatives at the downstream end of the food chain, the consumer end, through the different approaches in two projects I have engaged with in the past few years (2006-2009). Both are in high density public sector housing, one at Maison Radieuse in Nantes, one of Le Corbusier’s celebrated Unité D’Habitation buildings and the other at Broadwater Farm, the sprawling prefabricated 60s Modernist housing estate in Tottenham, London N17


Broadwater Farm is still remembered for the violent riots that took place here in 1985. But 25 years on, it is a hub of communal activity that includes a community kitchen and a food coop run by volunteers. The coop inventively uses surplus produce from local allotment holders thus providing an incentive for them to engage in the local food economy to add to the coop’s sale stock. Monies from this is put back into the coop funds to ‘stretch the local food chain’. This in theory raises multiple possibilities for the future of food in cities creating a space for ordinary people to participate in the food market, a way of envisaging an economic adaptation of the Cuban organopónicos model for the western urban context.


The Broadwater Farm coop buys from coop wholesalers and sells at wholesale prices; there is no profit, and for labour it is dependent on each customer giving 2 hours a month to the coop.
The perennial question, as ever, is how volunteer time is accounted for. This is not an argument for free market practices but for sustainability; volunteer labour in community sector should be considered an externality, that is something not reflected in the price. Community initiatives are too often top heavy in terms of such externalities just as supermarkets are laden with invisibles – food miles, widespread use of precarious labour, etc. Certainly a lot has to do with identity and affiliation; many food coops do not want an association with market practices. But the upshot is the adding up of invisible ‘community externalities' that invariably limit both potential interaction with broader sections of the community and long term sustainability.

The Maison Radieuse marché (market) evolved through a series of experiments with how best to source ethically produced vegetables. At first the residents used a system known as amap whereby 60 to 70 families would have an annual contract with a local farmer thus securing the farmer the income to continue farming; a form of contemporary patronage system to protect the local farmer. But this limits the freedom that the modern consumer has become accustomed to and will not easily give up. Thus amap is likely to be limited in scale.
Equally the Maison Radieuse marché also first started with a close relationship with residents’ own allotments or potager, but this involved ‘heavy organisation’, with volunteers having to get up at 7.30am and so forth.
Out of these experiments came the present simpler form of the Maison Radieuse marché: the small scale farmer-producers set up their own stalls in the entrance hall of the building estate one evening a week on the Wednesday.
The strategic location at the common entrance for all inhabitants is decisive – and this is something that most hi-rise buildings benefit from. The vegetables literally confront everyone coming home from work Wednesday evening. The result: 80 families out of 300 in the building buy their weekly vegetables from the marché in the space of just a few hours.
This amounts to a significant engagement with the real economy of food supply into the estate. The marché achieves this by cutting the number of actors involved to a bare minimum which then allows the marché itself to create the links between ordinary residents, between residents and the producer. And the intent is that the horse comes before the cart so that things can go forward.


Both these examples provide possibilities and critical lessons in different situations. There is a lot more to be done to inculcate a thinking about the food chain into the culture of urban communities. Hi-density estates are the right places to undertake such experiments. And there is an appetite for affordable locally-sourced ethically produced food even in poor households as the video above will testify. If this appetite can be met, the social spin-offs would be more than just food.

Re-posted amplife.org  Sept 2012
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