Edible town
2014-07-10 | Text: Tatiana Petukhova | Photo ©: from the archive of the project «Incredible Edible Todmorden» | 5570

The basic trend, which started in the framework of the implementation of the sustainable development concept, is a transition from any individual solutions to integrated initiatives. It is not just about energy efficiency, development of clean energy or, let’s say, large-scale planting of streets. It is about creating smart territories where all of these individual solutions are harmoniously intertwined in a single unit, giving a completely new quality of life. 

Equipping all urban roofs with solar panels and all lighting devices with energy-saving bulbs, planting streets with trees will not necessarily lead to a fully functional smart territory; the city may still remain just a set of separate solutions. The unity shall be initially designed for new qualities and applied technical solutions shall acquire these qualities. If we want to raise a healthy generation of children, no matter how many dirty factories we close and if we constrain the use of polluting industries, we will still fail to reach the goal. Children will be less sick but they won’t become healthier – at least until the spine-traumatizing asphalt walkways are replaced with safer ones. Only an end-to-end solution is a path to a quality for the new order.

Another crucial point is that the creation of new quality is inevitably connected with the necessity of lifestyle and thinking changes. In this respect, there is a very interesting example in Todmorden, a small English town in West Yorkshire, with a population of 15,000people. Its inhabitants turned their hometown into a horticultural paradise: they generally created edible landscapes throughout the community by growing vegetables, fruits and herbs; they promote urban gardening and created a new view of citizens to the world around them. 

Today, walking down the streets of Todmorden, you may pick one of the many apples from the apple tree and eat it without fear – it is guaranteed to be environmentally friendly and totally free. Don't want an apple? Then you may take any other fruit or vegetable – whatever you want.

The project “Incredible Edible Todmorden” brought the transformation of the town to life. It is interesting that the project was neither a state nor a commercial one. It has no investors, and it was initiated without any financial investment – by ordinary community members Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear. They managed to involve all the citizens. The project has lasted for more than five years, and all of its participants are volunteers. All they want is a better world for the future generation.

We talked to organizers of the project and asked them how they managed to make their town so edible.


– What was Todmorden like before the project?

Mary Clear (M.C.): At the point when we started “Incredible Edible Todmorden” found itself on the edge of a cliff – within the period of economic recession. The market fought hard, but stores and street markets were full of empty shelves. More and more the town became a place where no one wanted to come or to stay and live there.

– How did the idea to change the town come about?

Pam Warhurst (P.W.): I started to think hard about the future after attending a Conference involving Tim Lang – an English scientist, Professor of food policy at the University of London. His message that we have exhausted the resources and our kids will pay sorely for that pushed me to thinking about the future of the planet, the future of our town, the absence of a market and employment levels. That was the reason why we launched the project “Incredible Edible”. By the way the name of the project was devised by Mary`s daughter Emily. We thought that the situation could be changed only by uniting everyone. So we asked a very simple question: is it possible to find a language that unites people regardless of their age, income and culture, which will help them to find a new lifestyle, a new way of seeing the world around them, to think about the resources they use to communicate with one another? We found the answer. That language was food. We created a slogan: “If you eat, you participate!” 

We never consulted with anyone – we just worked out a simple plan and presented it at a public meeting. The community supported us. At that meeting, we said: “Let's imagine that our town is made up of three plates: community plate, the way we live our everyday lives; education plate – is what we teach our children in school, and those skills, which we share with each other; and business plate, which is what we do with the pound in our pocket and which businesses we choose to support”. We thought that even if we managed to promote at least one of these “plates”, that would be great. But we managed to roll all three, and we did it without hundreds of pages of strategy, money and bureaucratic delays. No one gave us permission, we just did it!



– What changes have occurred in the life of the town, in your so-called "plates"? And how did you manage to attract all of citizens?

P.W.: Regarding the community plate - we started with a simple seed swap. Then we took a plot of land – the strip along the main road- and turned it into a really lovely herb garden with edible greens. On the corner of the parking spaces near the station we made vegetable beds for everybody to share and pick. The new Health Clinic Center, for some strange reason, was fenced with prickly plants, but now is surrounded with fruit trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables. In front of the police station corn is growing and near the old people's home we planted edible herbs and vegetables so the inhabitants of the homes could pick and eat and grow them themselves. We have a lot of similar examples.

We attract creative people who suggest fabulous designs in those raised beds to our team, we explain to people what and where food is growing. It is very important because many people recognize vegetables only when they are packed and with eating/cooking instructions enclosed. We're in partnership with a high school: we designed and built an aquaponics unit on a free plot of land behind the school building. We breed fish and grow vegetables there, and kids are helping us. The school has started teaching agriculture. And now we have started to think how we could help children get excited about growing food to gain professional qualification.

So we got some land that was donated by a local garden center. Volunteers helped us to turn it into an educational center with greenhouses, raised beds, and everything you need for gardening. Today the center also helps to educate planting skills to unemployed people. 

And the third “plate”. We realized that the promotion of gardening motivates people to buy locally made products. We decided to support local producers, collected money, bought sign boards, put “Incredible Edible” on the top, gave it to every local market trader, and they added the product range they were selling. It was an absolute success, their sales increased! 

Then we launched a joint campaign with farmers, amusingly calling it “Every Egg Matters”. We have marked those who sell eggs from their gates on the map of Todmorden. Initially, we started with four, and now we have got to 64. And the result was people started asking for local eggs from Todmorden, thus farmers had to increase the number of egg-producing chickens. Some farmers started to produce cheese, meats, pies and other products that they would have never produced before if the project didn’t exist. The number of market stalls selling local food increased. Of course, these are small steps, but now we see that all that increases economic confidence of local manufacturers. The survey that local students did for us showed that 40% of all food sellers increased their profits thanks to our project.

Now the town is immersed in greenery growing around fruit and vegetables. We're calling it a promotion of gardening and can say for sure that our project has turned into something more than just a cultivation of vegetable production. All actions provide us an opportunity to involve people within a unifying process; we are all part of the same “puzzle”.   

Sure, that is not nuclear physics. This certainly is not clever or original.

But this is inclusive. This is not a movement for those who work by themselves. This is a movement for everyone. 

Changes in the life of the town led to the emergence of a new type of tourism – vegetable tourism. People from all over the world come here to look at the edible landscape and poke around in our raised beds – even when there's not much growing. Especially for them we developed an Incredible Edible Green Route. It includes exhibition gardens, edible towpaths. The route takes people through the whole town, passing by our cafes and small shops, through our market. We hope that by changing the route we also change people`s behavior. 


Todmorden is a town overwhelmed with flowers and greenery. Green corners and gardens around the city is a result of gardening propaganda.

Can you imagine – the corn grows in front of the police station. Policemen are glad. And visitors too.

"If you eat – you participate" – the slogan of the project. All that grows in the town may be used by everyone.

– What is your understanding of an edible landscape?

М.С.: Edible Landscape means that on your way to the doctor you may pick some apples, and on your way back you may gather some rhubarb or herbs. Edible Landscape means that when you got off the train, you can gather herbs for dinner and take them home. Edible Landscape means that when you go to the police to report about your stolen car, you can take a bit of corn or other vegetables, whatever you want. Edible Landscape means “to share your food”. This supposes that people keep the place where they live clean and care about the environment.

– How did you find a solution concerning the types of plants to grow in order to achieve the best results in terms of eco-design and farming?

M.C.:
it was a process of trials and error. Sometimes plants we've tried to grow, just “didn't work”. For example, carrots. In general, most vegetables, which grow in the ground, “don’t work”. And then we found out those fine herbs, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and corn suit perfectly. We chose plants for their durability, reliability, color and shape.

– When implementing any even wittingly successful project we face some difficulties. What were they like in your case?

М.С.: Sure, we did face some difficulties on our way, but they were expected, because nobody gets paid: we are all volunteers, we have no office, no budget, it all runs on enthusiasm and the kindness of people. 

Initially there were problems with the assistance of volunteers; after all, historically, people in our country had a clear position: “Do not touch our land”. 

Also we had to overcome the mentality: people felt embarrassed and did not dare to take food that they didn’t plant or buy themselves. But our idea caught on very quickly. 

It was also very hard to start working with the institutes. Although, sometimes it was very easy. For example, as it was with the police. Police officers enjoyed vegetables planted near the police station.

P.W.: It turned out that people are ready to change; they react to stories about food. They want to make a difference, understand with the whole being, that it is a time to take responsibility and share their kindness with others and the environment. Now we feel the support of not only the public, but also the authorities. Local authorities decided to implement the idea of the project “Incredible Edible” everywhere. The free land registry was established. Landowners who do not cultivate their land, or the elderly, who are not capable to do that can add their plots to the register. In turn, those who wish to cultivate the land and make use of the land could do it with the received permission. The authorities also instructed their staff to help us grow plants and keep the plots in order.



To grow the “another” generation you need to change your lifestyle and the way people think. In Todmorden children from birth are inured to grow food. Thus, everyone is a participant.

– What will be the next step in your project?

М.С.: The next step is a secret, even for us, because most of what we have achieved, we hadn't even planned. But I will say that one of the novelties is that our local farmer is planning to launch the production of his own tea. 

In General, we do not expect that by the year 2018 our project will make the town self-sufficient in food: but we know more people will buy local vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat and eggs.

– Do you promote the project? Offer to share your experience beyond Todmorden? What feedback have you experienced?

М.С.: Due to the fact that we were prepared to go to people, whether it was six people in the Church, or the House of Lords, we managed to establish communication. Due to this fact, we receive invitations from different parts of the country to share with other people what we have learnt. And we have never asked the press or TV to help us; they always came to us by themselves. In addition, we have a wonderful website and online presence which really helps us today.

P.W.: In every hall, in every city, wherever we tell our story, the hall burst out. People respond to the stories about food. 36 cities in the UK are following the projects like “Incredible Edible”. We never thought it would happen, but it happened. In other parts of the world they also have a community: in America, Japan and New Zealand. People after the earthquake in New Zealand visited us in order to incorporate some of public spiritedness, to help to develop gardening in the Centre of Christchurch.

– What advice can you give to those who are just starting on their way?

P.W.: If you want to change the world around you, start little by little, start at the local level. First, do not plant prickly bushes around public buildings. It is a waste of space. Second, create edible landscapes and routes on the main streets, in parks, anywhere, so children could pass near the food every day. Inspire local designers to create plots of food in the city center as a part of the urban plan, rather than put them in the suburbs, where nobody could see them. Make schools take this seriously, make people aware of the importance of the environment and locally produced food. Make it a central element of school culture and you bring up an entirely different generation.

And, most important, making seemingly small steps in this case, do not fold in front of complex arguments, according to which such “minor actions are useless in the face of tomorrow's global problems”, because I've seen the effect of minor actions. It’s incredible!

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