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Could Newcastle's rooftops become an urban farm?

A new project in Newcastle is envisaging a future where food is produced on urban rooftops and green spaces

It was The Late Shows that first alerted me to Urban Organisms. Through the window of The NewBridge Project, an art gallery on Newcastle’s New Bridge Street, I could see a production line in progress.

Lots of people were having fun producing – as I discovered – pesto, using locally picked wild garlic (from Newcastle’s Heaton Park) along with oil and sunflower seeds.

Directing a small army of happy volunteers was a lady with a gong.

This was Magdalena Starska, an artist from Poland who is interested in urban ritual and knows a thing or two about turning plant products we take for granted into delicious edibles. That pesto, while packing a punch, really was delicious.

People who helped to mix and grind the raw materials were encouraged to take away a jar. The idea was that they would also take away some food for thought.

Does the city have to rely on the countryside for fresh and wholesome food? Does filling the fridge or the kitchen cupboards (most people don’t have larders any more) have to be dependent on a trip to the supermarket?

That event at The Late Shows – part performance, part practical demonstration – was one insight into a project called Urban Organisms, a programme of events – and the exhibition at The NewBridge Project – exploring and looking creatively at food sustainability in cities.

People making pesto at The Late Shows
People making pesto at The Late Shows

A couple of days after the mass pesto-producing exercise, I went back to the gallery to meet one of the artists who has been involved in Urban Organisms from the start.

This was Sabina Sallis who has a Masters degree from the University of Arts in Poznan, Poland. Magdalena Starska, who made a fleeting visit to Newcastle for The Late Shows, was a friend from university.

Sabina came to the North East eight years ago because her husband is British. She has a studio on New Bridge Street, where artists and other creative folk have colonised former office blocks.

“We started to work on this project over a year ago. Initially it was myself and Lauren Healey (a member of the NewBridge Project programming committee) because we had discovered we had similar interests to do with urban sustainability and food growing in the city.

“We started to talk about doing something together.”

For cities to be sustainable and not a drain on scarce resources, economics and politics have to come into the equation.

But Sabina, Lauren and the third member of the curatorial team, Julia Heslop, a Newcastle-based artist and writer who is also working on a PhD in human geography at Durham University, narrowed it down to food.

“We decided to focus on food because that’s our main concern and it’s what brings people together,” Sabina said.

“It’s something we all have to think about every day.”

Sabina said she has done a lot of work at the Scotswood Community Garden in Newcastle.

“They struggle with funding but they do a lot of good work there. You can learn a lot about the environment and how to work with nature and against nature.

“They grow lots of food there and they keep bees. People learn how to grow their own food on small plots.”

Sabrina Sallis and her daughter Miriam, 3 at the Urban organisms on Blackett street West, Newcastle
Sabrina Sallis and her daughter Miriam, 3 at the Urban organisms on Blackett street West, Newcastle

It was something people had been doing for years across the North East on their allotments, said Sabina. But the idea behind Urban Organisms was to bring the food producing culture right into the heart of the city.

Another important contributor to the project was Mikey Tomkins, an academic researcher, artist and consultant in urban sustainability and urban agriculture.

For his doctorate, Mikey looked at community food gardens on London housing estates. Currently he is working as a consultant in the United States and Uganda, developing urban agriculture projects with poor communities, especially among refugees.

As part of the Urban Organisms project, he created an Edible Map of Newcastle to show how much food could be grown on a 28-hectare area of the city centre.

“Urban agriculture is the practice of growing food in and around cities, providing local jobs and skills, using urban resources and supplying food back to residents within the same city,” he writes.

His Edible Map of Newcastle is “a guide to help visualise a city where fruit, vegetables, livestock, fish, bees and other food sources could flourish and be nurtured in streets, empty rooftops and under-used open spaces”.

It seems to hark back to the Dig for Victory campaign of the Second World War when people gave available green spaces over to food production – except this time there would be no need to plough up parks or cricket pitches.

Mikey, who has also been leading a series of walks around the areas in question, identified various places which could be put to better use, helping to feed us while also building or strengthening community ties.

Central Newcastle’s largest hidden resource, he argues, is its rooftops – nearly 11 hectares of space waiting to be farmed.

He envisages roof gardens – or ‘fields in the sky’ – yielding 40 tonnes of vegetables per hectare.

Empty buildings, such as shops, could be used for growing food. Eldon Garden, for instance, might start to live up to its name if the occasional empty unit was given over to indoor growing with the resulting produce being sold daily in the store.

Mikey talks about aquaponic and hydroponic growing which have become big business in recent years.

“They are water-based food-growing practices, producing both vegetables and fish, or sometimes one or the other,” he writes.

“They can be seasonless, using LED lighting instead of sunlight, or in greenhouses on the roofs of buildings. They are highly productive, sometimes 10 times that of equivalent field growing, making them ideal for the smaller spaces available in cities.”

Mikey suggests that small livestock such as rabbits and chickens could be reared in the city centre and ornamental tree varieties replaced by fruit-bearing ‘fields on sticks’.

What if all this came to pass?

On the other side of Mikey’s map, which he describes as “a provocation for Newcastle”, he shows us a city where greenhouses, beehives and hutches proliferate on the rooftops between Northumberland and John Dobson streets, community food cafes have sprung up and Newcastle Civic Centre, instead of being surrounded by ornamental ponds, houses one of the city’s aquaponics farms, producing a small but regular fish harvest and a weekly salad crop.

In this imagined but possible world, few fossil fuels are involved in food production and lots of jobs have sprung up with the edible plants.

Back at NewBridge Project, Sabina was showing me the growing bags in the window of the gallery where native edible plants were on display, including nettles and dandelions.

A Danish art collective, N55, was planning to set some of these up around Grey’s Monument and the Laing Art Gallery, and also on Northumberland Street, as the focal points of city growing workshops. If the crops they produce could be shown to be as tasty as the Late Shows pesto, this urban agriculture idea could really take off.

Perhaps it has to. As Mikey Tomkins says: “Our future cities will not be the same as the ones we have today, yet one thing is constant: we will need to eat, and there is no practical reason why part of this food couldn’t be produced locally right here in the heart of the city.”

Some Urban Organisms events take place in June, including a micro brewery at NewBridge Project Space on June 5 and 6. For details, visit thenewbridgeproject.com

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