Owing to its capacity to improve the livelihoods of an ever growing urban population (FAO), urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) has acquired an increasing relevance in a world where food and financial insecurity set the scene. Whilst in many developing countries UPA is essential for a basic food security level, it often assumes different connotations in developed countries.
Here UPA is frequently motivated by the demand for the production of better food quality in response to an increasing commercial food distrust. Furthermore, it often represents the catalyst of new social dynamics, social reintegration of marginalized groups and community building activities in the framework of an emerging agrarian multi-functionality. In addition to the UPA initiatives, often triggered within the civil society in developed countries, there are also other activities that in general aim to strengthen the rural-urban linkage through consumer/producer alliances such as Community Supported Agriculture, box schemes, local farmers markets, etc.
This article reports the lessons learned about the establishment and management of a civil society association that realized a community vegetable garden in the peri-urban area of Rome; specifically, it focuses on the tools used to enhance participation/sociability as a base for the development of a strong and reliable multifunctional food production system. An eight month research was implemented to analyze members’ motivations, expectations, shared values and socio-economical/cultural backgrounds, including the related internal/external social dynamics. Special attention was given to how this group constructs action networks and alliances.
UPA in Rome
The city of Rome is in continuous expansion and the lack of a green belt triggers an urban sprawl. Green, rural areas and the associated socio-cultural/economical practices are seriously damaged if not completely lost. Consequently, the import of food constantly grows as the city devours more land. UPA represents an extraordinary occasion to safeguard green areas that can provide food and extra services as well as a more natural environment and a cleaner air for its citizens.
UPA activities in Rome are mainly carried out informally by private citizens often in occupied lands and river embankments. In three cases they were accomplished by young associations. There are several elements that lead us to believe that UPA is a growing phenomenon. For instance, the increasing institutional interest for further UPA development supports this supposition.
The case study
The biggest UPA civil society association in Rome is called “Acqua Sole Terra” (Water Sun Land); it is composed by 111 households (200 more are on the waiting list), each of which manages a 40/50 square meter vegetable garden. The association was established in April 2009 with the logistic support of a big farm cooperative “Agricoltura Nuova” which also provided the land (eight year lease). The association’s main slogans are: sociability, sharing, having fun, re-establishing a contact with nature, food quality and sovereignty. The main claims are: the use of public lands/funds to expand UPA, institutional acknowledgement and the right to produce food in the (peri-)urban areas.
Strategic participatory tools: the lessons learned
Enhancing internal participation/sociability and improving its networking capacities (with authorities, institutes, cooperatives, etc) were the key factors that brought about the foundation of the association itself. In these years, it has facilitated the sharing of information/knowledge/values as well as nurtured new projects and strategic alliances/partnerships.
- Association foundation and expansion:
The Cooperative “Agricoltura Nuova” has actively supported the formation of an association by sharing its ideas on UPA with its customers/partners as well as by providing meeting locations and other informative material (brochures, videos, etc). Informal conversations and discussions followed the creation of a first little group of participants. Email correspondence was widely used in this first phase. Quickly, information started to circulate widely by word of mouth and boards began to appear. As interest increased, different meetings were held in the Cooperative and experts (lawyers, agronomists, etc) contributed to legalizing the association and to writing down its regulations. After one month, a “farmer party” took place on the land dedicated to the UPA activities; it attracted a lot of curious people from the neighborhood and other areas. Just in one day, the participant list grew drastically and a waiting list had to be made. An article written on a national newspaper contributed to arising more interest on this new association.
The cooperative “Agricoltura Nuova” was established over thirty years ago in the western peri-urban area of Rome. It represents the most affirmed reality in the context of civil society initiatives aiming at developing more sustainable food production systems. This cooperative is well acknowledged by institutions and has an extended network that includes partners at local as well as regional and national level. Considering the evolution of other minor associations in Rome, we can observe that in this case the difference was made thanks to the cooperative’s active role in facilitating participation to this new initiative. Besides the logistic help, the cooperative provided internal and external credibility for the foundation of the association. On one hand new members were encouraged to participate, being cooperative participation considered a guaranty of feasibility and reliability. On the other hand institutional interest and participation were favored. By stimulating people’s participation (website, emails, announcements, etc) to the many activities carried out regularly by the cooperative, the association maintained a constant and strong relationship with it.
Main lesson learned: Collaboration with an experienced group facilitates the emerging of a new group. Besides logistic support the experienced group provided external/internal credibility.
- Familiarizing with agriculture:
Agronomists regularly carry out free agrarian lessons every three weekends in average. The aim is to inform new aspirant farmers about organic agrarian techniques. The public is encouraged to ask questions, to give its own opinions, inputs and feedback on the use of previous learned knowledge. Also external people attend the lessons. During the winter season, these lessons represent the most important social meeting occasion; as the time spent on the fields diminishes, farmers have less opportunities to meet. To provide further sociability occasions, organic dinners follow every lesson. Outdoor lessons are also held directly in the garden during the spring and summer periods.
Excursions for primary schools take place on the field thanks to the financial support of the regional agrarian department. Simple drama representations stimulate children’s attention and introduce them to the complex agrarian issues and the food production cycle. Games, tales, drawings, music, costumes and puppets are widely diffused during the excursions. Extra lessons are also held in the schools where teachers and parents’ participation is welcomed. At the end of every lesson cycle, a new plot of land is destined to “children” farming.
Main lessons learned: The open structure of agrarian lessons encourages participation and enhances members’ self-esteem. Combining agrarian lessons with recreational activities facilitates further socialization especially during the winter seasons. Theater can be successfully used to capture children’s attention and participation on agrarian issues.
- Reaching all members:
To support participation, it is important that each member receives the information necessary to know what is going on (discussions, initiatives, rules, etc). The association board does its best to facilitate the access to information by organizing meetings where participants can express their own opinions. As it was soon recognized, not every member has an easy access to the web or can attend meetings (meeting reports are published on the website). Consequently, information leaflets, questionnaires and face-to-face interaction are widely used. Anonymous questionnaires are particularly useful in convincing the more reserved ones to express their opinions.
Main lesson learned: do not presume that everyone uses new communication technologies. Always integrate these technologies with more traditional communication systems. To use a simple questionnaire on main issues is a good way to know the opinion of members who cannot or do not want to take part to the meetings.
- Making partnerships/alliances:
Every single member has the right to propose new collaborations with other associations/cooperatives, institutions, institutes and universities. As the associations’ members are highly differentiated in terms of socio-cultural and economical background, they can create alliances at different levels. For this reason, the board encourages every member to propose new strategic collaborations. To create a wide consensus means an easier access for all to public funds, lands and other logistic facilitations such as the use of extra infrastructures.
Main lesson learned: by empowering members to look for new collaborations and by evaluating their different backgrounds as a precious resource, self-esteem increases and participation becomes more active.
- Shared values/interests:
The cooperative and the association board always use a language which aims at reminding and emphasizing the main shared values/interests. This is probably the simplest and most useful participatory tool that has ever been used.
Main lesson learned: using a language which refers to the most shared values/interests stresses the association community character and enhances participation.
- Collective work:
Instead of paying external workers, collective work is organized so as to maintain clean the common space around vegetable gardens. It represents another important occasion for social meetings and like all agrarian lessons it is always followed by a lunch.
Main lesson learned: to avoid external work besides “saving money” stimulates social interaction among members.
- Next steps:
As the association is very young other participatory tools are being planned for the future. The most important are:
- To encourage/facilitate members with an agrarian background to share their knowledge with other members
- To organize seeds/plants exchanges
- To exchange vegetable garden products