Urban foraging and the uncertain meaning of food:

I recently had a paper accepted in Geoforum as part of a special issue on urban food sharing, organised via the ERC Sharecity project at Trinity College Dublin. As the paper itself is quite long (and could be improved in all sorts of ways), I wanted to take the opportunity to offer a synopsis of what it’s about. Drawing on my doctoral fieldwork in London looking at informal food foraging and gathering practices, I wanted to critically consider emerging understandings of cities as productive or edible landscapes. During the research, I encountered innumerable fascinating examples of people and communities rethinking the urban spaces they inhabit and finding ways to reconnect with urban nature through the edible plants growing around them. The potential for cities to be food-producing, as well as food-consuming, is something increasingly endorsed and incorporated at policy and planning levels, as well as through the day-to-day practices of residents.

However, urban landscapes are by their nature diverse, uneven and mosaic-like. They demonstrate a densely clustered range of ecological, legal, cultural and material conditions, with the result that the meaning of spaces and plants can be understood in quite different terms by different people and entities (and at different times). The central argument of the paper is that while there are a host of already-growing, edible plants across many cityscapes, their status as food is not preordained or inscribed in the plants themselves. Urban plants become food through the social and material relations in which they are enmeshed. Their potential as “food” is far from a given. In the paper, I explore three vignettes demonstrating this underlying uncertainty: fruit gleaning and the idea of waste, the troublesome status of Japanese knotweed, and the unsettled relationship between urban botany and foraging.

Over the last few years, various fruit picking and gleaning networks have been active in London, making use of surplus or otherwise wasted fruit in domestic gardens, parks and streets. Such activities mean repurposing excess fruit for good causes (such as local community kitchens) and bring a range of individual and communal benefits to those taking part in picks. The possibility of fruit growing and going to waste in a city such as London is a central motivation for many taking part. And yet, what comes to be understood as food, and therefore understood as waste, is dependent on the accessibility and usefulness of the fruit in question. Despite their proximity (and for good reason), the vast quantities of blackberries growing alongside the city’s railway tracks enter far less into consideration as food waste as the array of fruit trees growing in local parks.

In the case of Japanese knotweed, it has come to be seen as a non-native and invasive species par excellence. It is feared and hated in equal measure for what it might do to buildings, insurance premiums and existing ecologies. Yet it is also both successful and – when not applied with herbicide for its eradication – edible. Company Drinks – a community interest company – has played with some of the plant’s difficult status by producing a knotweed soda and inviting discussion around its meaning. Interesting amid this is how cultural labels of “edible” and “invasive” have seemingly transitive properties and inflect each other, irrespective of the specific material qualities involved.

Foraging offers an alternative way of reading and interacting with a city’s spaces and plants. It is a quite particular form of urban botanical encounter but not the only one. The final example explores how botanical transect surveys present another way to imagine the value and purpose of urban plants, not only as a source of food, medicine or materials. Foraging and botany should not be understood to be in conflict over the meaning of urban plants (as there can be a great deal of crossover between the two) but occasionally there can be tension between different ways of imagining urban nature. On the one hand, botany (and ecology) is about much more than a plant’s edibleness or practical use, and on the other, regimes of urban nature management may veer towards a “hands-off” or museum-like ethos of engagement with urban plants.

What urban space and foraging practices reveal is that food is not necessarily defined by the material edibleness of plants per se but relies on a range of social, spatial and psychological considerations. For some, plants growing wild in city space are by their very presence in such a human-influenced landscape “out of place” and therefore in some sense “polluted” (regardless of the actual material content. It is easy to imagine that food is “produced” linearly through a series of interlinked and demarcated sites – the farm, the factory, the supermarket – and for the most part of the UK’s food, this tends to be the case. However, as we seriously consider alternative and disruptive practices to deal with the problems of our food system – including the many valuable examples expounded throughout the special issue – we also need to address the spatial and social conditions that help generate the meaning of food beyond the matter of food. In order to foster “edible urban landscapes”, we need to think carefully about how urban landscapes render things edible (or not) in the first place.

As I move towards the final stages of my doctoral work, I’d welcome any feedback by email on the paper and the issues it raises (man51@cam.ac.uk).

Nyman, M. (2018). ‘Food, meaning-making and ontological uncertainty: exploring “urban foraging” and productive landscapes in London’, Geoforum (in press). Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718518302641

[Images Copyright the author]