During the first year of the Urban agriculture project, the team identified and categorized the various forms of urban agriculture that exist in Sofia, outlined the stakeholders that engage in urban agriculture activities, those affected by these activities or control the resources needed for their implementation. We analysed the models of urban agriculture, the interaction channels of relevant stakeholders, and the key social, economic and ecological issues raised by UA, on the basis of:
25 in-depth interviews with urban hobby gardeners, commercial agricultural producers in the city, civil activists and NGO representatives, representatives of educational institutions at all educational levels, municipality officials, representatives of the downstream food chain (markets, distributors, restaurants);
5 focus-groups with different stakeholders, dedicated to the key issues affecting urban agriculture and its potential to improve the quality of life of urban communities;
5 expert statements, providing concrete and specialized data on the following issues: available land and water resources for UA, the relevance of UA to early childhood environmental education, local authorities and the mechanisms of interaction betweenthe local authorities, the civil and the private sector in the establishment of sustainable UA practices;
Secondary analysis of literature relevant to the research;
Analysis of Sofia municipal strategies and programmes with the potential to accommodate urban agriculture as a socially, economically and ecologically significant activity;
Soil and plant contamination tests of a communal urban garden in Sofia.
Midway through the project we have gathered enough data to support three of our initial hypothesis.
Firstly, in Sofia and its peri-urban areas, there is indeed a variety of UA practices but they are not identified as a significant factor in the sustainable development of urban environments in any municipal programme or development strategy. At present, the strategic visions and local policies in Sofia do not include urban agriculture as a means to improving the quality of life of urban communities.
Secondly, the legal framework regulating land relations, land use and agricultural activities in urban areas is not adapted to the spatial and agronomic characteristics, allowing successful UA practices and it does not utilize the socio-economic and environmental potential of UA.
On the example of Sofia city, UA offers a long-term business niche for local economy and in favour of solving its social and environmental problems.
The main findings of the research so far can be summarized under the following main points:
1. The variety of urban agriculture activities with social, economic, ecological and educational significance in Sofia includes initiatives with various functions:
- educational functions (in kindergartens, schools, universities);
social functions (communal garden projects);
science and research functions (experimental fields at universities and science institutions);
commercial functions (small family farms, mostly in the peri-urban fringe).
The educational effect of urban farming is seen as its most important advantage by the respondents from all studied categories. The educational effect on children and adolescents in particular, is seen as the single most valuable contribution to society that urban agriculture can have. It is a commonly shared belief that if young people know more about food (where it comes from, methods of production, varieties and breeds, pests and diseases, ways to prepare it, etc.), they would develop more responsible consumption patterns, and pro-environmental behaviour, and will make healthier food choices.
2. Mechanisms of improving the quality of life of urban communities:
Social effects on the quality of life:
Social cohesion is the main quality of life indicator that our respondents point as influenced by UA. Common gardening activities are assessed as helping build communities through establishing personal contacts, deepening the feeling of trust between individuals, creating close personal connections and atmosphere of solidarity that lead to social action in other spheres outside UA. Trusting relationships are also fostered between consumers and producers of food in and around the city due to the regular and easy contact established through direct deliveries, farmers’ markets and personal farm visits.
UA is also seen as contributing to better physical and mental health through regular outdoors exercise and involvement in productive work with nature. Personal satisfaction is also an important outcome of this activity. First-hand experience of what it takes to produce high quality food is also considered to make consumers more aware of the value of good food and motivate them to make healthier food choices based not only on the price of food, but on its quality.
At this stage the data does not give enough support to claim that UA has the potential to improve significantly the quality of life of marginalized and socially excluded groups. This is because currently those involved in UA are predominantly young and of middle age, educated and well integrated socially, whereas the disadvantaged social groups have either no easy access to UA activities, or do not have the awareness or motivation to take part in such. Socially innovative practices aimed at helping people in need are still to prove their effectiveness and vitality. The potential to integrate those groups and better their life conditions through UA seems difficult without a focused top-down policies, which are completely missing at the moment.
Economic effects on the quality of life:
It is commonly accepted that UA is not about securing the food a city needs. Therefore the productive capacity of UA is not of interest to our respondents, although they admit there are niche markets that allow for specific small-scale business models to provide employment and income to citizens. Those models include mostly part-time, flexible work for complementary income, although peri-urban areas allow for professional full-time farming.
Existing commercial farming operations in and around the city thrive on the principles of the short supply chains: trust in every link of the food chain, personal contact, solidarity with the producers, care for the nature, very fast feedback and possibility to improve the produce and the service. The reverse side of these closely-knit economic relations of trust and informality is the informal economy: the closeness to the city and personal contact have the effect of making it very easy to sell home-made foods without quality control, financial documents, accounting and paying taxes, where the most common products include dairy, eggs, herbs, and alcoholic drinks. Farmers' markets make attempts to break this informal and risky trade in products and to move towards a regulation.
UA is believed to improve the urban environment, making it more pleasant for citizens and bringing up prices of property in the neighbourhoods where it happens.
Some believe that UA has the potential to drive a whole new city economics around it – the production and sales of seeds, soils, fertilizers, equipment etc, educational books and materials, construction (of sheds), if it were became very popular, but at the moment this is not the case.
Environmental effects on the quality of life:
Although UA practices do not span large urban territories, where they exist they are considered as creating attractive and greener urban landscapes, thus contributing to the quality of the urban environment.
As most UA happens at a small scale and profit is not the goal, other, most often environmental values are at the forefront of UA activities – preserving the health of urban soils, saving heirloom varieties, experimenting with environmentally friendly farming technologies (allelopathy, organic and biodynamic farming, permaculture, exotic types of beehives etc.).
As it was mentioned above, the involvement in producing one’s own food raises awareness about the specifics and difficulties of the production process (experiencing a failed crop, anticipating adverse climate conditions, etc.). This increases the likelihood of assigning emotional value to food in general, additionally to its monetary value, and thus decreases the chances of food being wasted nonchalantly. Another way UA can create mechanisms of reducing waste is by recycling households’ kitchen organic waste as compost, Sofia currently does not run local household compost collecting services, so this is nota realistic perspective for the city unless there is a change in the local policies.
Most respondents believe that urban soils are suitable for gardening as they have not been subjected to industrial farming hence they are not polluted with toxic pesticides and other chemicals, but apart from one urban garden (where the vegetables were tested for heavy metals pollution), it is impossible to declare urban soils free from dangerous contaminants. Therefore, a detailed study is needed to determine which land and water resources are fit for safe food production.
3. Enabling and disabling factors for UA development:
Participation and engagement of all stakeholders – citizens, municipality and the non-governmental sectoral, is seen as key to sustainable UA initiatives. On one hand, top-down policies are not expected to work without grassroots engagement, but on the other, bottom-up initiatives face too many uncertainties if they are not supported by official policies. The non-governmental sector is seen as a needed mediator providing know-how and network connections for producers without easy access to markets and deep knowledge of agroecological methods of production.
There is a marked need for political support for recognising UA and providing a binding normative framework that regulates the use of public spaces for such practices. If UA is to provide more encompassing benefits to the urban communities (including the disadvantaged groups), this cannot happen without the vision and long-term strategies of the municipality and the public institutions. So far the political support by the municipality has been based on impulsive enthusiasm and ‘wishful thinking’ and not on binding rules and regulations. In this way there is no security for gardens, farmers’ markets etc. While the activists insist on rules and specific local legislation, the municipality officials claim there is no need for such policies and their declared support is enough. A lot of our respondents believe that the political adoption of such new ideas is always slow and it is only natural that it will take time and a lot of efforts to achieve it.
Many respondents believe at the moment Sofia is a city that is good for business, but it needs to become a city good for living. This includes growing civil participation in the policy-making and the municipality devolving control of activities that the civil society can do well. Contrary to that, the predominant opinion among respondents who are not municipality officials, is that the priority of the Municipality is to secure projects for financial profit rather than to foster social well-being of the citizens. As it is only official policies that can give priority to non-commercial values (like health, sustainable green development and education) over short-term commercial profit, it is crucial that such policies are not only introduced as overarching strategies, but are implemented and accounted for.
The main conclusion that can be drawn at this stage of the research is that the potential of UA to provide meaningful social, economic and environmental contributions to the quality of life of urban communities is undoubted by the key UA stakeholders. However, apart from its positive educational effects, the outputs it can have in other spheres of social life for the moment are seen as limited.
So far the collected data mainly reflects the personal views and subjective assessment of UA potential by the respondents. In the following stages of the project, we will study the specific natural and social conditions that could determine the extent to which UA can contribute to the wellbeing of Sofia’s citizens. What, how much, by whom and with what social, economic and environmental ends can be achieved by UA activities in Sofia, remains to be answered.