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Todmorden: The Incredible Edible Town

Herb gardens in strips of earth bordering sidewalks. Apples, pears, cherries, raspberries and strawberries growing all around the town’s health center. Corn growing tall in front of the police station, and fruit trees surrounding the fire station. Vegetables (with invitations to “help yourself”) next to the railway station and bordering parking lots. Residents growing food for themselves in any space not otherwise used. Visitors to the town invited to “take the walk” through the town center to view all of these edible delights for themselves.

No, this isn’t a vision from an inspirational sustainable treatise—it’s a real place. On the maps it is known as Todmorden, a market town of approximately 16,000 people located in West Yorkshire, England, situated between the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds. But to many who live there, it has become happily known as Incredible Edible Todmorden—a real-life example of how far local agriculture can be taken.

Edible Todmorden was the brainchild of local resident Pam Warhurst, who simply decided one day that it was time to take action.

“I’m just a single mom who works in the public sector,” Pam told Calmful Living. “I also had my own café and have done a lot of environmental stuff over the years. About four years ago I happened to be at a conference in London where they were reminding us about the state of play of the environment, and how it wasn’t so great for our kids. Every now and again you get one of these moments where you think, ‘Better do something about this.’ So rather than wait for anybody else to kick off with anything—because there didn’t seem to be a lot of urgency around helping our kids to a better future—I made up Incredible Edible.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t I see if we can get the whole of the town of Todmorden—however long it takes—to change its behavior, to think about how we could live differently, get jobs differently, react as a community differently?’ Then I thought, ‘How the heck would we do that?’ I got the idea we should use the language of food. We all eat; we all buy it or cook it or grow it or like it or dislike it—but we all eat. That is what it was all about. And it’s an experiment, and it’s volunteers, and it seems to work.”

Pam’s Story

Before transforming her town, public and environmental issues had been part of Pam’s life for some time. “I’m an economist by training,” she said. “I’ve never done that because it always struck me as absolutely ridiculous to believe that you could make a scientific exercise out of human behavior, which is all economics is, as far as I can see.

“What I did do is I got into some local politics. Twenty years ago I was leader of my local council, so I know how the public sector works. I know the public sector is filled with really good people who are seriously constrained on what they can do. So I don’t bad-mouth them.

“In 1992 what really struck me was the Rio Summit. I recall them saying, ‘You know, we’ve got some huge problems ahead for our children, around climate change.’ They said—and I remember this very clearly—we must change the way we act. We must use fewer resources; we must do things differently.’

“I got involved in rural stuff; people asked me to help on greening up urban areas and connecting urban people with the countryside for health reasons. At the present I chair the National Forest Commission of Great Britain as my day job, and I do this [Edible Todmorden] the rest of the time—which is a lot of the time.”

The Three Plates

When Pam returned from her pivotal trip to London, her first step was to create a plan of action. “I got off the train in Todmorden and went straight round to someone who’s a real good friend of mine. I said, ‘What would you think if we spent the rest of our lives trying to make this town an example of how ordinary folks can live their lives differently? It’s completely mad, I expect, but maybe we’ll learn enough lessons to try and persuade other people to do things differently themselves.’ She said she was up for it.

“We decided we could divide the way any town works into the idea of three spinning food plates—like in the good old days of the circus.

“If we thought about community—the way we older folks live our lives and what we do in our homes, in our back gardens and our front gardens, and along the side streets and where we shop—that would be one plate, one area of action.

“Then we looked at the skills we’d need to live in a different future. What’s being taught now in schools? Can we do something about that? What do we know that we’ve forgotten—like how to preserve fruit and how to graft trees, and all the sorts of things that would be really handy if you had a bit of a problem with the environment in the future and you wanted to do more stuff yourself? That was the second plate.

“And the third plate is a business plate. If we can create more local jobs, if we can actually get people supporting local farmers and shopping in their local shops for local food, it will give people a chance to consider staying in their hometown. They could become a veg grower or something, whatever it might be, or even a soil scientist—let’s be ambitious. So if we actually think about community, learning and business together, that creates an activity that makes a town really work.”

The First Plate

Once the plan was formulated, it was time to get the word out. “We decided to start with things you could point at, because this is merely an experiment and we don’t write papers and we don’t do strategy documents—we just act. Hence we thought that rather than spend a long time trying to explain to people what the heck we were doing, we would create propaganda gardens all over the town. It says to people, ‘This is what you could grow if you wanted to. And actually you could make the center of your town look jolly interesting if you grew more fruit trees and strawberries and vegetables and whatever else it might be.’

“So we had a public meeting. We put an advert in the local paper that said, ‘Do you want to make this a better town? Do you want to grow more of your own food? Why don’t you come along tonight?’ And 60 people turned up! I simply talked to them like I’m talking to you. The whole room exploded—they loved it; they absolutely loved it.”

Action began straight away. “It started by creating town center sites—some that we asked people’s permission for and others where we asked nobody’s permission. We started with grass verges* that looked horrible and were basically dog toilets, and we made them into herb gardens and they looked lovely; so, who’s going to complain about that?

“We went to the local health center where they had recently built a new £6 million building, but they’d surrounded it with prickly plums, which basically you can’t eat. All the doctors are keen on eating healthy food, so we asked them if they would mind if we planted food around the health center. They said no, providing it didn’t cost them any money. So we did some fundraising, kicked in our own money as well, and we planted it up. We got apple, pear, cherry, raspberry, strawberry and herbs. Kids and families walk to the doctor’s now through an edible landscape that they can help themselves to, if they want. Kids are starting to see how things are growing; so many have only seen stuff in plastic in a supermarket.

“We did the same at the police station—they’ve got a bit of ground there in the front, and we asked if they would mind if we did some planting. We planted maize [corn] in front of the police station, which was hilarious. The police really loved it because citizens of the town started to talk to them. Food is a leveler. And what’s really interesting is that the police now say that in four years, vandalism in the middle of town has dropped and they’ve put it down to these propaganda gardens, because people don’t vandalize food in the same way that they might vandalize pretty plants.”

The work continued. They placed “Help yourself” planters outside the railway station, and vegetables around parking lots. The fire department saw what happened at the police station and planted their own fruit trees.

Then it came time to show it off. “We created an edible green route around the town,” Pam related. “It shows the propaganda gardens. It tells the stories of bees and pollination, and it’s got a few really lovely wooden sculptures along the way. It also takes people past the small shops in our market; so they get to see the whole town, not only the supermarket.

“What has happened is—like it or hate it—people have started to talk about food and local food and have begun to see spaces in the town differently.”

The Second Plate

Pam’s second spinning plate was education—which also took off with a roar. “While all this propaganda gardening was going on, we were talking, we were putting pieces in the paper, we were blogging and doing all this stuff that folks do. We put up a great website, which is run by a fabulous lady who is 68 years old. This changes people’s lives: this lady never got out before and now she takes tours around the town.

“At the high school, we’re building a big unit at the back on derelict land where we’ll be growing fish, vegetables and fruits, with aquaponics and hydroponics. We’ve set that in a landscape of maple trees, hazel trees and bees. The kids are on the social enterprise that runs it and they’re helping us build it. The head teacher now says that local food is the culture of that school, and whatever the lesson being taught, it needs to reference good food being grown and the potential of food bringing communities together.”

The Third Plate

The third plate was one of really ramping up local food sourcing. Pam explained: “If you spend your days walking through edible landscapes, and if you begin to understand the power of local food to bring the community together, then you start to think, ‘Well, I’d like to support my local market,’ or, ‘I’d like to find out what my local farm is selling.’ And that is what has happened. For example, we started a campaign called Every Egg Matters, because first, more than anything, it made us laugh; but we started it because we wanted to showcase local residents who did egg production. We thought that the people of Todmorden would really support local production; and we didn’t have any big bucks to do big campaigns, so we were just going to do something that kind of grew organically.

“We created this stylized map of Todmorden with six of the main roads in it. We put on that map locations of people who kept chickens—but small numbers between 12 and 20, where they were selling at their garden gate, where they were selling to neighbors. We began with 4 producers and now we’ve got 64. It has gotten people to be more aware of the Todmorden egg, if you like, and so they’re going into shops asking for the Todmorden egg.

“It’s all about little shoots of economic confidence. We now have small local businesses making cheese, bread or beer that weren’t there before. So that’s kind of how we do it in Incredible Edible. We start small; I believe in the power of small actions. I think it’s really important that every single person has got a little piece of the jigsaw that can make the future a better place. And the power of just using food is that it’s not complicated. You don’t have to have a degree.”

The World Taking Notice

Now the world is taking notice of this outstanding example of local agriculture. “All the time we’ve got people from everywhere on the globe giving us a ring, coming to visit us, walking around the town,” Pam said. “I was invited over to Barcelona in Spain. I met some young people at the university there, and some professional designers and architects who were brilliant. They have decided to do this project, Incredible Edible, in the middle of Barcelona—a city of 4.5 million people. They said, ‘We love it. We’ve fooled around with blindfolds on for too long. Let’s make our own city better and let’s get people growing their own food.’

“It’s a really good story of really good people, ordinary people, convinced that we’re going to do something to make a difference,” Pam concluded. “You can see the difference in our town—from the spaces that people are growing in, from going into shops that sell seeds and finding they’re sold out. We’ve got the council now asking, ‘How can we do this in other places?’ We’ve got the health center saying, ‘We want to brand your green route as a healthy walk.’

“Over all the years, the conclusion I have come to is this: If you want to bring about real change, you have to engage ordinary folk. Don’t do things to them. Don’t insult them by not telling them why you’re doing things. Help them to understand through simple mechanisms, because they’re not stupid, and because they will look after their children and they will look after their town.”

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*verge: (British definition) a narrow strip of turf bordering on a sidewalk, path or road.