Building movements and protecting green space for urban food production

How to protect urban green spaces for food production? 
From social movements to private trusts. A concept note.

[This is a short concept note by Henrik Ernstson. Download as pdf here:]

In an upcoming article with my colleagues Stephan Barthel and John Parker in Urban Studies  we explore what it means to try to protect land for food production within cities (Barthel, Parker, & Ernstson, accepted). As my colleague Jane Battersby (2012) has argued elsewhere, and as we acknowledge in our article, food security is of course a wider issue than simply growing food within cities—depending on legislation, class relations, access and location of supermarkets, transport routes, and capitalist production of food, amongst other things. 

However, in times of larger-scale crisis the ability to grow food in cities has proven quite important, as recorded in historical records, not least in European and US cities during the first and second world war (but also in ancient times, see Barthel, Sörlin, & Ljungqvist (2010)). Although not providing all food, the ability to grow food in cities has had historical significance to make food shortages less abrupt, affecting less people, thus contributing to the resilience of food security. Our paper builds its argument from within a EuroAmerican historical and social movement perspective, which is important to consider when our arguments are allowed to travel and used in discussions in other places and contexts.

The main assumption in our article, and what we explore, is thus “that the ability to grow food in urban areas depends on two crucial resources: a viable urban ecosystem with sufficient land for cultivation, and practical knowledge of how to grow food.” For urban planning and urban politics, this means to find ways to protect sufficient land for food production, while sustaining the practices and knowledges needed to grow food, including the seeds, tools, and social networks that retain these practices through socialization over time (Barthel et al., accepted). In Europe the retainment of practices can be found in small community gardens, whereas green spaces can be everything from parks, unused spaces in between roads, to urban forests. 

Below I combine arguments from our article, with specific insights given by geographer Richard Walker in his book The Country in the City—a history of how green space has been protected during the last 150 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although Walker has lots to contribute to the social movement perspective described below, I am here only focusing on the practices he summarizes on the work by private and public land trusts. I wrote this concept note as a way to share my writings and readings on how urban green space can be protected with civic associations in Cape Town, and elsewhere. 

Lessons for building urban green and food movements

One contribution of the article lies to think about how land and food growing practices can be protected and sustained in urban landscapes. As we know, there is a cutting-edge competition in cities on how to use land, where green space like parks, green fields, community gardening spaces, urban agriculture and urban forests need to compete with often more rentable and profit-generating activities in the short term (Ernstson, 2013). These include housing development (including land speculation), shopping centres, conference centres, industrial areas, railways, motorways and similar elements that are part of the urban fabric. We write:

“Accommodating urban gardening and food production in cities requires negotiating between various interests wielding differential levels of power to defend their claims to urban space. This negotiation is material in its contestation of physical space, cultural through the construction of alternative imaginaries of urban land use, and political through the engagement with decision-making processes.” 

Apart from the literature on outright nature conservation and the formation of nature reserves in urban areas (Borgström, 2009; Ernstson & Sörlin, 2012), informative in this respect is scholarship on social movements. This literature is useful as it can bring understanding of how social movements can shift the direction of urban planning but also raise issues of importance. 

For instance, Castells’s work on ‘urban social movements’ is useful (Castells, 1983) as it shows how “such struggles must shift scales and span multiple interest groups, move beyond single neighborhoods and wed together grievances or interests into broader claims capable of challenging existing forms of urban reproduction and planning regimes (see also, Harvey, 1996; Diani, 2003).” And in relation to food and the protection of urban green space (that could be used for food production), Walker (2007) “has also eloquently demonstrated the capacity of civil society to effectively structure urban space in his history of struggles over urban land use in post WWII San Francisco.” His argument is that San Francisco’s high ratio of urban green space for farming, recreation and nature preserves has resulted from a particularly active civil society that have worked out ways, with public agencies and private interests, to contest short-sighted economic land-uses proposed by industrialists, and urban planners.

Roles of urban green and food movement

As we do in the article, one can use social movement literature to describe the different roles that urban environmental movements can play in protecting urban green space (Barthel et al., accepted). On one hand such movements works to articulate the value of urban green space in competition with other landuse interests. Thus they both physically, and culturally, play the role as a counter force to shorter-term and profit-driven interests on land. By furthermore physically protecting urban green spaces, they uphold vital parts of urban ecosystem processes, and they increases the potential to grow food, on a day to day basis, and in the event of larger-scale crisis. Through their work, especially through their focus on how land is used, they push existing administrative systems to recognize the value of urban green areas and
waterbodies, working towards the development of ways to protect such urban land against shorter-term interests. They also participate in demonstrating the dependency of urbanites on ecological processes, and food in urban areas. As such they sensitize urban decision-making to respect ecosystem processes. 

At a more general level they also work to culturally innovate, and popularize, the city as an ‘ecosystem’, a ‘living city’ that includes animals, plants and food production. They demonstrate conflicts between different urban interests and thus present alternative development trajectories. They put novel issues on the city agenda through the construction of cultural framings that link different events over space and time into a coherent narrative that can challenge and shape current urban debates. 

Strategies to build urban environmental green and food movements

The literature on social movements gives various strategies on how to potentially build urban environmental movements that aim to protect green space, increase urban food production, and address food security in face of larger-scale crisis (Barthel et al., accepted). These strategies are many, but can be described as follows. 

Crucial seems to socialize the green—to interlink cultural history with conservation biology and form, at the local level, “protective stories” to articulate values of specific green areas (Ernstson, 2012, 2013; Ernstson & Sörlin, 2009). As analyzed elsewhere these forms of value articulation often make use artifacts such as maps and reports, they mobilize experts such as landscape architects, researchers and conservation biologists, and they need to access or create social arenas to narrate and spread such stories. Social arenas can be media, press, debate forums, exhibitions, pamphlets or concerts (Ernstson, 2012, 2013; Ernstson & Sörlin, 2009). A strategy could also be to introduce or use theories from systems ecology and landscape ecology. Those theories demonstrate how local green areas can be viewed as ecologically interconnected, thus making it possible to link green areas to ecological connectivity arguments. 

Furthermore, a strategy might lie around introducing ‘peak-scenarios’ in industrial food systems—peak oil, or peak nitrogen. Such peak scenarios will increase the cost of food which could serve to link environmental groups with urban farmers and allotment and community gardens, and also serve to link with radical democracy and anti-capitalist groups interested in the de- commodification of food. Also organizations representing the urban poor could take an interest through the possibility of self-produced food. On top of these strategies, the introduction of a rights-based perspective on food could be valuable. This could further serve to link the groups from above in demanding the universal right to healthy food. Finally, to introduce the notion that urban food systems are vulnerable to larger-scale crisis, will gain attention, and demonstrate how food growing practices, knowledge and spaces of food production is necessary to retain in the city. For further elaboration and clarification see our article, Barthel, Parker and Ernstson (accepted).

Trusts—from protecting to promote farming and a ‘working landscape’

While social movements is treated more in detail in our article in Urban Studies, Walker summarizes in the latter part of his book, in a subsection called In Land We Trust, some of the practices that civil society and private interests have developed to protect land, especially since the 1980s and 1990s. These practices have not been developed in a social and autonomous vacuum, but in collaboration, contestation and negotiation with other stakeholders, including user groups, the state and business. These practices range from outright buying of property, to the reselling of land, or the buying of ‘easements’ to constrain the use of land so that farmers and other users can sustain a ‘working landscape’ that in turn can sustain certain values, ecological functions and economic activities. In the following I will summarize these practices, as described by Walker as an historical experience in San Francisco Bay on how land can be protected (Walker, 2007, pages 169-181).

Land trusts, Walker writes (p. 170), are “mostly private, nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to save land by buying it.” He explains: “The basic principle of land trusts is straightforward. In a society based on private property, the best way to secure control over land is to buy it. In this view, government regulations is not enough.” Historically the rise of trusts seems to coincide with the shift of capital from government to business—while public conservation agencies felt an economic crunch in the 1980’s, private business increased their profits creating more grounds for philanthropy. 

Buy land—or purchase development rights, so called easements

Either wealthy people buy land, often smaller parcels, or there are bigger ‘land trusts’ that buy bigger chunks of land that is passed onto public agencies that are conditioned to protect the land, or use it in a certain way as stipulated by the trust. However, while smaller trusts does not rely on government, the bigger ones usually does and functions as a “revolving fund” that can buy up land, and then sell it to the public for the same prize. The trust regains its money and can buy more land. As a private trust it can move quicker than what public agencies usually can do, and then wait for the public agency to be able to pass it on. The first use of private money to purchase public parks was in Massachusetts, New England in 1891 (p. 171). In California, where for instance the Save the Redwoods League systematically bought redwood groves from private landholders and turned them over to the state (p. 171). 

An alternative to buy land, is to purchase the “development rights” from a land owner. These are called conservation easements. “This allows relatively low-impact use, such as grazing, to continue but prevents intensive development.” (p. 171) The advantage to easements are at least two fold—they are cheaper than buying land (meaning that trusts can cover more land); they are often quite popular with land owners, like farmers, since the farmers can sell their easements to the trust, making a cash boost to their farms (or receive tax advantages from the municipality), but keep doing what they always have been doing, i.e. farming. For conservationists these easements have also made possible a broadening of their thinking about ‘conservation’—rather than keeping people out, they have collaborated with users, especially farmers, to sustain ‘working landscapes’ that in turn can sustain certain qualities, ecological, social, aesthetic and economic. A problem of easements might lie in that it can be difficult to sell them to public agencies, as public agencies often needs to hold full entitlement to land. When POST resells to farmers, it “includes deeds covenants [or agreement clauses] prohibiting nonfarm development because it recognizes the problems of long-term monitoring of simple easements” (p. 175). Some 20 000 acres are managed through this stewardship program.

Examples of land trusts—civic, monied, and working trusts—and public trusts

Currently some 250 000 acres in San Francisco Bay area is protected by trusts, with half passed on to public agencies (and half as ‘easements’). The largest local and private trusts are Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). 

POST was created in 1977 and has from 2000 developed a Land Stewardship Program “to carry out experimentation in restoration” (p. 175). While the aim of the program is to protect land, with a current focus on “protecting the San Mateo’s magnificent coast”, it has also re-sold land to farmers and user groups for these to continue using the land in a specific way. More particularly this means for farmers to stay farmer, to keep stock and sustain a “working landscape” to sustain habitats and ecological functions, apart from the incomes and food that the land generates for the farmers. When POST resells to farmers, it “includes deeds covenants [or agreement clauses] prohibiting nonfarm development because it recognizes the problems of long-term monitoring of simple easements” (p. 175). Some 20 000 acres are managed through this stewardship program. 

MALT formed in 1980 and has received most of its resources to purchase land through state bonds. It is “unique because of the remarkable alliance forged between Marin conservationists and the dairy ranchers” (p. 176). MALT went beyond the notion of ‘pristine nature’ to sustain the working landscape of grazing. The dairy ranchers in turn gave up development rights in “order to conserve their way of life”. Selling easements, their development rights, gave them a monetary boost and conservationists have managed to work out subsidies for the farmers for their milk, and the farmers have shifted towards organic milk production.  

There are also “civic trusts”, for instance the Trust for Public Land (TPL), originally part of The Nature Conservancy, which started with a 10 million US dollar credit with Bank of America (p. 173). TPL worked with the radical civil rights group, the Black Panthers, to buy up, or to get owners to donate, community gardens and foreclosed land, land that was developed to community parks and playgrounds. 

There are two important public trusts in San Francisco. The Coastal Conservancy and the Bay Area Open Space Council. The former was formed in 1976 and operates as a private trust but is publicly funded. Often it aids private land trusts to make their buys, leveraging their own funds, while supporting nonprofits in restoration of wetlands and walking trails. The Open Space Council institutionalized the regional cooperation among “custodians of the greenbelt” (p. 178). It has worked as a “united front in seeking public funds for parks and open space” (p. 179) and it secured 10 million USD from the state in 1999, and another 100 million USD in 2002-4.   

Walker finalizes this section with noting that although the private trusts have been innovative and effective in securing a lot of land from development, “there is a troubling undertow in the shift to a dominant role for private trusts instead of public funding for open-space acquisition and greensward protection” (p. 180), following a logic where the “rich turn over some of their immense wealth to save the lands threatened by the cities where that wealth is created” (p. 181) 

Other examples of protection of land

There are of course other ways to protect urban land for green space protection, and food production. In Stockholm the whole system of community and food gardens—with hundreds of gardens and thousands of people involved—rests upon cheap leasing agreements between civic associations and the municipality. These stretch between 25-50 years giving long-term security to the gardeners, and secures the land for a certain use. 


This concept note was written to share my writings and readings on how to protect green urban space, and particularly in relation to growing food in cities. This is not an exhaustive account by any means, but more needs to be said on this topic. The concept note summarized some key arguments that I have done with my colleagues in an upcoming article in Urban Studies (Barthel et al., accepted), and insights given by Richard Walker in his book (Walker, 2007). 

As a concluding remark it seems to safe to assert that since parks, urban forests, or even urban agriculture cannot compete in the short-term, or even in the long-term, with many other urban uses of land, at least not during current economic conditions, other practices are needed to protect urban green space than market-mechanisms. These alternative practices come in various forms. One way to protect urban green space are through ‘civic forces’ that can work against shorter-term interests, articulate alternative values—often more civic and public values—and then push the state to legally protect the land (see my account on the National Urban  Park in Stockholm (Ernstson & Sörlin, 2009), and Walker (2007)). The concept note summarized the roles that social movements play on the urban scene in this regard, and what strategies that seems available to build larger-spanning urban social movements around green space, urban food production and urban food security. 

In the shift from public wealth to more private wealth in San Francisco, Walker (2007) summarizes the development of private trust to protect urban green space.  These either buy land directly and then owns it, or sell it to public agencies with conditions of no development. They can also aim to only buy the “development rights” or conservation easements to constrain the use of land towards certain usages, for instance grain, cattle or dairy farming. There are public funds operating in similar ways. Long-term leases of public land to urban user associations, for instance farmers, is another way used in for instance Stockholm.

Appendix. An effort to summarize key points for presentations on protecting urban farm land

Protection of urban farm land
  • Urban green space needs protection—parks, urban forests, and urban agriculture cannot compete with short-term economic interests
  • Other practices than market-mechanisms are needed. 
  • For conservation interests there are nature reserves and similar, but for “working landscapes”, like urban farming this is not working.
Protection of urban farm land—”working landscapes”
  • From San Francisco, Walker (2007) gives several examples:
  • Private trusts—buy land directly and then the trust owns it.
  • Private trusts—buy land and then sell to public agencies with conditions of how to use it. 
  • Private trusts—buy the “development rights” or conservation easements to constrain the use of land towards certain usages, for instance grain, cattle or dairy farming. 
  • There are public trusts operating in similar ways—The Coastal Conservancy (1976) and the Bay Area Open Space Council (1999). 
  • Trusts reuse their money to buy/sell more land
  • In Stockholm there are long-term leases of public land to urban user associations, for instance farmers.
Example with dairy farmers in San Francisco
  • One private trust MALT went beyond the notion of ‘pristine nature’ to sustain the working landscape of grazing—while protecting the coastline from development. 
  • Dairy ranchers sold their development rights, but continued farming. 
  • This gave them a monetary boost 
  • Conservationists pushed for subsidies to the farmers for their milk
  • Farmers have shifted towards organic milk production.  
  • MALT—Marin Agricultural Land Trust
Example with other farmers in San Francisco
  • One private trust POST developed a Land Stewardship Program
  • It buys land and then resells to farmers 
  • It includes deeds covenants [or agreement clauses] that prohibits nonfarm developments.
  • POST—Peninsula Open Space Trust
Further reading
  • The experience of how Cuba intensified urban farming after the Soviet collapse—which meant no more cheap oil—is instructive. See: Wright, J. (2009) Sustainable agriculture and food security in an era of oil scarcity: lessons from Cuba. London: Earthscan.
  • See also: Walker, R. (2007). The Country in the City: The Greening of The San Francisco Bay Area. Univ of Washington Press, Seattle. and Barthel, S., Parker, J., & Ernstson, H. (accepted). Food and green space in cities: a resilience lens on gardens and urban environmental movements. Urban Studies.

Barthel, S., Parker, J., & Ernstson, H. (accepted). Food and green space in cities: a resilience lens on gardens and urban environmental movements. Urban Studies.
Barthel, S., Sörlin, S., & Ljungqvist, J. (2010). Innovative Memory and Resilient Cities: Echoes from Ancient Constantinople. In P. Sinclair, F. Herschend, C. Isendahl& G. Nordquist (Eds.), The Urban Mind) Uppsala - Uppsala University Press.
Battersby, J. (2012). Urban food security and climate change: a systems of flows. In B. Frayne, C. Moser& G. Ziervogel (Eds.), Climate Change, Assets and Food Security in Southern African Cities. (pp. 35-56) London & New York - Earthscan.
Borgström, S. T. (2009). Patterns and challenges of urban nature conservation-a study of southern Sweden. Environment and Planning A, 41(11), 2671-2685.
Ernstson, H. (2012). Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: The material semiotics of people and plants at Bottom Road. In R. Heeks (Ed.) Actor-Network Theory for Development: Working Paper Series. (pp. URL: Manchester - Institute for Development Policy and Management, SED, University of Manchester.
Ernstson, H. (2013). The social production of ecosystem services: A framework for studying environmental justice and ecological complexity in urbanized landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning, 109(1).
Ernstson, H., & Sörlin, S. (2009). Weaving protective stories: Connective practices to articulate holistic values in Stockholm National Urban Park. Environment and Planning A, 41(6), 1460-1479.
Ernstson, H., & Sörlin, S. (2012). Ecosystem services as technology of globalization: On articulating values in urban nature. Ecological Economics, 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.09.012, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.09.012.
Walker, R. (2007). The Country in the City: The Greening of The San Francisco Bay Area. Univ of Washington Press, Seattle and London - Univ of Washington Press.