Pam is building more resilient communities across Northern England using the language of food to lower barriers to community action.
Pam Warhurst has created a movement that uses food to stimulate community revitalization in towns facing economic decline. She is giving citizens an avenue through which to reclaim public spaces, rethink resource use, and build stronger and more resilient communities in some of the UK’s most economically deprived regions.
A network of Incredible Edible groups in towns across Northern England and beyond turn unused public spaces into edible landscapes, “propaganda gardens” that provide edible plants free of charge, inviting any passer-by to help themselves to a fruit or vegetable or to simply enjoy their beauty and accessibility. The creation of the gardens is an initial small act that Pam uses to trigger a strategic set of effects: creating conversation about public spaces, changing the way people relate to each other and community institutions, stimulating local economic activity, and ultimately empowering people and communities to take charge of their own future.
Pam uses food because of its universal nature – “if you eat, you’re in” is Incredible Edible’s motto. The language of food serves as a connective device, engaging everyone in the community in taking small cumulative actions toward inclusive community development, resilience building, and economic regeneration. It also creates a conversation with community institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, care homes, police stations, businesses, and local authorities about using space to promote community values and creating public spaces in an open, collaborative, and participatory way. The movement starts with the physical transformation of towns but is designed to also transform people’s mindsets and the ethos and values of communities.
Since Pam launched Incredible Edible in 2008, the idea has scaled to over 80 cities across the UK and hundreds of other cities around the world from Christchurch to Montreal.
Inequality between the North and South of England has widened with dramatic disparities in income, health, and education attainment. Investment and resources flow disproportionately into the south: in the most recent economic boom, employment grew by 16% per year in London, but just 1% in the North’s poorest regions. The post-industrial decline of the North is perhaps best exemplified in Todmorden where towards the end of the 20th century, young people left the town in search of jobs and in fewer than thirty years, the population dropped from 22,000 to 12,000. As industry transitioned to a service economy, and the trade union movement declined sharply. Whole geographic areas and working-class smaller and medium sized towns have been left behind, feeling they have no voice in local or national change. In the face of a seemingly endless list of challenges, communities sense a physical disrepair and feeling of estrangement; there is an increasingly pressing need to find solutions that invite the broad public to participate in social change, in economically and socially feasible ways.
Pam aims to change the national narrative around community action, re-defining the role of institutions and citizens in shaping, contributing to and ultimately transforming the communities they live in. Her ultimate aim is to spark a movement of community action inspiring new ways of sharing, giving, and receiving to build strong communities who can rise to challenge without waiting for external powers to do the thinking and acting for them. To achieve this Pam has developed a threefold approach: designing a simple and inclusive community development methodology that physically transforms communities, fostering participation through low barriers to entry, and identifying allies and champions to embed these practices within both public and private institutions.
At the first level, local citizen-based Incredible Edible groups physically transform their towns through what Pam calls propaganda gardens that serve to re-imagine public space use and spark conversation and community action. Pam knew the risks of volunteer-led initiatives losing momentum and fizzling out. Moreover, projects that depend entirely on external funding can also be unsustainable. Thus, IE groups operate without almost any funding, encouraged to operate with the resources they have available, instilling and practicing the values of sharing. In Todmorden, IE appropriated neglected spaces around halls, council buildings and the canal for food growing and within a few years there were over 40 locations around the town offering locals and visitors the chance to pick their own fruit and vegetables.
At the second level, Pam has developed simple, inclusive and adaptable methodology of Incredible Edible groups based on the ethos ‘If you eat you’re in.’ Pam has structured the IE methodology around three principles, or “plates” as she calls them: community, business, and learning. Local IE groups are self-formed and have full autonomy to design their own activities, but they are encouraged and expected to build activities around all three principles. At the community level, IE groups engage volunteers to mobilize around community growing and propaganda gardens in public spaces, including engaging with community institutions such as the police department or hospitals to create edible gardens outside their buildings, thus changing the experience of citizens walking through their doors. At the business level, IE groups foster economic activity around food, such as the creation or support of local food businesses. For example, in Todmorden, they created an egg map to show all the locations of people who are producing and selling eggs. Finally, learning is a key element of IE, including workshops on a variety of topics related to food and community, integration with local schools, and information sharing on the sites of the propaganda gardens. Across these three areas of activity, Incredible Edible groups invite any community member to use their gifts and talents to the benefit of the community, starting with the gardens themselves (e.g. identifying spaces, designing landscapes, planting, maintaining, creating descriptive placards) and then expanding to opportunities to share learning (e.g. organizing and teaching workshops, creating websites and other sharing platforms) and to generate economic activity (e.g. creating food and tourism businesses).
At the third level, Pam identifies partners and champions who adopt and spread the incredible edible ethos and methodology. On the one hand she works with local councils to change estate policies and lower barriers of entry for community engagement. On the other, she identifies strategic private sector partners who work at the national scale in order to spread IE through their networks. For example, Pam is collaborating with Sodexo, one of the largest pan-European food service companies who are changing their estate policy to integrate IE into the schools, hospitals, and prisons they cater to. At the public-sector level Pam works alongside local authorities and councils to change their policies both by influencing their own estate policies but also by changing the policies around public land usage. For instance, Pam has worked closely with the Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council to change their public land usage and has successfully integrated full time staff from the council who work to spread IE throughout the town. This means that the management of IE sits outside of the organization and within the local council. Another example of IE integration within public institutions is with the Greater Manchester Fire Authority who are transforming each of their fire stations in propaganda gardens across the region transforming the land into a community asset.
To continue spreading IE across the region, Pam identifies the strongest IE groups who act as ‘beacons’ for other groups around them. They then provide support in developing programming, helping groups with fewer resources and sharing best practices. This decentralized model assures that IE is adapted to specific community needs. To further support this growth, Pam set up an online platform for the wider IE network to share resources and best practices, and opened a question center for newly launching groups. In addition, Pam speaks at conferences and meetings across the country to inspire new groups and authored a book to share the IE story. She has delivered several Ted Talks with over millions of views that have inspired IE replications around the world.
To prove her impact and business model, she got the Manchester Metropolitan University and Lancaster University to conduct a qualitative and quantitative study. The researchers conducted a small scale “Social Return on Investment” (SROI) analysis of IE’s activities in Todmorden in 2016 and demonstrated that involvement in IE resulted in a SROI of 1 to 5.1. Meaning that for every pound invested in IE, the community benefits from 5.1 pounds in economic returns. The returns were attributable to the uplift in demand for local food, the increase in visitors to Todmorden, as well as lower rates of vandalism and an increase in community-cohesion according to the Police Authority. In addition, researchers found that IE increased a pride and sense of place while also motivating volunteers at a wide scale. With over 80 groups around the country, Pam is now building a solidarity network across the entire North of England called the Incredible North aiming to embed Incredible Edible into each town to continue growing the movement.
Pam was born to a working-class family in Leigh within the greater Manchester region. She self-identified as a leader from an early age, was voted as the class president and was extremely active within her school. Always a good student, Pam went on to study at University and pursued a Master’s in Economics. Pam says she never had a sense of political action until her early 20’s. It was during a conversation with a friend around animal testing that Pam says she was first called to recognize the enormous abuse of animals globally and what she calls: ‘The last bastion of barbarism’. She became increasingly active within the animal rights movement and advocated alongside people who would later become the founders of PETA. Shortly after, she was appointed Chair of the National Committee for the Abolition of Vivisection and was arrested in several anti-vivisection marches. It was during an environmental policy summit in Rio that she could see that the issue of animal welfare wasn’t just about ‘trees and frogs’ but about greater global injustices in environmentalism, poverty, and health.
During this period, she was approached by the Labour Party and encouraged to run for the local council. Pam was the first woman to be elected to the council and once elected she worked with strategy and policy groups to tackle greater environmental justice issues within a policy framework. She then went on the act as the Yorkshire representative to the EU regional council and the first regional development council for Yorkshire. She was later recognized for these efforts with an OBE from the Queen for services to the environment.
After serving as the first woman on the Natural England Board and chair of the Forestry Commission, Pam started looking toward community-driven change that wouldn’t exclude the working class and wouldn’t be held up by bureaucratic procedures or lack of funding. Pam recognized that a sustainable future was fundamentally about behavior change that initiated from small actions. While attending a lecture by Tim Lang at City University about the food movement, Pam saw the potential of food to mobilize people. She rushed from the lecture straight to a friend’s house to discuss how this could work in Todmorden. Even though Pam was not (and is still not) a gardener, she told herself to just ‘get on with it’ and called for a town meeting around the concept. Over 60 people turned up and Incredible Edible was born.