One of our new Trustees, Jane Fisher, was actively involved in the campaign to set up Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol in the 1970’s. It was a very different time and context but in this blog she explores why the need for local communities to find their power and to build cohesion is just the same, as is the need for places where people can come, knowing they will be welcome and able to contribute.
Oxford City Farm’s vision is to create “empowered communities learning and working together.” Now that many activities on the Farm have been running for some time – interrupted by COVID of course – we have started to ask what this vision means for the way we run the Farm and what we offer to and hope for, from people who want to get involved.
Who are our “communities” and exactly how can we contribute to empowerment? How do we decide who makes up our “communities “? Are we talking about the community of people who live close to the farm site, the volunteers who come sometimes from much further afield, the groups who come to use the site from schools and other organisations or those who support the farm through donations, financial or in kind? Do the people who come to the Farm to volunteer and visit reflect the diversity of the local area and is this something we should be concerned about?
In the mid 1970s, I lived on Windmill Hill , at that time a run down inner city area of Bristol, and became involved in a local campaign to prevent a large area of unused land being tarmacked by the City Council for use as a parking area for long distance hauliers bringing their vehicles into the city. This area was derelict land but regularly used by all of us to reach the shops, take children to school etc. The prospect of having to weave our way through rows of parked lorries was a great community mobiliser. We demonstrated, we got signatures on petitions and went from door to door campaigning on this issue, but the campaign really took off when we began to talk with people about creative alternative uses for the site , and asked what people who lived in the area wanted to see there and how they could contribute.
Windmill Hill City Farm was lucky to start from this strong community base. The campaign was tough but empowering for those of us who had never been involved in something like it before and , when the decision was made to allow the Farm a chance, we had a real sense of the power that had been mobilised through community action. A strong group of local activists were then able to build on this support base to develop the farm. The whole idea was very new then – I think Windmill Hill was the first farm outside London – so it was relatively easy to generate interest and funding at the outset.
Oxford City Farm 2021 is working to establish itself in a very different context. But the need for local communities to find their power and to build cohesion is just the same, as is the need for places where people can come, knowing they will be welcome and able to contribute in some way. In the 1970s, we tried to be open to anyone who wanted to get involved, whereas now we are much more aware that inclusivity may require a more proactive stance. Climate change and sustainability were not topical issues then. Now we realise that we need to build a response to these challenges into everything we hope to do at the Farm.