From oblivion to local food production

The current model of agriculture is responsible for a third of global emissions, essentially due to the transportation of food. 

Many municipality-owned vacant lots lie among the residential buildings in the vulnerable neighbourhoods of Madrid’s urban periphery. Through an agricultural production plan, the city council provides them with a new life by producing fruit and vegetables and commercialising them locally. So, Madrid mitigates the impact of climate change and commits to urban regeneration. 

Barrios productores (‘Producing neighbourhoods’) “contributes to many objectives,” says Maria del Mar Moralejo Marino, Deputy Director of City Project and Renovation in the Urban Development Area at Madrid City Council, “renaturation of the urban landscape, local food production, or green job creation,” in addition to supporting a cleaner environment.

Neighbourhoods will be the primary beneficiaries of these agricultural activities but in some cases their products will go out to the whole city. The council will provide the residents with the primary source, the public land or spaces between blocks. Locals interested in having vegetable gardens must present agricultural entrepreneurship projects associated with profitable activities.

Photo by Madrid City Council
Photo by Madrid City Council
Photo by Madrid City Council
Photo by Madrid City Council

This is, Moralejo Marino explains, because agricultural production in cities on its own is not enough to maintain business, so it needs to be complemented with activities that contribute to its success, such as food tastings at the site of production, involving educational activities or training, or the incorporation of small livestock farms that could improve the productivity of agriculture.  

When everything started 

Madrid’s long experience in social vegetable gardens is the basis for this project. There are more than 70 municipal centres, green areas and social organisations related to the neighbourhoods, with those located in schools reaching 250. 

Renaturation of the urban landscape, local food production, and green job creation
— Maria del Mar Moralejo Marino

“The activity is based on the previous experience of social vegetable gardens, pervasive in Madrid, with ten years of municipal experience and up to 15 of neighbourhood initiatives,” says Moralejo Marino. “We step up from this experience so that the vegetable gardens have a productive character,” that is, “financially sustainable, not only environmental or social but also economically,” Moralejo Marino. 

In Madrid and other cities, there is a common question – how can local regulations deal with producing and selling activities such as agriculture on public land? 

The municipality has succeeded thanks to creating a breeding ground for agricultural entrepreneurship that supports and promotes agrarian activity.  While the capital has had agricultural traditions throughout history in both the old town and the periphery, such traditions had long-since died out, and had to be rebuilt from scratch. 

“That is why we need to support this firmly and do it through the agricultural entrepreneurship breeding ground. But also allows us to introduce them in residential areas, which is the most distinctive note,” Moralejo Marino explains.

The pilot 

Madrid established a pilot in one of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the city – a training and demonstration garden. This was possible thanks to a social garden that allowed synergies between science and experience. 

They can exchange their experiences, resources, learning, and establish a network of entrepreneurship
— Maria del Mar Moralejo Marino

“We chose a fairly degraded place with a very low-quality industrial landscape in which there had been a small seed of recovery through some social vegetable gardens not integrated into the municipal network,” explains Moralejo Marino.

The renovated garden works as classrooms for vocational training courses thanks to agreements with the Employment Agency of the city of Madrid, which gave ten people a six-month training course and employment afterwards. From there came the first employee in agricultural matters, but not the last one since more training sessions are coming. 

Photo by Madrid City Council

In addition, the selected entrepreneurial initiatives will obtain personalised advice for implementing their winning projects and support and monitoring during land use. Among the benefits, entrepreneurs can enjoy the opening of short marketing channels, presentations at fairs, and networking events. 

Entrepreneurial cooperation

“A web platform has been created with information on the producer neighbourhoods project and an intranet to connect all entrepreneurs so that they can exchange their experiences, resources, learning, and establish a network of entrepreneurship in urban agriculture,” says Moralejo Marino. 

We chose a fairly degraded place with a very low-quality industrial landscape
— Maria del Mar Moralejo Marino

The winning entrepreneurs will take on part of the remodelling, and the city council will offer urban services, water and electricity connections and valuable services such as storage sheds, an office, changing rooms and toilets, and a platform to exchange products, for instance. 

The Urbanism Department of the Madrid City Council is in negotiations with other municipal services to help fertilise the land and supply seedlings. In addition, they are working with the Madrid business forum to obtain financing and create a bank of shared resources, for example, small machinery, material implements, or support for fertilisation. 

The project will start with nine pieces of land. “But if many other unselected projects qualify as viable,” says Moralejo Marino, “we want to gradually incorporate more parcels so that they can be assigned to those.

Food strategy framework 

Photo by Madrid City Council

Moralejo Marino adds that healthy and sustainable food strategies and agricultural production are widespread in European and American cities, which has led the Madrid City Council to consider it an opportunity. 

This project “fits very well into agreements that we have signed, such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact,” adds Moralejo Marino. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact is an international agreement of mayors signed in 2015 by more than 200 cities. 

The activity is based on the previous experience of social vegetable gardens, pervasive in Madrid
— Maria del Mar Moralejo Marino

The producing neighbourhoods are part of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Strategy of Madrid 2022-25, which assumes the challenge of developing sustainable, inclusive, resilient, safe and diversified food systems. The strategy aims to ensure healthy and accessible food, reduce food waste, promote the local economy of proximity, preserve biodiversity, and contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change. 

The initiative of vegetable gardens “provides public land to productive projects,” adds Sara Gutiérrez Olivera, Advisory Member in the General Directorate of Cooperation and Global Citizenship of the Madrid City Council, “and contributes to agro-ecological entrepreneurship and training in agro-ecology.” 

This article is part of the #EUFoodCities campaign. In a time where political ambitions for a common food policy in the EU are shaking, cities want to be loud and reiterate their critical role in food systems transformation advocating for ambitious EU legislation under the Farm to Fork Strategy.

This campaign is paired with a high-level political event ‘Bringing urban food policies to the table’ taking place in Brussels on 9 March. More information here.

#MUFPP #Food2030EU

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer