What can agroecology teach us about the way we design our cities, organisations and empty spaces?

Sowing seeds for disruption and stewardship in the year ahead.

You can also read this blog at Medium.com

For anyone wanting to visit Oxford at the start of the year, there is no more delicious antidote to the hyper consumerism of the January Sales than a visit to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC)

On the 5th January the ORFC opened its doors for the first in-person event in three years, and the first ever as a hybrid – managing to be truly global and local at the same time; convening over 500 speakers, 1,800+ attendees in person and over 4,000 online.

What is Makespace doing taking time out at a farming Conference? Well, despite closet aspirations for getting back to the land, it’s really about better understanding the very thing that connects us all and underpins our desires for social justice. It is the thing that determines whether or not we can realise our dreams for a happy, healthy, well nourished society: Land Justice.

Why am I so excited about it this year in particular? And what has this got to do with Makespace’s work bringing empty buildings back into use? Let’s unpack that a little…

What is ORFC?

For anyone less familiar, ORFC was once a fringe event, setup 14 years ago as a counter to the original Oxford Farming Conference – a mouthpiece of giant agribusiness and major producers and retailers; those who see our land, food and farming as commodities. ORFC is now the largest gathering on agroecology in the world, and one of the largest events in Oxford outright.

ORFC prides itself on being a home for “farmers, growers, activists, policymakers and researchers from around the world who are interested in transforming our food system.” 

Essentially, it’s a honey pot for all land lovers who care about agroecology and using land differently – centring the health of our soils, planet and people, over profit. 

ORFC Opening plenary with Shumei Taiko © Hugh Warwick

What inspired us this year?

With 74 sessions across three days; more than 100 speakers in-person and dozens more sessions online, I won’t try to summarise the full breadth and depth of topics covered here – this video captures the mood and full sensory experience beautifully

But I’d love to draw your attention to the sessions we attended which lit a fire for us.

A stand out session for us was the Commoning food systems through alternative forms of ownership; hosted by the fabulous Frances Northrop of NEF and Platform Places

This session convened the best minds developing and testing emerging models for more democratic and inclusive land ownership, with Rob Booth and Kai Heron from Common Wealth discussing Public Community Partnerships, Ollie Zhang from Open Systems Lab discussing Fairhold and Oli Rodkar from the Ecological Land Co-operative.

Each model offered a glimpse of a possible future of more democratic and decommodified land ownership, creating the terrain for an impassioned discussion on our rights to land and food sovereignty. 

Oli Rodkar from ELC summarised it well,

“Each of these models is brilliant and has something to offer, but what we need is to change the political terrain… Different movements need to come together and work together”

© Hugh Warwick, ORFC 2023

Oli Rodkar from ELC speaking at ORFC 2023 © Hugh Warwick

Our other highlights included:  

// The opening plenary
Full of rallying cries and calls to inspiration and action woven with the ethereal voices of folk singer Kate Huggett  and the rousing drumming from Shumei Taiko

// Local Food Economies: How do we join the dots?
Chaired by Peter Samsom (Land Workers’ Alliance and Resilient Local Food Systems Project) with Danny Fisher (Better Food Traders), Sophie Paterson (Food Data Collaboration), Emma Shires (Nottingham Mill Coop).

// In the Name of the Farmer
Vandana Shiva recalls a lifetime of campaigning for small-scale farmers

// At the Root: Land Justice and our collective liberation (workshop)
A workshop taking us into our experiences, our collective history and our bodies with Katherine Wall (Land Justice facilitator from Resist + Renew)

// Jumping Fences report launch
Land justice, food justice and racial justice in British farming; by Land in Our Names (LiON)

Many of these terrific sessions (and many more) were hosted in the Justice Hub, convened by LiON and Shared Assets, which was a place to talk about social justice issues and their relationship with land, food and farming.

This space was bristling with insights, lessons and powerful stories. This is where we felt most rooted and connected to the work we are doing at Makespace and where we are driven to focus on in the year ahead.

© Hugh Warwick, ORFC 2023

Naomi Terry from LiON speaking at ORFC 2023 © Hugh Warwick

Sowing new seeds

Makespace recently completed Phase 1 of the ambitious Meanwhile in Oxfordshire programme, and it is an opportunity for us to reflect and consider our path ahead. For the first time in two years we can set the agenda and pace of our work, and there are some changes we’re looking to make.  

In this season – a time for rest, renewal and reflection – we are looking again at why we are doing what we do; stepping back from the what and how, to ask the question what fires us?

So many responses and so much inspiration for the journey ahead could be found at ORFC, through both new connections and reconnecting with old friends.

Going forwards we are drawn to focus more on principles and patterns of Regenerative Design and practice. And it feels we can’t go too far wrong if we start by connecting, engaging and learning with and from those who are literally nourishing the soil, planting seeds and stewarding the growth of the food on which we all depend. These are the folks making the best conditions for life after all, and are the beating heart of ORFC. 

© Lucia Hernandez

© Lucia Hernandez

Joining the dots

When it comes to the stewardship of buildings and communities struggling for positive change, what can agroecology teach us? What can regenerative farming practices teach us? And how does this link back to our work of bringing empty spaces back into use?

There are many threads that can be woven together here, and they can be best threaded by looking above ground and below ground.

Above ground – through our projects, our focus to date has been on how we can breathe life into empty buildings – welcoming people into forgotten places. A question for us now is how we welcome the more than human world? Can our buildings become micro sites for re-wilding, growing spaces for plants and food inside, on top of or around the spaces we hold? 

Looking at future projects, there are a myriad of vacant spaces locally that could be unlocked for urban food growing projects – connecting nature, food and people in urban spaces for food and climate resilience. ORFC’s session by Sustain on Strategies for peri-urban farming offered some great lessons here. There is much inspiration across Oxfordshire already from organisations like Farmability, the Children’s Allotment Project, the CSA’s Kitchen Garden Project and Hogacre Common and the Oxford City Farm. This is a fertile area that Makespace is keen to support further.

Below ground – we’re looking at how our organisation is structured and operates, to be more distributed and regenerative by design to cultivate effective collaboration, better decision making and a stronger culture of care. These are all foundational principles in agroecology.

We’re looking for this to be an intentional and sustainable evolution of the organisation into its next phase and the year ahead. We will be giving focus to health and life at the root (within our team, policies and practices), in the soil (the community and place in which we are nested) and on the vines (through our projects). ORFC has given us some of the best seeds of inspiration for this journey ahead.

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If you’re interested to find out what it’s like to work in the Makespace team check out our current vacancies and job opportunities here

If you have an idea for an empty space you’d like to bring back to life, then get in touch with us here, we’d love to hear from you.

If this piece resonated with you, or you have some thoughts and feedback to share, get in touch with Andy Edwards, andy@makespaceoxford.org