London community grows food on supermarket roof

A London community has brought a supermarket rooftop to life with vegetables, plants and wildlife, having transformed it into a space to grow and re-connect with food

Based on top of Thornton’s Budgens, an independent supermarket in Crouch End, Food from the Sky sell their harvest in the store below; just ten metres from soil to shelf.

Vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs and even mushrooms all dot the skyline of the 450 sq metres of gardens, which were established in May 2010. Beyond its use as a growing space, the roof also acts as an education project where people can learn practical skills and re-connect with nature right in the middle of the city.

This year, Food from the Sky has run an entire foundation course on food growing, biodiversity and sustainable living, covering subjects as diverse as bug hotel making to biodynamic gardening, with guest speakers from across London, including local permaculture designers and naturalists. Over 650 children and local teenagers are also set to have food growing lessons on the roof this year, while young and old from across the town have been volunteering regularly to make it all happen.

“It began with a vision I had four years ago while walking down the streets of London longing for the bounty and beauty of the land of Embercombe, a sustainability centre near Exeter, that I had just left,” explains co-founder, Azul-Valerie Thome from the not-for-profit organisation the Positive Earth Project.

“I started ‘seeing’ orchards on all flat roofs, dangling strawberries, tomatoes, with children and elders learning together. I asked myself, could we bring the land, conscious communities and healthy food to the roofs of London?”

In 2009, Azul met Andrew Thornton, the owner of Thornton’s Budgens and her vision for a high-rise haven of delicious food became reality. Martin had a roof, a community supermarket and a whole support system already in place. With over 17,000 visitors to the shop per week, Azul asks: “Where and when better to capture people’s imaginations to remind them where their food comes from?”

With a background in community food growing, Azul wants to “bring the heart back to supermarkets” and to grow produce and develop communities in our most urban places, where there is also a fertile environment for diversity and people’s personal growth.

When the idea was first born, Andrew could immediately see why they needed to make it happen. “I am hugely passionate about re-connecting people with food and the beauty of ‘real’ food made by or grown by ‘real’ people,” he explains. “I saw Food from the Sky as a chance to connect so many people, adults and children, with what they eat and to connect us even more with each other.”

Andrew has been helping the supermarket’s “internal community” of 200 staff to become involved in learning to grow food and celebrating the life above their heads as they finish their shifts, and both Azul and Andrew have been deeply moved by the garden’s success.

“I underestimated the impact it would have on everyone who walked up those stairs,” says Andrew. “I still love the looks on their faces when new visitors get their first glimpse of the garden.”

As the project embeds itself, Azul is witnessing the biodiversity benefits from growing gardens on roofs. “Wildlife, or shall we call it urbanlife, has answered to the call!” she says. “Many kinds of bees, spiders, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths and newly discovered bats are visiting the roof, which has also become attractive to self-seeded flowers and ‘weeds’, all of which have a place and are honoured”.

The Food from the Sky garden has been designed and created with permaculture principles at the core. Azul explains: “We’re using the three permaculture ethics [Earth Care, People Care and Fairshares] as a foundation for making decisions. It’s such a great living and learning tool. ‘Earth Care’ reminds us to ask how our actions will affect future generations of all forms of life, including animals, plants, rivers and humans.”

Food from the Sky manifests the second permaculture ethic, ‘People Care’ through their efforts to help re-skill the community. Azul says she loves encouraging people to step out of their comfort zone, and with commitment to personal growth and deep encouragement she believes we can all learn, grow and heal.

‘Fairshares’, the third permaculture ethic, which ensures resources are used and distributed fairly, has also been a mainstay of the project. The rooftop paradise has been built with the creative recycling of unwanted items found through the Freecycle online network or in skips, while seeds and skills have been swapped with others locally. The garden also composts the supermarket waste and has developed a rainwater harvesting system.

Azul believes that as an alternative approach to food production and consumption, their project could be replicated on other roofs as well as in car parks and disused patches of nearby land. The team have been preparing a 12-step organisational template that can be easily used by other community groups, supermarkets and organisations to get more growing spaces started. It is due to be completed on 1 October, when Food from the Sky will celebrate with a Harvest Show, one of its regular public events and open days.

Working as part of Food from the Sky can be challenging, Azul admits, but she is confident about the future of community-based food growing. “It is essential work for true resilience and for living a beautiful life, so bring it on!”