In the last few months, several projects we’ve been working on for some time have drawn to a close, broadly around the themes of farming, rural regeneration, and local development. A lot of work has gone into Ruralization, Resilient Green Spaces, and Community Improvement Districts, so we thought it was worth bringing together some of the main things we learned and the resources we published through these projects in one place.
Ruralization was a four-year project involving 18 organisations from 12 European countries. The project aimed to explore the challenges and opportunities in rural areas for new and existing residents, and to use this knowledge to put forward policy proposals. Our work concentrated on the strands of the project which were related to access to land, and supporting rural newcomers and new entrants into farming. It was great to build deeper relationships with practitioner organisations across Europe working on these issues, such as Terre de Liens, Eco Ruralis, De Landgenoten, Kulturland and Xarxa per a la Conservació de la Natura. We produced some of our own research, such as an analysis of the Farmstart Network run by the Landworkers’ Alliance, contributed to joint outputs, such as this report on innovative actions for increasing access to land, and the handbook for local authorities wanting to make farmland work for the common good, and produced more succinct and accessible summaries on the key themes of the project, such as this ‘novel practice’ handout on council farmland, and the zine on thriving rural futures.
Resilient Green Spaces was a £1.27m Welsh Government funded project led by Social Farms & Gardens (SF&G), and involving eight partner organisations, which explored the potential of various different green spaces to support communities in their recovery from COVID, with the climate change and biodiversity emergencies in mind. Alongside the Landworkers’ Alliance, we focused on finding ways to overcome the challenges and realise the opportunities of access to land for new entrants and local communities interested in agroecological farming. We:
- undertook research on policy around land access in Wales and the rest of the UK, the needs of people seeking land for agroecological farming in Wales and the extent of publicly owned land.
- ran or contributed to webinars on raising community finance, and opening up land for communities (for private and public landowners)
- established a ‘local authority learning partnership’ where council staff involved in opening up more access to land could share common challenges and potential solutions with each other (which we then summarised in a couple of guides).
- ran a process to distribute £100,000 to purchase land for community-focused agroecological farming
- developed thinking around the role of land trusts in Wales
- produced case studies to showcase good practice on land access
The whole project deepened our understanding of and relationships with many partners across Wales working on land, food and farming, and we are now set to build on these through our involvement in the ‘Future Farms’ project which is exploring the potential to support new entrants through the repurposing of a council farm in Powys.
We worked with Julian Dobson from Sheffield Hallam University as the ‘learning partners’ for a project funded by Power to Change exploring the idea of creating Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) to support community-led approaches to high street regeneration. We worked alongside the CID pilots chosen across England, which included community organisations, local authorities and business improvement districts, as they trialled new ways of rejuvenating their high streets. We held regular one to one conversations and monthly workshops to allow participants to update each other and reflect on what they had been doing, what some of the shared challenges they faced were, and to consider some of the emerging patterns and themes coming out of this work. We helped to produce the final report on the programme, which outlines how CIDs can offer an important opportunity to bring new voices into the debate about the future of local high streets, and describes recommendations for local people and organisations, policymakers, government and funding organisations that could support the development of Community Improvement Districts for the future. It was great to work with Julian again, and to have such an enthusiastic and engaged group of pilots to delve into the trials and tribulations of community-led regeneration, and draw out lessons that might be useful elsewhere.
Some of the key lessons I’ve taken from recent work have been:
- The relationships are often more important, or at least as important as, the outputs of a project
- There is still a surge of buildings/solidifying momentum around certain topics, such as peri-urban farming and public land
- Needing to do partnership building work at the start of new projects is essential, but can be hard to instigate when you are just a small partner in a big consortium - however, without this happening there can be completely different unspoken assumptions about the ethos and purpose of the research, and ways of working together
- Research and learning feels better and more useful when there is a clear and ongoing link to action - that research helps to move things forward, not just to observe/report on them
It’s good to take a moment to pause, reflect on and celebrate the sheer amount of work put into over recent months, before just moving on to the next thing. We’re going to try to do this more purposefully going forwards through the new ‘learning circles’ we are trying out every few months, so watch this space for more on that soon!