“Edible City I” (EdC) aims to improve social cohesion through creating places of encounter for a diverse set of people such as young families, students, seniors and eco-fanatics with a common interest of growing food in the city. The idea of city-gardening found resonance in kindergartens and retirement homes, and similar projects were later carried out in other Estonian cities. The initiative was carried out from 2008 till 2010. EdC was started by a group of activists engaged in the NGO Urban Lab. The latter was created in 2006 as a testing ground for urban innovations, it involves researchers and practitioners who aim to elaborate new ideas on how to improve the urban environment using scientific, social and artistic methods. The NGO is also a lobby group with the aim to popularise the use of new solutions in daily urban governance by promoting urban research, sustainable development and collaborative planning.
The initiative of EdC was originally an experiment carried out on the rooftops of two of Tallinn’s buildings, the Estonian Academy of Arts and the cultural centre ‘Polymer’. According to the report ‘Edible City I’ (Tint, 2010) the initiative was based on a popular science test in 2008 where the quantity of pollution in edible plants growing next to major roads was measured. This was accompanied by practical city-gardening which in turn was encouraged by introducing the initiative at public events and in the media. Since the initiative was an experiment with a rather open end and scope, all the activities were planned step-by-step parallel to the on-going process and depending on the existing resources. The initiators were beginners in gardening, enjoying the self-education and topic discovery in the course of the activities. This implies that the initiative relates most strongly to the lifestyle by bringing together ecologically minded urban dwellers.
The goal of the initiative was to break through the dominant thought pattern that the city is too polluted to grow food in, a decoy for people to rethink the idea of city gardening. Sander Tint, the leader of the initiative explains:
‘Why are we willing to live in a city where we do not even dare to grow food?’ (Inseneeria blog, 2012).
Although some urban gardening took place during the Soviet period in the suburban area, e.g. datcha culture (see Zavisca, 2003), according to the interviewee, agriculture and subsistence farming have not been important in cities:
“The relation between Estonians and the rural culture influences the understandings of farming quite strongly: the correct place for growing food is in the countryside.”
The original circle of interested parties was small, consisting of 3-4 people. As the initiative grew, so did the network the interviewee explains:
“We found that on a local level city gardening is practiced in very different ways, and much more than the common discourse allows us to presume.”
Thus, the target audience grew quite spontaneously. Connections were created with other initiatives in Tallinn and elsewhere in the country as well as in Finland and Germany. Framework and structure of the project were set by Urban Lab. The initial project did not receive funding. Thus, all the expenses (e.g. lab tests) were covered by the initiators themselves. However, after the report of lab results was written and published online, funding was applied from the Environmental Investment Centre and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia which helped Urban Lab to issue the paperback ‘Edible City I’.
The EdC initiative has since experienced a renaissance: the community garden was created in the ‘New World’ neighbourhood in Tallinn which was popular among both young Estonian gentrifiers, men and women, and also Russian-speaking senior citizens, mainly elderly women living in the area. Organic farms are today administered by NGO Tartu Ecogarden in Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. In a TV interview Sander Tint elaborates:
“Gardening is seen as a reducer of environmental impact that also facilitates community feeling—especially when it takes place in a multicultural and age different environment—and thus unifies the neighbours. It has multiple simultaneous roles” (ERR archives).
In an interesting way the initiative reflects the intersectionality of the roles people carry daily. By creating shared spaces where you perform the role of a gardener, it does not really matter whether you are Estonian or Russian, rich or poor, experienced or inexperienced in gardening. One might garden for stress relief, the other for subsistence (e.g. getting winter vegetables). Through encounters these activities also open the opportunity to learn from each other and to create a more inclusive society:
“Farming creates its own subculture,” according to our interviewee.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The concept of diversity, although it is strongly entwined in the EdC initiative, is not defined in the framework of the initiative per se. Furthermore, the interviewee expresses a rather philosophical view on the concept:
“Diversity in general is perceived as invisible because the World is structured through familiar categories and the ‘unfamiliar’ becomes evident—if at all—as a disturbance in our subjective and socially meaningful frame.”
Mostly EdC enriches urban diversity firstly by creating new urban functions and daily activities that people enjoy in their environment (already the initiators themselves feel satisfied when they have such an opportunity for self-realisation), and secondly by bringing together different people, those who would otherwise meet each other only rarely
Main factors influencing success or failure
The EdC initiative was initiated in 2008 and finalised with the issued paperback report in 2010. Since the initiators were fanatics rather than experts in this field they did not aim to commit to this initiative in the longer perspective. The interviewee argued that it was unexpected and even somewhat burdensome for him personally to be the main spokesman related to urban gardening. Overall the EdC team considers the initiative to be successful mainly due to the dedication of the volunteers and somewhat surprising public interest (e.g. media). Since the initiative was started, it experienced a renaissance in the society and probably encouraged new activists in Tallinn and in other cities without having a direct link to this particular initiative. In retrospect the main obstacles were financial. More interest and suggestions for cooperation from the local government were hoped for. Some funding was received in the final stages of the project when the initiative had already established a positive reputation.
Even though the initiative was based on voluntary work, the people involved were experienced in communicating their activities to the public. During the initiative a great deal of discussion was carried out. The report was also sent to every possible interested party (local government, third sector initiatives, retirement homes, schools, and kindergartens, everyone whose activities might have been connected in some way with the idea). The whole project received substantial media coverage—this made the seemingly temporary initiative encouraging for similar activities in the future.
The innovativeness of the EdC initiative is hidden in its simplicity. The city-gardening idea is quite easy to grasp and understandable for everyone. The shared platform created an opportunity for encounters regardless of the diverse backgrounds of people. Even such temporary initiatives thus help to build local trust and social networks, and as it crosses the borders of socioeconomic status and ethnic divisions, it facilitates social cohesion in the neighbourhood. As Tallinn has two main ethno-linguistic groups, initiatives which provide activities, e.g. gardening as a common practice and part of their culture, the potential of bonding of these ethnic groups via common activity is eminent. In addition, it should be emphasised that in the district of Northern Tallinn, where gentrification brings together very different social and ethnic groups, such cross-group initiatives are very important in building more inclusive local communities. Last but not least, the EdC initiative also represents a situation in which local residents themselves define their preferred local activities like the EdC where they aim to organise an enjoyable leisure activity and blaze a trail in public discourse.
Image: Spread from Edible City
 Usually small garden-area with a self-made shed in the out-skirts of the city.
 Estonian Public Broadcasting