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Growing change: University as part of the community

LizzyBaddeley11 March 2015

Marina Chang was the runner up in Focus on the Positive last May. Here she shares her story of taking part.

My PhD research explores the role of university-community engagement and co-operation in the development of sustainable food systems in London. During my PhD study, I visited and studied hundreds of community gardens across London.

In most community gardens in London, growing food productively is rare. But the Calthorpe Project, both a community garden and community centre, is one the most productive food growing spaces in Central London. In fact, the Calthorpe has been a pioneer in growing food in the city since the 1980s.

marina Chang

Marina Chang on stage

One of its visions is to create a localised food system. In this vision, local food production, distribution, consumption and waste can be closely connected to create synergies. Through this small scale model, huge impacts can be achieved as it can respond to global issues such as climate change, urban food security and food safety and many others.

Earlier this year, the Calthorpe Project was fortunate in having a bio-digester installed on site. This bio-digester can transform biodegradable waste into clean fuel and liquid fertiliser. The clean fuel will generate heat and electricity which can be used for their poly tunnels in the winter. The liquid fertiliser can be used directly in their raised beds for food growing. However, in order to optimise the capacity of the bio-digester, it is important to increase their food growing spaces.

As a friend to UCL Public Engagement Unit, I had been aware of Focus on the Positive for a while but never thought of participating in it for a very simple reason that I have always had a fear of public speaking. However, with the possibility of winning a £2000 cash prize, I decided to give myself a try – not only to help the Calthorpe Project but also to help myself overcome the fear of public speaking.

I made my speech a personal story. Driven by a commitment that university is part of the community, I have been a volunteer and a friend at the Calthorpe Project ever since I first moved into the neighbourhood. I told the audience that this £2000 is pitched to the need for the Calthorpe to buy equipment and materials, both for extending their poly tunnels as well as creating new raised beds for growing food. And this money will also help them to train volunteers to go to the community to collect organic food waste from the households and restaurants to fill in the bio-digester.

I passionately advocated this kind of localised food system as a true beauty of combining science with nature to help create a sustainable community in our own neighbourhood.

I tried to convince the audience that their support will help to make a strong case that growing food in the city productively is not only very possible but can also transform people, place, community and the society.

I shared my witness that over all these years, the Calthorpe Project has have been through a number of big threats and crises, including being closed down. I’m very grateful to learn from the Calthorpe Project, tenaciously never giving up and focusing on the positive – developing a more sustainable food system in London through university-community engagement. I do believe university is part of the community. Together, we’ve become more resilient because we have received all kinds of support within the neighbourhood, but importantly, support from wider community, including each audience member sitting and listening to my story in the room that night.

I was pleased to receive so many interesting queries, suggestions and encouragement from the audience during and after my speech. I was of course even more thrilled that I was voted the runner-up for the £1000 prize.

I felt both proud and happy when I saw new raising beds put in place at the Calthorpe Project with the support of this £1000. We are sowing new seeds in soil as well as in our hearts. More importantly, my story has also seemed to inspire other colleagues at work and members of community to pursuit a genuine and meaningful co-operation between the university and the wider society for developing sustainable food systems in London.

Marina Chang completed her PhD at UCL in 2012, and  currently works as a researcher at both UCL and Coventry University.