Plants, food and the repurposing of urban nature: the geographies of foraging and landscape in London

Change log
Nyman, Marcus 

An increasingly common sight in London is people seeking out and collecting the uncultivated, unattended and altogether unintended plants growing wild in the multifarious spaces of the city. “Urban foraging”, as it has been termed and observed in other geographies, can be read as a reflection of various concerns. It may be an expression of hipster gentrification, a radical reclamation of communal space, a re-finding of lost flavours and traditions, a reflection of a city diverse with cultural plant uses, or a shared desire to reconnect with nature, both spiritual and material. This research uses the figuration of “urban foraging” to plot a path through the uneven social and material landscapes of food, nature and the city. In so doing, it examines what foraging might tell us about the material affordances of the city, how we do or might differently feed ourselves, how urban space is designed and governed, and the alternatives politics, performance and possibilities of urban nature.
Drawing upon a year of mixed-method field work in London, including participant observation with urban pickers and foragers, interviews with a range of actors, archival and visual resources, and autoethnographic walking and learning, it offers a qualitative account of the activities in question and the city more broadly. The research builds on existing work concerned with urban gathering practices in North American cities, and nascent research from other geographies, applying some of this insight to the situated histories, ecologies and knowledges at work in London. While political ecologies, and urban political ecologies, provide a valuable theoretical basis for addressing issues of access to nature, the status of the urban forest, and different epistemic traditions, urban foraging reveals a more complex picture. Looking towards “relational materialist” thinking, it helps reimagine food as a contingent event—a becoming— replete with ontological uncertainty. At the same time, it undermines stable readings of the food system by re-inscribing moments of human-plant encounter with affective meaning, bearing implications for efforts to recalibrate urban foodscapes and food-ways.
The thesis attends to the various facets and ‘affordances’ of urban foraging in London, including the praxis of walking and mobility, botanical encounter and knowledge, culture and memory, the history and (re)emergence of the urban commons, and the importance of how language and etymology intertwine themselves in all of these. Fundamentally, the research offers an interpretation of urban foraging as a form of figurative and literal “poaching”— to borrow the term from De Certeau—and means through which to make sense of the city, which unsettles the increasingly numerous representations of London as an ecologically coherent entity. In so doing, it also reveals a performative element that invokes varying visions of rurality connecting the city, at least symbolically, with temporally and geographically distant spaces. Rather than the revival of culturally or historically ‘authentic’ practices, urban foraging—through the enactment of varied ethnobotanical knowledge and skill—is contributing to the emergence of novel cultures of urban nature. As such, these plant collection practices bear implications for how the city’s green spaces are conceived and managed.

Gandy, Matthew
Nature, Food, Plants, Geography, Urban, Cities, Landscape
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge