The Alternative

Dr Beth Perry profiles the Biospheric Foundation, an initiative for rethinking food production and distribution in the city.

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Beth Perry

The Alternative

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There are increasingly few parts of Greater Manchester that have not heard about the near iconic Biospheric Foundation.

Biospheric Foundation started life in 2011 as the unique brain child of Vincent Walsh, a PhD student committed to positioning his research in and for the city. His research focuses on socio-ecological urban development for the 21st-century city. It adopts an action led, multidisciplinary approach which integrates ecological design principles, aiming to create the conditions for transdisciplinarity and the emergence of new urban cultures, capable of becoming increasingly resilient through climatic and economic disturbance (http://www.mif.co.uk).

Drawing on his experiences in looking at food systems in Africa, America and Eastern Europe, Vincent is committed to developing a complex ecological infrastructure that could support a new approach to food production and consumption, based around a fundamental belief in the need for access to locally grown, sustainably produced food in deprived urban communities.

“You can’t challenge the way people eat food, challenge behavioural change, without putting infrastructure right in the heart of the communities” (Interview with Vincent Walsh, October 2013)

Hence the Biospheric Foundation was born. The vision was to transform a derelict mill on the banks of the River Irwell, Salford, into a thriving agricultural space, filled with innovative sustainable food systems, from agroforestry to aquaponics. Located in Lower Broughton, the Biospheric Foundation has a strong commitment to embeddedness in the community, underpinned by a long-term vision in which academics and practitioners from around the world come to work on food experiments in and around Greater Manchester.

Following months of development work, negotiations over space, the search for funding and commitment from those involved, the initiative was catapulted into public exposure through a partnership forged with the Manchester International Festival (MIF). Manchester International Festival had been previously involved in scoping the idea of a Vertical Farm in Manchester (2011) and catalysing new ecological-cultural partnerships – such as Manchester Cultural Leaders Environmental Forum, now Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team. Nonetheless, as the CEO and Artistic Director of Manchester International Festival has stated,

“it’s no exaggeration that the Biospheric Project is quite unlike anything we have ever attempted before – this may be one of the most important commissions we’ve ever created’ (Alex Poots, Biospheric Project Brochure, 2013).

Badged as part of the MIF 2013 Creative Learning programme, other partners were quickly enrolled. The support of organisations, such as Urban Splash or Unlimited, had already been secured prior to MIF’s involvement. New opportunities for partnership were then created with Salford City Council co-commissioning the project and funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, not to mention a dazzling array of other academic and corporate sponsors.

During the Festival (5-21 July 2013) a public programme included a series of talks, tours, family events and workshops, as well as screenings and guided walks along the River Irwell. More significantly, the funding contributed to the physical transformation of the three-storey mill from empty space to exhibition of the potential of derelict industrial sites for community food production and distribution.

The materiality of the conversion of the site – reflected in hydroponic systems, mushroom systems, vermiculture, aquaponics, bees and chickens – powerfully represented the creative possibilities of new urban horizons. As a creative gesture, the transformation of the site through the MIF 2013 partnership provided a bold visual statement about the latent potentiality for sustainable cities.

An Alternative?

The Biospheric Foundation is widely acclaimed as a ground-breaking experimental lab.  At first glance, there are three key features which suggest this reputation may be deserved. Firstly, the Foundation’s history and mission seemingly challenge traditional trajectories of academic research. Interdisciplinarity in action-research – ‘live’ – settings is far from the mainstream PhD experience. The conditions through which new practices for connecting research in and for cities can be nurtured within universities need far greater consideration.

Secondly, the relationship between art, culture and sustainability is suggestive of new ways of valuing and transforming the urban fabric. Engaging the public in meaningful encounters through creative demonstrations in practice may have greater effect on changing behaviours, for instance, in relation to carbon reduction, than setting targets and objectives. Manchester International Festival has played a leading role in this respect, through raising the visibility of the relationship between food, creativity and sustainable urban development.

Finally, the Biospheric Foundation challenges existing systems of food production and distribution. In Vincent’s own words:

“There are many different ways to develop systems and we should rejoice in this cultural knowledge and develop the systems…because diversity is not just about biodiversity – its about everything within a city. We are only developing a number of systems or a simplified view of what systems are.  Its narrow thinking … how do we keep pushing things? When I speak about the status quo, I mean we need to challenge the way we think about our ecological services within cities.”  

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