Urban Farming in Sofia: The rural element in the urban landscape

 Rooftops and green spaces in Bulgarian capital—Photo: Natelu/Unsplash

Rooftops and green spaces in Bulgarian capital—Photo: Natelu/Unsplash

Urban farming as a hobby, way of living or surviving

by Ram

Sustainable development, green cities, social segregation, food distribution, healthy lifestyle, products with proven origin, better quality of life - all these concepts are becoming a focus of the public attention and interest as they address nowadays city life main problems related with people’s and environment’s well-being. They are also mapping the sustainable solutions we need to put our efforts in, to integrate and then keep on upgrading in order to mitigate these problems in the future. One of the solutions, a tendency that could be observed in many contemporary cities, is the application of the “rural lifestyle” upon the urbanscape or the so-called Urban Farming.

Urban farming or urban agriculture could be divided into variety of subcategories and types, which have different dimensions according to the problems they address and their scale, also depending on the involvement of various actors and the application of different structures and models.
For the purpose of this introduction, we could accept three main categories of urban farming, which might of course overlap, interact and complement each other:
- Institutional farms and gardens
- Commercial farms
- Community (communal) gardens and farms (different scale)

This article observes the Communal ecological urban farming, which is also the type of urban farming introduced in Sofia and focus of the entire initiative.
Communal ecological urban farming combines scientific knowledge and innovations with nature and biodiversity. It restores the link between the fast-growing urban population with the food and nature in general. At the same time, people who are part of this initiative provide healthy, tasty and environmentally friendly food for themselves as well as the community. (sofiagreencapital)

Benefits of urban farming
The communal urban farms are the places, which make cities greener and cozier. They are turning into public places enabling social interaction, shaping up local communities and strengthening their links. The communal urban farms also integrate economic aspects taking into consideration the better quality of food, which reflects people’s health, as well as the cheaper or even free supply of fresh food. However, the economic factor is not as significant as the one incorporated in the commercial urban farming model where the profit is an emphasis. The community farms give a specific and unique atmosphere and vibe of the big cities overlapping and combining the experience in an urban park with countryside and community center. In Sofia, urban farms are at the same time a solution and a tool, which can transform otherwise, neglected, unregulated and abandoned green spaces into something greener, beautiful and useful.

They attract people and are a catalyst for social interaction and community development.
Sofia - Urban farming may experience several challenges before it manages to spread all over the city and scale up. Among all different problems and obstacles, in Sofia we could shape up two main difficulties, blocking up the radical transition of the innovation:
- Institutional drawbacks
- Social self-determination

Institutional – the lack of institutional support is a huge challenge when trying to start and scale up something that involves urban land. The main problem is that urban farming does not have an official definition and it does not appear in any official document or law. Respectively there are no regulations, nor norms officially related to these new urban phenomena.

Social - the social factor as an obstacle should not be underestimated, too. In Bulgaria, people have different mentality and mindset. Being a citizen is a status, a fancy label and many people won’t be willing to risk their reputation by participating in a rural initiative, no matter of the long list of direct benefits for all. Convincing people that urban farming is actually something modern, that is beneficial for the society, the environment, for our kids, for our neighborhoods, could be a serious challenge in the Bulgarian cities. An example of the status relation between citizen and rural in Sofia is like driving a car or a bike.

Sofia – from startup to scale up
The idea of communal urban farming has popped up in Sofia a few years ago (ca 2012) but is being more intense and active for the last one or two years. This is an innovation that in most of the cases applies bottom-up approach starting from local communities, small organizations and active citizens. As it was mentioned earlier, this new urban element is unknown for a lot of cities around the world and especially for their institutions. There is no definition of urban farming in the law, there is no official place for it on the master plans, they are simply not existing as a separated urban component.

No regulations, no norms, no laws, no plans, no official space for urban farms. People have to do it by themselves. They have to research, to observe, to analyze, to search, to fight for it. They have to be creative and design a new model and a framework so the initiative could develop and form an urban-farms network.

However, starting from a small initiative at an inception stage, the first urban communal and ecological garden has been located and developed (Drijba Urban Farm). The negotiations between landowners, activists, NGOs and other actors have been hard but successful. Nowadays the local community has its own urban farm, taking care of local varieties of vegetables and herbs, meeting new people, socializing, exercising, having fun and being happy. On the other hand, an abandoned piece of urbanscape has been transformed into green aroma bubble. The initiative respectively attracts more and more people, but its space is limited.

Therefore, the need for this type of “untypical” urban practice incrementally increases.
This small garden draws attention and raises public awareness about particular problems and
respectively specific solution. It shows clearly, what are the benefits of this element to the urbanscape and people’s life, and what kind of vibe and atmosphere it creates in the city of Sofia.

The initiative is ready to scale up and go to the next level of development. Two more gardens have been created in a bit different way – one in an old school yard (institutional) and another one in neglected space between residential buildings (community garden).

However, they still have a lot of similar features – supporting the same idea of solidarity and sharing, emphasizing the social factor and neglecting the economic one. What is more interesting for these first three urban farms/gardens is that all are started by single physical activists/person.
More civil organizations and NGOs from different spheres are activating their resources trying to also accommodate the resources of the city so this could scale up and reach the next level of innovative development.

The initiative gets also a support from a research institution. The “Institute for the study of societies and knowledge at BAS “started a research for urban agriculture, which is still going. The research sets two main goals:
- To study the social, economic and ecological impacts of urban agriculture.
- To analyze the different ways through which urban agriculture has the potential to increase the
quality of life index in urbanized communities and to contribute to their steady development.

Finally, the initiative cracks the walls of the institutions. It has grown so much and attracted so much attention already that cannot be ignored.
Negotiations and cooperative works have been started at the beginning of 2018 between different actors (NGO - Gorichka) and the municipality. As a result, an interactive map of potential places in the city has been created on the principle of deduction using different factors (level of underground water, types of property, urban zones, size of the property, proximity to public transport and roads, shades, buildings, etc. (map). The map is online and public and it builds the foundations for further research, analyses, mapping etc. The constant collaboration between the municipality and the actors helps the map to be upgraded, improved and enriched.

The dialog has begun and the notion of “urban farming” is being introduced and taken into
consideration, when discussing new documents and regulations, modifications in the laws, planning new parks. Furthermore a collaboration between the NGOs and the team creating the strategy for “Vision for Sofia 2050” has been established and urban agriculture is seriously taken into account in the research and analysis parts.

This gives a much better base for actions and an opportunity for radical innovation transition.
The next step is integrating the urban farming in the laws as a separate urban element, which has its own parameters, describing its benefits and features.

Creating an entire network of urban farming is the last but not complete step of this initiative. What is more important and is happening already is creating sub-links with other similar organizations, practices and initiatives. They should and can complement and support each other creating final urban grid of innovations, which is well integrated into the urbanscape of Sofia.

Sofia - Perception of urban farming
After drawing so much attention, different actors were activated and involved as a supporting element of the initiative. Workshops and discussions have been organized. One of them was initiated by ResNexus where it was discussed how urban agriculture, the traditional preparation of food for the winter and the energy consumption are related practices. (http://resnexus.org/)
Later on, on another debate a very interesting question has been raised:
What is urban farming - a hobby, a way of living or surviving?
There has been several discussions, speeches and presentations of different actors. The three main aspects have been elaborated:

Hobby – many people accept the urban farming as a hobby but in many different dimensions - therapy, physical excessing, educational issues, spending free time in nature, socializing and so on. Urban Farm Drujba Fig.7 Vegetables from the Farm Fig.8 Solidarity Kitchen Organization
catering with the veggies from
Drujba Farm Fig.9

Surviving – This is an interesting aspect, which is very applicable in the context of Bulgaria. The social status of many Bulgarians is not so good, and growing your own food even in the city might be considered as a way of surviving. The food is used not only during the warm seasons but also during the winter by pickling many of the products.

Way of living – The life in Sofia and many other Bulgarian cites might be quite different from the urban lifestyle in many especially Western European and American cities. The people from the suburbs and even the areas in the city, where the family houses dominate, have been integrating the “modern” urban farming for ages. It is quite rare to pass by these areas and see front or backyards with only decorative plants and Ryegrass. For many people, urban farming and gardening has been and is still is a way of living. However, this applies only to private properties and eliminates the typical feature of communal garden and its social benefits.
On the other hand, many young generations are developing the so-called “sustainable mindset”. They do realize that the environmental issues are becoming more and more urgent. They can appreciate the healthy fresh ecological food and realize that it is very important part of our cities. That is why urban farming is becoming their way of living. However, the conclusion after long discussions is that actually all the three aspects are overlapping and complimenting each other. We do not have to choose but simply combine them, because urban farming is our hobby as persons, our way of living as responsible citizens and surviving as human beings.

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