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Interview

Making Mumbai green

Adrienne Thadani & Nicola Antaki, Fresh & Local

Making Mumbai green

When Fresh & Local started six years ago, fresh and organic produce was near impossible to track down in Mumbai. With a little help from this green-fingered duo, disused concrete spaces scattered around the city have been transformed into pop-up organic plots and edible community hubs that push the boundaries of what a garden can be. The volunteer-led organisation has flourished over the past couple of years, pioneering the urban farming scene in India by experimenting with lo-fi, easy-to-reproduce design on a range of different projects. We talked to Adrienne and Nicola about transforming the city, one green project at a time.

Flyover Farm

The goal was to transform 5,000 sqft of unused rooftop into an exemplar urban farm and community space on the busiest street in Mumbai.

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Fresh & Local

Tell us a bit about yourselves and what motivated you to start Fresh & Local in a city like Mumbai?

Adrienne: Seven years ago I came to Mumbai on holiday to document stories about my Indian grandparents, whom I’d never met. At that time, I had only ever grown cucumbers, one time, in my grandma’s backyard. I had mostly shopped organic and supported farmers markets in the US, but at that time, in Mumbai, it was incredibly difficult to source organic, good quality produce. All I wanted was a fresh, tasty salad. So I tried to grow my own. This proved challenging and incredibly interesting, and forced me to interact with all kinds of people growing food in and around the city. As I learned, I shared my experiences, which led to the formation of Fresh & Local, an initiative to facilitate organic farming in the city. When I started it was just about growing my own food, but over the past five years, I’ve seen how gardening and bringing nature and nourishment back to the city does so much more – it brings people together, transcends social classes, and empowers people to transform the landscape of the city, making it more beautiful and liveable.

Nicola: I came to live in India in 2011, to start an architectural research project. I had always been into growing plants, fruits and vegetables at home both in France and the UK where I grew up. When I met Adrienne, I was really interested in the concept of developing urban farming in the city and missed green spaces. I immediately got involved, initially to help develop the Flyover Farm community rooftop project on Mohammed Ali Road. As an architect, I could be useful with making design drawings and layout, and material ideas, so we put together a design for the rooftop and started a Kickstarter campaign with my illustrations and drawings.

I’ve seen how gardening and bringing nature and nourishment back to the city does so much more.

How are your spaces engineered to respond to the city?

A: We always hear that there’s no space in Mumbai, but when we move around the city we see space everywhere. Our projects are about transforming these existing spaces to make them better and more usable. Through our gardens we create beautiful, living, outdoor spaces that people want to be in, occupying areas that were abandoned, ignored and completely under-utilised. It’s such an interesting and problematic city, as there is no real concept of public space; there’s no word in Hindi for privacy that relates to the Western concept of privacy. But a garden somehow manages to transport people.

N: We like to use the act of gardening and enjoying green space as a community building and enhancing tool, that aims to bring people together and entice them to take back the city, which is so often under lock and key.

Can you talk a bit about the scope and ambition of your projects and how you’ve developed your approach since you started?

A: Fresh & Local is completely volunteer-based and works as a non-profit organisation promoting and facilitating urban farming through hands-on workshops and events. We run the community rooftop farm and collaborate with NGOs, businesses and city dwellers on awareness-raising community projects.

N: We’ve worked on creating prototypes for easy-to-produce, flexible gardens for Mumbai’s in-between spaces. Getting people involved has also become an important part of our approach. This has included a Pop-Up Garden in collaboration with an NGO called SNEHA, where a series of brief building and design workshops with women that visit the centre led to a workshop as part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. The design outcome was then implemented and built as a prototype at the SNEHA centre in Santacruz. Then we have also done an urban farming design charrette as part of a multi-themed workshop in Govandi, near a huge city landfill site. Along with a team, we developed prototypes for locally made designs to facilitate growing food in the home environment. This included a market cart on the street, where we demonstrated how to use the designs to local inhabitants. We’re currently working on a project called the Nomadic Garden, to engage school children in growing their own food and learning to garden. A purpose-designed truck will act as a learning environment, teaching tool and demonstration garden that can travel from school to school. We have developed a 10-week curriculum that integrates and enhances the Indian State curriculum requirements.

 

 

What kind of gardening techniques do you teach and how are they adapted to Mumbai?

A: We focus on organic and traditional gardening methods, that employ common sense and an understanding of how nature works.

N: We try to use as many permaculture techniques as we can. We also focus on recycling and reusing to develop local, sustainable growing techniques. We use locally found, affordable and natural materials as much as possible, and like to learn from traditional rural methods as well as more contemporary practices. For instance we like to use clay pots called matka to keep plants watered, which minimises water wastage and evaporation.

 

What was Mumbai like before you started in regards to green living and how are things changing? How is Fresh & Local contributing to this change?

A: The interest and awareness in organic, sustainable living, gardening and urban farming in general, continues to increase dramatically every year. When we started, we were met with a lot of scepticism. Several people said that farming was a rural practice, and that no one would engage with it in the city. Now, we still don’t do any rural-style farming in the city, but people are incredibly eager to learn how to grow something at home, and if they have space, are equally eager to develop their available area into home gardens. We have hosted hundreds of workshops, had consistent interest in the form of volunteers and visitors to Flyover Farm since 2012, we’ve been part of several public fairs and events and have even hosted a reality TV show promoting gardening… These are just a few examples of how mainstream it’s all becoming.

What do you hope your initiatives can bring to the city?

A: Through our work we hope to inspire and empower city residents to take back the city and make it more liveable by increasing biodiversity, making spaces beautiful and interactive, and growing fragrant, nutritious and delicious produce. To us, urban farming is a first step in supporting the larger organic farming movement, understanding where our food comes from, taking care of oneself and one’s surrounding environment.

N: As well as informing people about the ease of growing food, which in turn reduces dependency on importing it from elsewhere.

We hope to empower city residents to take back the city and make it more liveable.

How do you see Fresh & Local develop in the future?

A: Our experiences working in the non-profit space led to the setting up of a consultancy THRIVE with Jonathan Benda. THRIVE works mostly with businesses interested in supporting and promoting the urban, organic movement. We also are in the process of setting up a community garden centre and store, supplying the best products, sourced or designed by us to make gardening in the city more accessible.

Let it Grow