Opensource edible landscapes: The Todmorden story

If you’re particularly into bad news, there are many places that will indulge your particular interest today. This is not one of them.

Here, I want to spend a little time on things that give me hope for humanity, things that have an uplifting effect on me; things that remind me that I have much to be thankful for, things that make my heart sing with joy.

Like Todmorden.


Todmorden is a old Domesday-Book-mentioned market town that is in both Lancashire as well as Yorkshire (depending on which side of the Calder you’re standing), with about 15,000 people and almost as many ways to pronounce its name (though the locals apparently just call it Tod).

I’ve never been there. But I will. Soon. This post will tell you why.

Sometime in 2009, I’d seen coverage of something happening in Todmorden that intrigued me. Locals there had apparently agreed to work together to try and become self-sufficient from the perspective of food. Their initial focus was on fruit and vegetables, and the intention was to move on to grain, to white meat and finally to all the food types they felt they would need.

The article intrigued me; I filed it away as something to keep an eye on. And then promptly forgot all about it.

More recently, probably sometime in June this year, I’d read about a NESTA publication, a Compendium for The Civic Economy, and given the contents a scan. Noticed that Incredible Edible Todmorden was mentioned, decided I would look at it in detail later. And then promptly forgot all about it.

Until today, when I came across continued coverage in one of the Sunday papers. Third time lucky. This time I soldiered on. Of course, I had to get past the bad-news-packaging first, but that is now something I am a past master at. [Besides forgetting about things that don’t make it on to my daily to-do list.] I would connect you up with the Sunday coverage but there’s no point, it’s pay-walled away.

It’s an amazing story. A local food system, an “edible landscape”. Created as a community asset. Fruit and vegetables planted in public spaces: car parks, footpaths and pavements, graveyards, roadside grass verges, railway platforms, school fields, wherever and whenever possible.

Doc Searls, when talking to me about opensource a decade ago, used the term NEA to describe what he considered to be a key set of principles for such things: Nobody owns it; Everybody can use it: Anyone can improve it. The Todmorden story appears to conform to all three principles.

Food planted everywhere on volunteer time and expense. Food available to all. Over 40 “growing sites”. One in three residents actively involved. 600 fruit trees. “Egg maps” showing you where your nearest egg producer is (there are 50 of them). People imitating and adapting the campaign in other parts of the country, and abroad.

An open architecture, no real barriers to entry. Food available to all. For free. Imitable. For free. An emergent phenomenon, shared via stories, making use of otherwise decaying assets. With the distinct possibility of making people healthier, wealthier and happier. Built on communal principles, steeped in sharing.

How did they decide what to plant and where? Which spaces to use? How did the narratives form and grow? Has the health profile of the town begun to change? How is the “tragedy of the commons” avoided within the community? Does the community “police” itself? What about the entry of “foreigners”? There are reports that crime has fallen since the experiment began. Is there evidence of causality or correlation?

A community that has made the coin of the realm disappear from some of their transactions. Not just dematerialised. Disappearded. [Yes, I meant disappearded. With the extra d.]

What does that mean for incomes? For taxes and duties? What do the Grand Poohbahs and panjandrums make of all this?

After food, what next? How will the “system” be kept open? How will “trade” be carried out? [I am told that there’s a supermarket at the edge of town, and saw at least one reference to a new one opening within the town. How can this work?

There’s only one way for me to find out. Well actually there are a few:

I can go to the Incredible Edible Todmorden website, a treat in itself.

I can continue to read the rest of the NESTA report, and speak to the people there.

I can talk to friends like Steve Moore at Big Society, who’s bound to know how I could find out more.

And I can go there and talk to people there.

And even donate to the cause. Which I must get around to doing, I’ve been completely engrossed in the story.

More later.

Todmorden. A reason to be cheerful.






21 thoughts on “Opensource edible landscapes: The Todmorden story”

  1. I live in tod. As a a result of incredible edible(a glut of plums) I have now got into chutney and jam making. My daughter won;t eat supermarket courgettes cos she knows what they taste like out of the ground. We also have an amazing local foodmarket, with excellent butchers, cheese stall. All selling local produce. I am fairly skint, but eat better than people who live on 15-20 times what I earn down south. We are v proud of town. You should visit.

  2. I will. Definitely. With my family. Our son’s reading Literature at Leeds, so we will come over next time we go to see him.

  3. Those who eat foods from no more than 100 miles away are healthier, contribute to local economy, and help sustain their own environment. You’ve offered a wonderful example of this. So, with the exception of truffles and a few other goodies, we (that would be me & Mrs. Yankfan) try to maintain this in our lifestyle. This does, however, fly in the face of the concept of a global village. Think global, act local is more the case in these sort of circumstances.

  4. Led here by a Viki Saigal post, I find JP!
    Lovely to see your blog and read this piece.


  5. Todmorden is indeed an astonishing place. I live in the spiritual cousin of Tod and its neighbour (Hebden Bridge), Chorlton, South Manchester. It’s interesting how many seem to flit between here and that area. My sister used to live in Tod many years ago as well, so have a distant relationship to the place. As such, there are a few unique characteristics about the place I can share that might help answer some of your questions, but maybe cause more.

    * Neighbouring village Hebden Bridge has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK, to the point that that a film documentary was made about it. Tod has quite a high suicide rate as well. Nobody is 100% sure why.

    * Todmorden is a town full of folklore and genuine belief in “magical” forces. So much so, Derren Brown (a famous magician/mentalist if you’ve not heard of him) staged a 3-month long experiment where he convinced the local population a dog statue in the park was “lucky”. You should watch that.

    * The area has a higher drug use/abuse rate than national averages, and is considered by many to be a “hippy” location. That might be unfair, but it’s certainly true that virtually any drug is freely available in Todmorden. Unusual for a small town in the Pennines.

    * Quite a few people I met there had lived in Rochdale before. Rochdale is famously the home of the Co-operative movement, and as such children there are taught at school age about the value of co-operatives. I think this has a massive impact on people’s views of ownership and entrepreneurship later on in life. I think we’re seeing that in play in Todmorden.

    In other words, the town is a place that is used to open-minded risk taking and experimentation, and a strong desire to overcome the isolation and depression that so many people seem to feel when living in the area. It’s a real breeding ground for new ways of doing thing.

  6. Oh, did I mention that Harold Shipman was a GP there in the 1970s? Yeah, that Harold Shipman.

    And that it’s the UFO capital of the UK with the highest number of incidents of reported UFO interaction in the country. Before you suggest it’s all down to that supply of drugs I mentioned, one of the most prominent people claiming abduction was an on-duty police officer…

  7. Dean, it’s not just about food. In fact it’s not even about sustainability or self-sufficiency per se, the way people imagine. I’m thinking Douglas Rushkoff. What happens if you disintermediate currency altogether, and not replace it with barter or exchange models? What do you tax? Whom do you tax? How do you tax?

    Now that excites me.

  8. Vinod, being told that Viki led you to me is a two-edged statement. Knowing the kind of things Viki can lead people to :-) he is one of a kind. Glad to see you here.

  9. Thanks for the info Paul. I have it on good authority that Tod has at least one fine second-hand bookshop with a decent collection of cricket books. That’s reason enough for me to go there. Even if every one of them is sold out before I get there. I want to go to places where second-hand bookshops exist, especially shops that stock cricket books,

    Not what the run of the mill garbage that goes by the name of bookshop does today. A Tesco by another name rarely smells that sweet.

  10. This is a beautiful story about a seemingly idyllic place. And it’s not only inspiring, but perhaps a useful metaphor for positive group behavior under some special conditions. The “Nobody owns it; Everybody can use it: Anyone can improve it.” is also a beautiful utopian thought. Which may work – again – under certain special conditions. (The criteria for which might be an interesting set to try to define.)

    And yes, here comes the “However” part…

    However, this type of rule set can and has led to instances of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” And has done so throughout human history on multiple occasions. John Stossel recently did a story on this where he featured the work of Hernando de Soto Part of his work shows how property rights can help avoid such Tragedy of the Commons issues and also lift people out of poverty. Stossel’s segment focused on American Bison and a bit about Elephants. For a more wide ranging, (pun intended), write up on the topic, see “RESOLVING THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS BY CREATING PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS IN WILDLIFE” by Robert Smith. Is Todmorden headed for this? It will be interesting to watch.

    It’s likely – as with so many things – neither management principle is an all or nothing thing for any given resource. I wonder what would happen if – hearing of the bounty in Todmorden – a lot of outside bums started showing up to partake without doing any work. Maybe there’s a Dunbar-like number for communal size that would dis-allow for this social contract given such resources can only sustain so many? Or some sort of geographic isolation and attendant social contracts that come into play required to make this kind of thing work. In any case, yes, a nice story. But I’m not quite sure we have any long term lessons from the Compendium yet. Having personally been a long time community volunteer, I’ll be interested to see how some of these experiments in old time community manage in a contemporary environments as opposed to isolated instances; whether isolated by geography or other means.


  11. Glad you liked it, Scott. Thanks for the Robert Smith reference, will look it up. And yes, there will be some upper limit before coordination costs leach the value away. The city-state, anyone?

  12. Todmorden like Facebook?

    “Open architecture, no real barriers to entry. Available to all. For free. Imitable.”

    Hebden Bridge is very hilly, Tod looks the same, almost a porous walled garden like Facebook. FB created incentives to chase out fixed costs into a sufficiently sustainable moat. Innovated new business model, economic value shifted from software product to inputs and outputs. Has Tod shifted from Food to other inputs and outputs?

  13. Meanwhile across the Pond, a different take on public space gardening, but no less inspirational.

    Vigilante Gardner Part 2: A Thief, A Dirty Old Man, and GOD.

  14. I also live in Todmorden. I am a market trader on todmorden’s inside market. I moved up from London 4 and a bit years ago and i love it. Perfect place to raise a family…. i would never move… tje sense of community is amazing and its just a really nice place to be in these rather difficult times :) x

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