What Can London Boroughs Learn from Brixton?


Brixton has seen an explosion of change and growth over recent years. From a less than salubrious postcode, to nightlife epicentre, to hot yoga and coffee culture; if you ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Brixton, you’re unlikely to get the same answer twice. One thing you may start to hear about now though, is its growing reputation for championing social enterprise and sustainability.

A Fridge for the People

One such project kicked off back in early 2017, when Lambeth Council approved the installation of ‘Freddie The Fridge’ in Brixton.

Nestled within Pop Brixton, Freddie the Fridge is the brainchild of a group of U.Lab course attendees at Pop Brixton’s Impact Hub, and was crowdfunded as part of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War On Waste campaign. As you may have guessed by now, this is no ordinary fridge. It’s a free, community fridge, where anyone can leave contributions of surplus food – for example businesses that aren’t able to sell their produce – which is then fair game for anyone who wants it.

“It will act as a physical symbol and visual reminder of the wider issues of food poverty and food waste” says Olivia Haughton, Communications Coordinator for The People’s Fridge, adding that “reception to the idea has been really positive in the community”.

Freddie is regularly topped up by the traders of Pop Brixton, residents of Brixton and local organisations such as OddBox and CityHarvest whose mission it is to save surplus food from going to waste.

The project has backing from local organisations such as Lambeth Food Council, Incredible Edible Lambeth, and Pop Brixton; all of them credited with improving the area’s economy, environmental awareness, and opportunities for local residents and initiatives.

Pop Brixton

Pop Brixton, once an abandoned plot of land, has been transformed into a creative, communal space which acts as a megaphone for independent and socially-minded businesses. Scores of shipping containers have been stacked on top of one another, housing street food traders, wine bars, clothes stores, restaurants, a barbershop, a yoga studio and a radio station.

An on-site urban farm offers locals a way to share knowledge about cultivating produce and to help sustain neighbouring food businesses while co-working spaces provide entrepreneurs with the tools they need to operate.

You can start singing Pop Brixton’s praises but they’ll quickly tell you it’s not about them.

Though the venture was nominated for a Time Out Love London award this year, they urged people to vote for the businesses they helped flourish instead.

“The real reason Pop Brixton is here is to support the local, independent businesses and help them grow,” explains a blog post title Don’t Vote for Us. “Instead of campaigning to win a Love London award, we would rather recognise the amazing work our members do…Vote for our members instead.”

What Makes Brixton So Sustainable?

In many ways, Brixton’s cumulative endeavours are cyclical – the current efforts are primarily for the benefit of the locals. But it’s the locals, with a bit of help, who bring it out in the first place.

“It’s very socially entrepreneurial. It’s the whole nature of Brixton,” says Sue Sheehan. Sue is Incredible Edible Lambeth’s Green Community Champion officer, which means if you have an environmental project you’d like to initiate, Sue’s your lady.

While Sue and her branch of Incredible Edible (there are other IEs dotted around the country) look after the entire borough of Lambeth, she says “Brixton’s very much the heart of it” when it comes to sustainable food. There may be “vulnerable communities and food deserts,” she tells me of Lambeth in general, “but also a good connectedness of community. Brixton’s got its markets, independent businesses, butchers, fishmongers.”

One of Incredible Edible’s philosophies is to re-localise the food system in Lambeth (the food equivalent of the Brixton Pound if you like). And with all its food businesses and the strong interest in food that goes with it, it makes sense for Brixton to be enjoying the main force of the revolution.

Urban Growth in Brixton has planted an urban orchard of fruit trees to reconnect people with food growing and spark curiosity about fruit varieties which can’t be found in your local supermarket. The fledgling orchard will grow varieties of apples, sweet cherries, sour cherries, damsons, plums, quince, mulberries and pears.

That’s not to say there aren’t big hurdles to overcome.

Another aim of the orchard was to improve air quality at an intersection which broke the EU legal limits on nitrogen dioxide just 120 hours into 2017. Clearly there is work to be done.

For Incredible Edible, their mission includes demystifying the national supermarket model. “Supermarkets are a big issue,” says Sue. “They’re starting to respond to food waste. But we ought to be worried about the surplus too.”

Making this distinction between ‘waste’ and ‘surplus’ among the community, for example, brings to light the fact that supermarkets – not discounting other food retailers – are throwing out perfectly good food, another reason to celebrate the arrival of The People’s Fridge.

But what about access to good food when it’s not surplus? Surely Lambeth residents can’t be expected to fork out for sustainable, high quality food? For Sue, it’s more realistic than perhaps we think. “Seasonal veg is not expensive,” she says. “And if you eat less meat, you can afford the better cuts”.

London Has Some Catching up to Do

As far as sustainability goes, whether in food, business or community, Brixton is very much blazing the trail in London. Outside of the capital, cities like Bristol and Brighton are admittedly ahead in some departments (especially those relating to comparatively small carbon footprints), but owing to the efforts of Brixton’s Remakery (promoting waste reduction) and Transition Town Brixton (working towards a low-energy Brixton) we could see that gap narrowing in the not too distant future.

Besides, looking at other communities, rarely do you see things like the introduction of their own currency – the Brixton Pound was introduced in 2009 in an effort to encourage local spending, thus helping protect the jobs and livelihoods of community members within the area. Today, 250 businesses accept the B£ as tender.

It’s Brixton’s tight-knit community that helps explain the area’s steps towards a more sustainable society. There’s a strong affinity with food here, and using that aspect as a common goal – as the likes of Edible Lambeth, Pop Brixton, and Impact Hub have done – makes a lot of sense.

By all means, reading about Brixton’s pioneering approach to sustainability is all well and good. But you don’t get the best idea of what they’re on to until you visit the area for yourself. So, what’s keeping you?