How to Grow Community, from the Ground up.

Introducing the Urban Shepherd of Stockholm.

by Ben Vickers

In August I hosted a small meet up in Stockholm with @Ola and other EdgeRyders @Kei and @James on our way back from FuturePerfect festival (on the Island of Grinda) — I wanted to share in this post the work of someone who attended the meet-up. His name is Jordan Lane, a modern day Urban Shepherd.

Community can grow from small actions,

over a short period of time. These actions can lead to fundamental changes not only in physical public space, but also in the sense of security and friendship in a neighbourhood. Urban Shepherding is a concept that aims to foster positive links between the food we eat, the places we live and how we meet each other. This story illustrates how a subtle and well considered citizen organised action can deliver a measurable increase in quality of life — and give you fresh eggs too.

What is Urban Shepherding?

Urban Shepherding is the stewardship of productive living systems as an essential element of regenerative and resilient urban infrastructure. It is not so much about having a vegetable garden, chickens and a greenhouse as it is about how those elements are tied together with the social context to create functional interconnections that grow community and positive public space.

What does Urban Shepherding do?

Urban Shepherding can start small, but is multilayered, multi-stakeholder, is subtle in implementation and takes a whole systems approach to its environment. And in it’s current guise with Jordan Lane in Stockholm, starts with chickens. Describing his work under the banner of Urban Shepherding, it’s core focus is the reintroduction of animals and agriculture back into the urban environment, at scale — as a means to influence urban development and improve social cohesion. The ambition being to establish new ecosystems in the working lives of a city’s inhabitants — beyond theory — Jordan has been putting his ideas into action.
It’s important to note before explaining this example of Urban Shepherding, that Jordan is an architect, working in the city’s planning office and this is key to the work he’s undertaking, because, in his own words —

“when people can’t see the whole system, they can do very unfortunate things, without even thinking”

Gubbangen, Stcokholm

The site and context.

So, it starts at his home in Gubbängen, a post-war suburb in the south of Stockholm. The area consists of 170 apartments spread out between 9 three storey brick houses. The structures were built in 1947 and had not undergone significant renovation in the last 60 years. In 2010 the landlord Stockholmshem — a state owned housing company — began an ambitious renovation project of all 170 apartments and the green space in between. Eager to take advantage of the planned disturbance, Jordan and a neighbour saw the opportunity to influence the spaces between the buildings. By joining a local association they were able to influence the landlord to open a dialogue between themselves and the landscape architects. This allowed the residents themselves to change the shape of shared space and to lay the groundwork for attempts to reintroduce more edible habitat and social space.

Using inevitable change as a channel of guided change, disturbance makes a good starting place.

Where can you start to grow community?

At the back of Jordan’s apartment is a garden, shared by all residents. In the garden are two apple trees and for all intents and purposes, they were sick, ridden by a particular plague of moths that threatened the tree’s wellbeing and rendered almost all fruit inedible.

At first, the neighbours learnt both of the threat posed by the moths, and the opportunity the moths presented. Informing other neighbours about the problem (who in turn grew concerned and wanted to save the apple trees), they were able to shift the conversation towards a solution — to introduce chickens to the garden, since these chickens could eradicate the moths and their larvae, and are much more animated, fluffy and child friendly than the other alternative — pesticide.

Strategic point:

In this instance the trees were sick, but an interesting point is highlighted:
If you want to unify your neighbours in a city, a good route can be to create a benign common enemy to unite against.
In this instance it was the moths, but it could equally be Knotweed on an abandoned patch near ones home or something more fictional.
Chickens are fantastic pest control

Ownership of ideas — and the space they assume

The system could not be realised alone. A small group of four neighbours started meeting, discussing tactics of permission and placemaking. As all residents have equal right and access to the green space, it was important to frame the system inclusively and not make this a private project.

Whilst one neighbour raised the week old chickens under a heat-lamp in her bathtub (which also meant that she had to shower in the bathrooms of other neighbours), other neighbours were invited to join the weekend activity of building a chicken coop — borrowing tools from those who had them.

Building community through building the chicken coop

Strategic point:

It is important to make ownership of physical assets as transparent as possible in community initiatives.
The apartments in the area are all rentals. In order to ensure the “ownership” of the chicken coop remained with the area and not certain individuals, the landlord financed all material costs. This ensured the chicken coop belonged to the area while allowing those who were engaged to participate in the building process.

This was the first move to creating a sense of shared responsibility, a social pact and line of communication between neighbours. With the coop established and the chickens growing up, a necessity grew to reinforce the social pact, caring for the chickens. The newly formed ‘Chicken Group’ introduced a ‘sunday morning chicken tea’, a regular event where neighbours could come together to hang out and clean out the coop together.

The Chicken Group deliberately resisted putting locks on the coop, instead attached a sign explaining how to handle the chickens and their diet, so children from the local area could feed, play with and engage the chickens.

With the chickens becoming a natural feature, there was some significant unexpected side effects, people and the local authorities noted there had been a reduction in crime in the area. The chickens (who free range around the garden on occasion) had also succeeded to solve another common problem of shared green space — dog poo. Before the introduction of the chickens, a few dogs in the neighbourhood (with untrained owners) were allowed to run free through the garden and do their business anywhere they please. The dog owners did not want to run the risk of a dog attacking a chicken — and have since started to take their dogs on walks, picking up after them along the way.

As well as the depth of sharing and communalism having visibly grown, suddenly neighbours knew each others names.

Slowly the introduction of Sunday morning socials led to more spontaneous social events between neighbours such as BBQs. Overtime this sense of collective ownership has contributed to a feeling of desirability, of a friendly neighbourhood — which led to the landlord being supportive of these developments, which in turn enabled residents to ask for the landlord to pay for elements that would improve their homes and surroundings — soil for growing vegetables, a snow shovel, compost bins and various other small scale improvements.

Apple tree in fall fruit

In the neighbourhood the plans don’t stop here, now the trees are improving, apples can be harvested, eggs can be shared — it has led to an enthusiasm to do more, a drive to create more produce, next on the agenda is two beehives to be ready Spring 2015. Jordan described a trajectory contingent on growing responsibility, once they’ve got bees, goats will be next.

Spring cleaning, chemical free and with no complaints from the workers

Now this is a beautiful story, of a small action in a short time leading to a fundamental change not just in the nature of people’s living environment but the sense of security and friendship in a neighbourhood. An example of how a subtle well considered action can deliver a measurable increase in quality of life without the states assistance. One I believe is easily replicated and iterated upon — part of the reason why I’ve plotted the details above chronologically is because I think it can and should be reproduced by others.

Originally published at