Octopus Community Network is a coalition of community centres in Islington, North London. The network was formed in 2002 with the aim of bringing the shared knowledge and skills of their members together to tackle key issues facing the borough and its residents – from the hyper-local to the global.
We don’t have lots of land, but we have lots of unutilised space. Islington is really dense in terms of its buildings, meaning it has a lot of roofs. Two of our food growing demonstrators are on roofs, and we also have plans for introducing (rain) water harvesting systems and solar panels”

We spoke to Julie Parish of Octopus Community Network about their work on climate change and food poverty, and the impact that the global pandemic has had on their work.

Facing the climate emergency

Environmental sustainability has been central to Octopus’ work for over a decade, with an even greater emphasis being placed on green energy and food since Islington council declared a climate emergency in June 2019.

Working alongside the council and other key local voluntary organisations and educational institutions, Octopus has been developing an innovative urban growing programme. This “local food movement” has focussed on sustainable food production and food waste, as well as re-connecting people with green spaces and improving environmental literacy through workshops and events. This has included building a range of rooftop community wildlife gardens for native species to flourish, edible parks, rainwater harvesting tanks, and climate action learning hubs.

One unique characteristic of Islington Borough is its lack of green space. As Julie explained, “Islington has the least spare land in any London borough”. Consequently, Octopus have had to be particularly creative in their use of space – transforming the little space they have available into “something more vibrant and productive”.

“We don’t have lots of land, but we have lots of unutilised space. Islington is really dense in terms of its buildings, meaning it has a lot of roofs.  Two of our food growing demonstrators are on roofs, and we also have plans for introducing (rain) water harvesting systems and solar panels”, Julie told us.

“Sustainable ways of growing can have an impact on climate change” Julie continued. “We need to look at what the conditions are in inner city areas for people who want to grow – we need to maximise access to locally produced compost and water for urban growing”.

Octopus Community Network have also sought out ways to improve the energy efficiency, and C02 Emissions of the community centres themselves.  An environmental audit, funded by City Bridge Trust, was conducted into the energy efficiency of each of the community centres. Each of the centres received a report into “how effective they were and areas they could improve. This provided a baseline on how these organisations could progress”.

Many of the community centres are “huge, old buildings”, meaning there are substantial costs associated with becoming energy efficient. However, a number have secured funding to begin this transition.

One great example is the Mildmay Community Centre. In 2011 Mildmay became the first certified Passivehaus [i], non-domestic retrofit in the UK, with a 95% energy savings over its first winter of operation. As Julie explained, “the old tram shed still exists, but they retrofitted using the passivehaus methodology, putting a shell around the building”. Energy generation is provided by Photovoltaics, hot water by solar thermal, and heating by a ground source heat pump.

Caxton House Community Centre meanwhile has secured money to have a “complete energy rethink, which will use natural recurring heat from the ground”.

Food Poverty in “leafy” Islington

Another core pillar of Octopus’ work is their Community Food Hub Project, aimed at tackling food and health inequalities.  This is a much-needed service in Islington, as Julie explained: “Food insecurity in Islington has been hidden for some time. It is often seen as “Leafy Islington” but it’s actually a very impoverished borough – densely populated and with predominantly social housing”.

As a member of the Food Poverty Alliance Steering Group in Islington, members of Octopus Community Network have started a number of cooking and social eating activities.  This includes an innovative, ‘community cook-up kitchen’ at Elizabeth House aimed at teaching local families healthy cooking skills on a small budget, and a community café and cookery school at St Luke’s Community Centre – the profits of which help provide subsidised meals to older and disadvantaged local people.

Each community centre in the network provides support that is tailored to the community they serve: “What people mean by a food hub differs according to people and geography. You’ve got to be able to deliver to what your community needs and wants”.

Learning from the pandemic

When the pandemic hit, the sheer extent of food poverty in Islington became apparent very quickly. Julie told us: “During the first lockdown, food poverty in the borough really came to light.  People working on zero-hour contracts, for example, couldn’t be furloughed so were left without money overnight.  Everyone who had the disposable income to buy things did; those without access to that level of money had nothing.  People’s living conditions determine how much food they can access at a time – they have small fridges and limited cupboard space.

Octopus Community Network responded by pivoting their work towards emergency food distribution. This included setting up emergency food-hubs and working in tandem with grassroots charities and mutual aid groups to identify and support the most vulnerable people in Islington. Over the last year they have helped hundreds of local families with emergency food packages.

“Across our groups we have community fridges and foodbanks that were used throughout the pandemic- they also ran emergency food parcels… We have seen fantastic examples of people coming together to support one another”, said Julie.

However, it also became clear that the issue was not just about access to food but also about a deeper understanding of food and nutrition: “We often had fresh food returned because people simply didn’t know how to cook it – parents didn’t know what it was or children wouldn’t eat it”.

This made the Network even more determined to shift away from the idea of traditional foodbanks and towards more holistic support, including education, environmental sustainability, and community togetherness.

“We don’t want to continue offering emergency food or foodbanks – going forward the idea is to use food to build community connections. It is important that a community food hub is part of a jigsaw that brings communities together, Julia explained.  “We already knew, before the pandemic hit, that something has to change in this global system of food purchasing. Why are we buying loads of food from elsewhere and shipping it around the world when we could be more self-sufficient? What was proven was the fragility of those supply chains”.

Julie see’s community growing and food waste schemes, not only as part of the answer to the climate crisis but also to food poverty: “We are bringing together the idea of food poverty and urban growing. If you’re going to grow food, you should grow with the vision that this is going to be the most vitamin packed, seasonal food possible….we believe in growing for social good – those who volunteer get a return of a bag of food to go home, and surplus food should go to the community”.

Building strong community bonds

Octopus and their members have many years of working in and with their community. This experience often means they are best placed to understand the needs or interests of Islington residents.

“You have to make the effort to get to know your community. Fly-by projects have very little long-term value. You can’t just say “this is a model that works, lets transfer that model” because the conditions have to be right. We have taken a step-by-step process, building relationships, skills, a knowledge base, and trust”.

As an umbrella organisation of community centres, collaboration sits at the very heart of everything Octopus Community Network do. Their “slow, organic” approach to relationships building is vital to building long-term lasting relationships that make real impact. “Relationship building is paramount, you need to be in it together … We are always looking at forming long-term mutually beneficial relationships (in which) each of you make different parts of the process work more effectively and efficiently”, Julie explained.

Julie believes that their strong relationship with Islington council has been particularly important to their success; “You have to have the council on board because ultimately they are going to give you the right or the license to work on that land. The Parks and Public realm teams have always said – “assume it’s as a yes…until we say no”’. She believes that this positive relationship has come from years of demonstrating their impact and value to the community: “You have to try to equalise power – to show what assets and skills you bring to the table – then they realise you can do things they can’t. We are the community developers and engagers; they are the enablers with the power to make decisions”.

[i] Passivehaus is a voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building which reduces the buildings ecological footprint