Urban farming is a recent phenomenon in Bulgaria that has only gained momentum over the past five years, mainly in the capital Sofia. It is mostly undertaken by NGOs and citizens, organised through social media or by residence. Researchers have also shown interest in the subject for socio-economic studies, publications and conferences. Several urban farmers have already commercialised their activities to local restaurants and hotels and meet the growing popularity of healthy eating and low-carbon diets. Some Bulgarians living and working abroad in greening cities, return to the country and bring back experiences and knowledge that can transform their native places.

Local authorities, however, still show limited interest in urban farming and prioritise big infrastructural projects and investment opportunities. For example, the legal regulation of Bulgarian municipalities is not explicit on whether planting vegetables on municipal land is permitted and under what conditions shared vegetable gardens can be created. Vision for Sofia, an initiative of the Sofia Municipality to build its long-term strategy, mentions urban farming as one of the measures that can enhance biodiversity in the city, but no particular steps are planned thus far. Different civil society groups involved in urban farming projects have tried to engage big municipalities, including Sofia, in a dialogue to initiate necessary legal procedures, but to date they have met little response.

The involvement of municipalities to support urban farming by providing for example free land or long-term and low cost rentals is among the critical factors for nurturing this new activity. Urban farmers cannot compete with other investors willing to pay higher rent for commercial activities on the same sites. It is also in the realm of national authorities to define and establish the legal framework for urban farming. Our country is lacking clear definition and regulations on urban farming as an option for long-term land use and business activity within the national regulatory framework. This gap leads to a deficiency in terms of public funding and support. For instance, urban farming is neither covered by the scope of the Rural Development OP because of its ‘urban’ dimension, nor is it explicitly addressed by the Innovation and Competitiveness OP, where resource efficiency (RE), entrepreneurship and new business models are supported. At the moment, urban farming is partially in the agenda of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy as a variation of social entrepreneurship activities. Therefore, most urban farming initiatives are launched and sustained by volunteers and own capital. There is a niche for CityZen to introduce the concept of urban farming and its effects for better RE, green and social innovations to national and local Bulgarian authorities.

In this context CityZen laid the ground of a promising collaboration between ARC Fund and the Bulgarian Ministry of Economy as managing authority of the OP Competitiveness and innovation 2014-2020 and the Regional Innovation Centers (RIC) procedure. Its main objective is to establish modern research and innovation infrastructures at regional level that can enhance open-end and applied R&D activities within Bulgarian regions.

The measure is also a cohesion tool that aims to help Bulgarian regions catch up with the Sofia capital. It supports RIC establishments by associations of innovative enterprises, R&D and other local actors including municipalities. Those partnerships will design, manage and develop soft and hard facilities of the centers and will animate local ecosystem to advance in new products, services and processes in a certain S3 area for the region.

As part of the innovation fabric of the regions, RIC can be avenues for RE and green innovation concepts by urban farming to many regions and cities of Bulgaria and their governance. This is especially valid for the RIC specialized in the S3 area of Industries for Healthy Life and Biotechnologies, where ARC Fund’s CityZen team will also support the Ministry of Economy in monitoring greening and socio-economic impacts of those centers for the regions.
Making entrepreneurial discoveries can be challenging for RIC to uncover and create new business niches for the region and attract young entrepreneurs. Therefore, CityZen will promote new practical ideas and examples of business endeavours related to urban farming, green innovation and RE to RIC that could be grown into new business ideas and commercially viable innovations.

CityZen strives to learn and share good policy practices on how urban farming could be accelerated and integrated into local policy agendas. Since city farming in Bulgaria are bottom-up initiatives by individuals and small groups, it is also of key interest for ARC Fund to exchange tips on how civil groups and small businesses can engage local authorities to better support urban farming activities.

Picture credits: Urban Gardening - Sofia