It is an incredibly simple idea - but one that could have a significant impact on the health of residents in a city with one of Europe's lowest life expectancies.

Turning just 15 of Glasgow's derelict parcels of land into urban agriculture spaces would give 50% of the city an allotment space within 10 minutes walk of their home.

Having access to freshly grown, high quality vegetables would boost health and help tackle the famous "Glasgow Effect" that sees the city have some of the poorest health outcomes in the UK.

This is according to academics from the University of Glasgow who have developed a modelling method that would allow other cities and towns to assess the health impact of repurposing unused ground.

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The team’s findings have been published as a paper in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation.

Dr Mingshu Wang, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical Earth Sciences, is one of the paper’s co-authors.

He said: “Infamously, Glasgow has one of the shortest life expectancies in Europe, exacerbated by stark inequalities between residents of the most and least affluent areas of the city.

“Part of the cause of this ‘Glasgow effect’ is a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food in lower-income areas of the city, combined with limited opportunities for outdoor activities.

“This research provides the basis for a data-driven approach to urban planning which could help address some of the city’s most challenging problems without the need for huge investment.”

At the moment, according to researchers, 36% of the city has access to allotment space within a short walk of their home but, should the modelling from the researchers be used, this would increase to 50%.

Sophisticated geospatial analysis of the city, conducted by Glasgow researchers and Florida State University, USA, showed that city centre residents generally have better access than those living at the edges of Glasgow, where more economically deprived areas tend to be clustered.

In those more deprived areas, access to cheap, fresh food can be limited, creating spaces sometimes called ‘food deserts’.

The researchers found that there are currently 939 hectares of vacant and derelict land scattered across the city, with around 60% of the city’s population living within 500 metres of an unused space.

Although official figures from Glasgow City Council dispute the number of vacant plots, putting the figure at 619 - down from 644 in 2021 - or 32 hectares, the research fits with work already being undertaken by the local authority.

A council spokesperson said its food growing strategy has identified 250 potential sites for growing around the city, including parks, disused playing fields, the grounds of publicly owned buildings and other spaces.

He added: "We weren’t involved in the development of this study, but it very much chimes with our own work to develop food growing in Glasgow.

“The recent, successful opening of the Greyfriars Biophilic Garden on High Street also shows the potential for bringing vacant sites into use as growing spaces.

“The development of Greyfriars was supported through the council's Vacant and Derelict Land Fund and we are hopeful this approach provides a template for other similar initiatives in future.

"We are also currently undertaking a mapping exercise to identify suitable vacant sites that are close to Glasgow residents who have expressed an interest in food growing."

The university study looked only at Glasgow so there is currently no measure for whether 36% is a low proportion of urban growing space.

Dr Wang added: "At the moment there is no data to compare with other cities.

"However, the method we applied and workflow we developed can be replicatable to any other cities.

"It would be possible for other scholars to replicate our study in, say, Aberdeen or Edinburgh."

Using a technique called spatial optimisation modelling, the team examined how unused space could be converted into community gardens or allotments to maximise city residents’ access.

The team’s analysis showed that turning just 15 derelict sites in locations including Drumchapel, the Gorbals and Toryglen into urban agriculture hubs could help expand convenient access to fresh fruit and vegetables to 50% of residents, which could have a significant impact on reducing food inequality.

Adding up to 60 new sites within a 10-minute walk for local people could boost access to up to 70% of the city’s population, which the researchers say would reduce inequality of access to a statistically insignificant level.

Dr Wang said: "The phenomenon of urban agriculture in North American cities is becoming increasingly the hot topic for financial reasons and also for health.

"Using urban agriculture land means growing food that is more nutritious than food you buy from a supermarket that has mass-produced the food; vegetables are more nutritious than the grocery store-provided vegetables."

Dr Wang added that growing vegetables is usually cheaper than buying them but that urban plots of growing land have more benefits than simply the food itself.

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He said: "Perhaps more importantly, it is a form of physical activity. You need to make the most of your mini-farm so it involves labour and physical activity, which involves health.

"It creates an arena for people to have some form of social interaction and stimulates an environment where people will have a higher level of community and create the social cohesion.

"Urban agriculture has many benefits, other than more nutritious food at a lower price."

Dr Ziqi Li, of Florida State University’s Department of Geography, is the paper’s corresponding author, a former Lecturer and an honorary research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences.

Dr Li said: "Previous research has shown that in areas with higher densities of vacant land, residents often suffer from higher occurrences of mental health issues like anxiety, depression and psychosis.

"When that is combined with the physical health effects of living in food deserts, there’s a very strong case to be made for the value of turning those unused spaces into community agriculture hubs.

“Community gardening gives people the power to grow their own healthy food, and creates green spaces for social interaction, stress relief and exercise.

“Our study shows that Glasgow has the potential to create new solutions to tackling the Glasgow effect by finding better use for the vacant land across the city, and involving local people in making positive changes to their communities.

"There is evidence of this success to demonstrate the possibility including the Concrete Garden project in North Glasgow’s Possilpark area and the award-winning Woodlands Community Garden.”

The research began as a thesis written by University of Glasgow MSc student in Geoinformation Technology & Cartography, Amy Russell, who was jointly supervised by Dr Wang and Dr Li.

She said: “Our hope is that this study will help lead to new conversations between community groups and decision-makers across Glasgow regarding putting vacant and derelict land to better use. Our research shows that small changes to land use could provide opportunities to grow affordable food in areas where people need it most.”

Food access is, however, stymied through political choices such as planning decisions on where to place supermarkets or wider economic landscapes such as austerity.

So is asking people to grow their own just letting politicians off the hook by shifting responsibility to the individual?

Dr Wang said: "Our study is more about providing a proof of contact that using a data driven approach we can help adjust some of the challenging problems of the city without a huge need for investment.

"At the same time we realise some of this vacant land that the city council has already decided to convert into other uses and it's just not available to the public.

"But what we want to communicate most is that by using a data driven approach, we can be a group of helpers to the city's policy makers and to the city's decision makers letting them know that some of these problems can be solved without the need for huge investment."

The team’s paper, titled ‘Equalizing urban agriculture access in Glasgow: A spatial optimization approach’, is published in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation.