4. Urban agriculture

I’m borrowing the 10 things concept to build an agenda of thinking for the next couple of months – my New Year’s resolutions, of sorts. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation…or even commission a study!

Okay, where were we? Oh, yeah…

Urban agriculture

I think I am irritating others by being irritated by this subject. It’s a matter I am addressing without, frankly, knowing much about it. I am trying to get into the conversation, nonetheless, because I fear it is moving too fast, without challenge, in places where a broader and deeper discussion ought to be taking place.

How is this a redesign problem? I think it enters our agenda because the prominence of the term in the press seems to potentially have the power of beginning to influence land use policies and therefore the design of our cities. From what I am seeing, urban agriculture is embraced to put a pretty label on a failure of leadership.

In my backyard, “urban agriculture” is

  • An obscuring cover for the urban impacts of a failure to provide a sustainable jobs and a decent environment for people – it clothes individual acts of survival (a hen house) with an impression of intentional innovation and institutional sanction (urban agriculture) and has a very limited definition of sustainability (what about supply chain integration and stability, for example)
  • It provides the opportunity for wealthy to acquire property lost by those who lost jobs in the collapse of American industry and the manipulations of financial instruments
  • It is a trendy label for the failure to accept responsibility for the infrastructure you steward as municipal governors, and failure to spend the creative energy to generate a vision and a plan to repopulate, and instead accept the concept of “shrinking city” as a “trend” itself

5 thoughts on “4. Urban agriculture

  1. Urban agriculture is a useful form of community development and empowerment. Here in New Orleans there are very few, if any, grocery stores within walking distance of the lowest income areas. Because these areas are low income many grocery stores do not feel they can be sustained by the population, therefore do not open up shop. As a result, it would be beneficial if residents began engaging in urban agriculture, not only to feed themselves healthy food but also to provide a sense of self-empowerment by ‘fending for oneself’. Also, to build community further it is possible to organize a community garden that the community, not just individuals, work on and proper from. Lastly, any excess vegetables could be sold at the local farmers market.

    • Michael –

      Your New Orleans example is a great one. I think that this concept of a self-organizing physical and economic ecosystem is the kind of concept we should be exploring. I do think there are well-developed initiatives here that provide advice and mentoring so that a larger group can benefit from a collection of individual efforts.

      I’ll look into your example and these other efforts as I develop my understanding and thinking on this subject. Thank you very much for your input.

  2. As someone born in Detroit and thinking of moving back, and, also as someone with about four years of practical experience growing my own food in an urban setting, I find your irritation with the term Urban Farming a little weird. Why? Because people who grow food anywhere are not very much motivated by abstract philosophical categories, if at all. People grow food because they are afraid of being hungry, and that is about all there is to the whole question.

    It is only politicians, economists, and “consultants” in the business of selling the sizzle instead of the actual steak who feel a big need to get fancy about the whole issue.

    Furthermore, most macroeconomic trends exist simply as the net effect of thousands or millions of individual micro-economic decisions made for intensely practical reasons, and this is especially true with something as basic as subsistence farming. Hungry people with access to land, water, and seed will usually plant a garden. Take away the hunger or any of the key resources, and they will not.

    So, be irritated with the concept if you like, but for my part I feel far more secure knowing how to grow my own food than I ever could if I only knew how to debate the abstract philosophical concepts that may or may not apply to the problem of getting enough to eat.

    Sorry if I sound a little hot on this subject. Although I am very well educated, and therefore perfectly comfortable in abstract discussions of all sorts, I am also intensely practical.

    I’m also Caucasian, but unlike most of the white folks discussing the fate of Detroit I have actually lived – as a young child, no less – in the heart of the ghetto in Dexter-Linwood. What I learned from the experience, which was actually very tough, was that skin color was absolutely no use as a distinguishing factor. Most of the black kids were very reasonable people, and the few who beat me up could only be avoided by recognizing them as individuals.

    Again there was no philosophical aspect to this at all. I just did not want to get cornered by the little gangsters on the playground, because letting that happened was very painful. Moreover, as I got wider experience with the thugs of the world, I learned that there were plenty of white ones as well. Thus, although my color vision is physically as good as anyone else’s, I have almost no emotional reaction to skin color. It was literally beaten out of me at age six. Hence, the end of any further personal “race relations” problems.

    So, if you want to eat regularly, and live safely in a diverse world, I suggest you stop worrying about the abstractions so much and start checking who’s got a knife behind his back. Once you have that figured out, then make sure you have access to some gardening space. Beyond that life is not really very complicated, as far as the essentials go.

    Finally, again from a purely practical standpoint, the world is rapidly running out of oil, and I have that most recently from the CEO of Total, S.A in an interview in Time magazine. Thus, when it is no longer feasible to import grapes from Chile in mid-February, you might want to have a fall-back plan. Mine is access to garden space, and a good root cellar.

    So, be irritated all you like, but when the oil runs short, I wish you good luck dining on your store of concepts.

  3. Dave –

    Thank you very much for your comments. I agree with you that there are changes taking place in our world and concepts of local food production in both individual and more organized forms are worthy of exploration and inclusion in urban planning.

    My “irritation” is not about the concept of urban farming, at all. My initial concern is over the weakness of local governance and the general failure over decades to provide for a sustainable future in this community. I am concerned that embracing “urban agriculture” puts a pastoral image over the empty lots that are the consequences and artifacts of selfishness, bad behavior, and incompetence in both city and industry here. I want those who now claim leadership to work a lot harder at a sustainable solution rather than simply declaring the city smaller and turning over foreclosed properties to large scale private enterprise.

    I’d also like to know who is making it happen here. On land lost by those who were laid off, or whose mortgages were faulty, or who were forced out by other factors, there are now urban agriculture speculators and even plans for the “world’s largest urban farm.” Your image is one of balanced subsistence for individuals. Large scale land acquisition and corporate management of a 20,000 acre “working, commercial farm” sounds like something else.

    Your comments are what I was looking for when I posted this idea. Thank you very much for noticing, and then writing a very considered response. Your comments are part of the learning I need to do before returning to this idea later this year.

  4. In 2005 the world’s largest urban farm was only 14 acres (in LA). I don’t know what it is now, but a jump to a 20,000 acre commercial farm seems unrealistic. Is that really on the table? From who? Or are you just blowing smoke?

    Jim, I think your concern about private speculation is legitimate. Obviously who owns the land will dictate its use, but I think if you focus on land ownership alone you miss the point of urban agriculture altogether. In addition to providing food, and self-sufficiency, urban agriculture promotes community building. Bringing people from a community together for one cause, like food production, means they are more likely to collaborate on other issues, like schools, crime prevention, etc.

    Surely you can also recognize that people who have lost their jobs or are struggling to pay their mortgages would benefit from growing their own food. They save money by growing their own food, at least enough to offset 1-4 mortgage payments per year. That is real! And it would serve economically depressed communities more than leaving the land vacant/ urban prairie/ blight. If there is a better use down the road, then reconsider down the road.

    It sounds like your real objection is a logistical one, namely: how can the local government support urban agriculture in a sustainable and equitable way in the communities where it will take place. Simple measures like the city leasing the land to neighborhood associations or 501c3’s rather than leasing or selling to private companies could easily solve your problem of exploiting the land.

    I also have to ask though, if a private company did want to come in, and could train local residents to facilitate a community or mixed use (commercial/ community) garden, wouldn’t the job creation be a boon?

    Your vision of a feudal Detroit seems a bit doom and gloom. The question is not whether urban gardens are good or bad, the real question is how to ensure that they do the most good?

    I trust you have seen the McDonough + Partners master plan for the Liuzhou Municipal People’s Government in China? heres a link:

    I really think that taking a radical step (like the McDonough + Partners city in China) like trying to be the world’s first food sustainable city has the potential to help Detroit rebrand, repopulate, boost tax revenue, and become a desirable place to live for people from other regions. If you are the one who advocates repopulation Jim and not abandoning current infrastructure then wouldn’t this be the way to go? Detroit is so big that areas could be given over to farming, while other areas are developed to increase population density. This also makes sense for a real public transportation system.

    Hope this helps.

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