Thursday, May 17, 2012

Urban Agriculture

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            “Food is a form of energy…but it’s also a form of power. And when we encourage people to grow some of their own food, we are encouraging them to take power into their own hands: power over their diet, power over their health and power over their pocket books…”(Doiron)
            Supermarkets bring in food from all over the world to sell to U.S. citizens. The choices are abundant. Despite this variety of choice and what is usually a picturesque product in the produce aisles, citizens are losing confidence in the quality of product they are consuming (Doiron). The disconnect between the producer and the consumer that exists in the food industry has spurred a rise in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) systems in the U.S. CSA systems involve an agreement between the grower and the buyer; locally grown food is delivered for a subscription price weekly (Patel). CSA systems are one type of growing trend in the world today of urban agriculture which can simply be defined as “the growing, processing, and distribution of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities.” (Brown and Carter 3). Urban agriculture provides more than additional food for the market. For individuals and communities, there are social, ecological and economic benefits.
            Raj Patel, in the eighth chapter of his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, describes the rise of CSA systems and farmer’s markets in the United states, with over 1,000 CSA Systems today and by the end of the 20th century (Lovell 2505), over 7,175 farmer’s market in 2011 (Union of Concerned Scientists 1-4). The history of Urban Agriculture in the United States dates back to the 1890’s, where lots in cities like Detroit, New York and Philadelphia were being cultivated to provide food for residents, and in the 1930’s during the Great Depression era, where it was not only necessary to have a form of subsistence, but also the employment that city farms offered (Lovell 2505). One of the most iconic developments in urban agriculture in the U.S. was the Victory Garden, promoted by the government during World War II as a result of food rationing (Lovell 2505). A staggering 40% of all produce consumed (in the U.S.) during this era was grown in Victory Gardens (Doiron).
            Throughout the world there is historic precedent for the benefits of urban agriculture. In the middle ages, kitchen gardens were prevalent to provide for the residents of the household. In the 16th century, Machu Picchu was a city designed to support an agricultural system within the critical infrastructure (Smit). Shanghai, China is thought to be the city of urban agriculture origin and today 60% of the vegetables and 90% of the eggs consumed by residents are products of its urban agricultural system (Lovell 2504).
            Today the U.S. has several thriving Community Supported Agricultural systems. In the city of Seattle, the Department of Neighborhoods has been running the P-Patch program since 1973 and now encompasses over 23 acres in gardens; three of those gardens are market gardens which “offer low income people supplemental income and opportunities to connect with the larger community” (Department of Neighborhoods). Also in Seattle, the Seattle Central Community College runs an education program called the Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAgE) Initiative which inspired a student to start the urban farming collective Alleycat Acres (Cimons). New York City’s Green Thumb program has more than 600 gardens and produces for over 20,000 urban residents (Lovell 2505). In chapter eight of his book, Patel describes the People’s Grocery of west Oakland, a cooperative market that provides from the soil to the shelves for the residents of this “food desert.” 
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            There are benefits to the individual or household that grows, whether on their own garden plot or within a community garden. As Roger Doiron indicated in his talk about garden plots, individuals can eat healthier and save money. Urban gardening also offers the individual physical and psychological benefits. The physical labor offers recreation and relaxation in a more natural environment than the city usually offers, and psychologically, the act of working to produce from and connect with the environment gives a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction (Bukvic 99). In chapter 10 of his book, Patel talks about food sovereignty, the aim to put the power of food production back in the farmer’s hands. Patel points out here that, to achieve this, it requires gaining a taste for local, seasonal food, training one’s desire to enjoy fresh instead of processed. He notes that food that has not been prepped, packaged and shipped tastes better to the individual almost 100% of the time.
            Urban gardens offer social benefits as well. These include of social cohesion. In the U.S. and Europe, particularly, it is documented that urban agriculture is not an activity limited to the lower socioeconomic population; higher-income participants, immigrants and the elderly all participate in community supported agriculture systems (Bukvic 96). The community urban garden brings together neighbors to interact, who otherwise would not. Community gardens also offer extra-curricular opportunities for youth. One of The city of Seattle’s P-Patch program’s positive aspects is it’s 30 gardens dedicated to youth participants, offering an educational and productive experience for the young demographic (Seattle Department of Neighborhoods). This interaction can help youth learn about horticulture and the environment as well as give them cooperation and job skills important to growth and development (Hung). In an informal survey conducted on the website designed for mothers, Cafemom, one third of participants noted that their local school district operated some type of community garden for the kids to run. Of those who commented, all thought it could be a benefit for their own child to participate (Satterlee).
Raj Patel also describes many of the social benefits of Community Supported Agriculture systems. When he discusses the People’s Grocery in chapter eight, he details this system that runs its own garden and marketplace. Not only does the People’s Grocery bring fresh, locally grown food to the food desert of West Oakland, it also runs an educational program; offering nutritional classes at the local YMCA. These educational benefits are not limited to groups like the People’s Grocery. Even without a formal organization, a community garden offers environmental education through “a connection to an agroecological system” (Lovell 2502). 
Photo Credit: Jennifer Esperanza/Flickr
            In West Oakland, the People’s Grocery offers a positive outlet in an obvious redline district. This community has one supermarket and 36 convenience and liquor stores, according to Patel in chapter eight. An organization like the People’s Grocery gives the community residents a chance to produce together, and offer up a form of protest to what the food industry has relegated the citizens to in food choice. Patel notes that the People’s Grocery is “aware that theirs is a political project.” This is a multifunctional form of activism; residents can plant, grow, harvest and sell everything locally and have an impact on the market of liquor and convenience that has been imposed on them. Patel admits that this activism is not likely to easily change West Oakland, that when it does start to have a larger impact, there will be a bigger push-back from the larger industry. This fight will only be helped by the interaction and growth that the community of West Oakland’s citizens has experienced in the People’s Grocery project.
            Food security is a main motivator behind the push to implement more urban gardening programs. While the thinking behind food security for the longest time was merely sustainable production, researchers have come to include distribution, consumption and disposal and recycling of waste (Koc et al. 32). This security in a wavering global economy is important. Besides the confidence of the consumer lacking in major production farms, the ability to provide local food can stimulate the local economy through market jobs and coops. In addition to the People’s Grocery cooperative, Patel describes several other food coops from the San Francisco Bay Area, CA in chapter eight of his book. The Arizmendi Bakery and the Cheeseboard Collective have similar coop worker models to the People’s Grocery. These community run cooperatives provide living wages across the board for local production and marketing. Entrepreneurship is another positive economic aspect of urban gardening. Growing a plot into a product for Farmer’s Markets can expand into products for restaurants and catering services; an example of successful urban gardening entrepreneurship is that of the Nuestras Raices, Inc, a community gardening cooperative that started out providing for eight families in the poorest part of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and grew to support 100 families plus local food businesses such as those described above (Brown and Carter 9).
            There are many environmental benefits to cities that embrace urban agriculture. Patel describes a prototype in Austria where 75 percent less waste and 63 percent less air pollution was generated. Due to local availability, this prototype used 72 percent less energy and with the waste-water benefits, used 48 percent less water than its rural counterparts (Patel). Less waste in the city is accounted for by the gardens using organic waste that would end up in a landfill, and easing the burden on waste-water treatment plants by using city gray water and storm water (Bukvic 101). Another interesting environmental benefit is that of less meat consumed. When shopping in local markets, especially farmer’s markets, shoppers have been shown to buy 75% more fruits and vegetables then at conventional super markets (Union of Concerned Scientists 1). This is significant when the environmental impact of producing meat is considered. An estimated one-fifth of the world’s land is used for raising livestock, about twice that of growing crops. In addition to land use for livestock and grain production to feed livestock, meat requires much more energy to transport due to the need for refrigeration (Koc et al. 147-148).
            The environmental and personal health impacts aren’t completely devoid of risk. One concern regarding growing crops within an urban environment is soil contamination. Heavy metals and remnants of pesticides are a risk, as well as polluted groundwater (Bukvic 101). Notably, however, polluted groundwater or contaminated water sources is shown to not be necessarily more likely in an urban environment than a rural one (Lovell 2513). Without attention, resident health can be affected, though many organized CSA systems have in place a process to test for contamination before planting (Department of Neighborhoods).

            There are other challenges to urban gardening also. One, which Patel briefly describes in the last chapter of his book through the example of the bull-dozed South Central Farm in Los Angeles CA, is that of land security. Many urban gardens were or are a result of a fed-up neighborhood taking over, illegally, empty lots and trying to make them “green” (Lovell 2511). This illegal use of lots, empty or not, invites the fate of the fourteen year-old South Central Farm. City and community departments such as the P-patch program in Seattle offer some security in the existence of ordinances already in place when land is acquired for use (Department of Neighborhoods). Another challenge, especially to those with limited income and in the poorer communities is that of start-up costs. Tools, labor, soil or mulch, processing and time, these can all be difficult to obtain as an urban low-income citizen (Brown and Carter 15). Some of the problems that are encountered as you go into the more populated and developed areas of the city is sunlight availability (Lovell 2512). This does have some response through the use of rooftop gardens that have become prevalent in the city of Chicago. Seasonal and climatic limits are also a challenge. Without knowledge on how to preserve produce that is more prevalent in rural areas, it can be difficult to keep production throughout the year (Brown and Carter 16).
            These are challenges that sound quite tame in comparison to the vast benefits of Community Supported Agriculture systems and urban gardening. Today’s average urban and peri-urban household is busy, and this means that the average household typically spends a total of 31 minutes to prepare, eat and clean up after a meal (Doiron). This is a social phenomena that makes the future of urban gardening seem bleak, and yet, it is growing more and more in popularity. It is becoming a necessity; as of 2007, the world population went from primarily rural to primarily urban (Doiron). From the individual benefits to the environmental and social benefits, as the world population grows and the global economy remains shaky, this process shows great promise to achieving food security.

Works Cited:
Brown, Katherine H., and Anne Carter. “Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States: Farming from the City Center to the Urban Fringe.” The Community Food Security Coalition’s North American Urban Agriculture Committee. October 2003. Web. 18 March 2012.
Bukvic, Karmen. “The importance of Ljubljana’s plot gardening for individuals, the environment and the city.” Urbani izziv 21.1 (2010). 94-105. Proquest. Web. 08 March 2012.
Cimons, Marlene. "Promoting Sustainable Agriculture." U.S.News & World Report 2011: 1. ProQuest Nursing & Allied Health Source; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
Doiron, Roger. “Roger Doiron: My subversive (garden) Plot.” TED Talks, September 2011. Web. 19 Mar 2012
Hung, Yvonne. “East New York Farms: Youth Participation in Community Development and Urban Agriculture.” Children, Youth and Environments 14.1 (2004). 20-31. web. 12 March 2012.
Koc, Mustafa. For Hunger-Proof Cities: Sustainable Urban Food Systems. Ottowa, Canada: International Development Research Center, 1999. Print.
Lovell, Sarah Taylor. “Multifunctional Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Land Use Planning in the United States.” Sustainability 2.1 (2010). 2499-2522. Open Access web. 03 March 2012.
Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle For the World Food System. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House Publishing, 2007. Electronic book.
Satterlee, Dorian. “Survey for Mom’s with Kids: Does your school have an agriculture/horticulture/gardening club?” March 2012.
Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. “P-Patch Community Gardening Program Factsheet.” (2011). Web. 15 March 2012.
Smit, Jac. “Community-Based Urban Agriculture as History and Future.” City Farmer, Canada’s office of Urban Agriculture. (2002). Web. 18 March 2012.
Union of Concerned Scientists. “Good Food is Right around the Corner.” Earthwise 14.2 (2012). 1-4. Print.


  1. A question, and a comment:
    What WAS the fate of the south central farm?

    Next month, I am starting my garden here in the Detroit area! This might sound weird, starting a garden in October, but we are setting up a hydroponics herb garden in the basement and building raised beds in the yard for next year's veggies. If our first two are successful, I want to put in two more for 2014. Any tips you have would be appreciated, and I will let you know what this project goes.

    1. I'm not completely sure when, but where the South Central farm used to be is a strip mall-type establishment. When the land was sold and bulldozed, I don't think the owner had any specific goal other than to make the land profitable and he even criticized the farm as not being truly open to the community, so his profit-driving ideas were better.
      I have not tried yet, but I am set on doing raised beds from now on for my garden, because the year-to-year up-keep seems like it would be better...My garden this year was disappointing because I couldn't get it at a good level for draining without purchasing tons of soil...a raised bed would have eliminated that problem completely (that of sufficient drainage). I would love to do herbs year-round, and if I end up somewhere cold next year, I will probably be consulting you on how the hydroponics went, particularly the electric bill ;) Good luck! If I think of any tips I've learned, especially as I research the raised beds more, I will definitely share!