Urban agriculture is growing more than just tomatoes. Initiatives, sprouting up all over the world, are helping us reconnect with the land and the food we eat, but they are also teaching skills, providing work opportunities for talented youth and knitting communities closer together. “The main reason that urban agriculture has taken hold so powerfully is that it has demonstrated on the ground that its impacts are immediately positive, far-reaching and relatively cost-effective whether as a tool for improving community food security, remediating polluted soils, connecting people to nature, building community, fighting crime, providing meaningful livelihoods or growing the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs”. In a word, urban agriculture is ‘hot’ and visible again.
Here are eight ways that urban agriculture projects are changing the way we live, share knowledge and build communities.
1. Planting for urban renewal
Thanks to the erosion of traditional manufacturing and economic instability, many former industrial hubs have been dealt a mighty blow and are now mired by rising unemployment rates, thinning populations and abandoned industrial buildings. However, community entrepreneurs are stepping forward with urban agriculture projects to rehabilitate industrial wastelands and restore a city’s pride.
Consider the Georgia Street Community Collective (GSCC), started by Detroit native, Mark Covington. After losing his job, Covington planted a community garden in an abandoned lot. With the help of volunteers and other organizations an orchard, community centre and park were added over the years. The GSCC now grows onions, cucumbers and collard greens for its community, but it has mostly served as an educational tool and place for healing. Berlin’s Prinzessinnengärten is another iconic example.
Director Philip Lauri also captures this idea in After the Factory, a film-project that asks the question ‘What comes after the factory?’ to those who are in the middle of it, in various parts of the globe, from Detroit, USA to Lodz, Poland.
2. Questioning the globalized food system
Our globalized food system has been under attack for some time now. Movies like Food Inc. (2008), amongst many others, have brought the problem to the foreground. Generalized food safety concerns, meat recalls and tainted food (in the worst cases by melamine or mercury) have raised suspicions that the companies and policymakers might be more concerned with the financial integrity of the system than the well-being of people. “The industrialized and globalized system of food production that provided essential underpinnings of this past century’s momentous transformations is under increasing attack for being socially unjust, environmentally unsustainable, economically precarious, nutritionally ravaging, energetically wasteful and more.” With evidence confirming this every day, suspicions have increased and urban gardens have become tools of empowerment. Call it a mini protest campaign.
3. Growing for locavores
More than half of the world's population lives in cities, but when it comes to feeding them, trucking in the necessary amount of food is neither economically, nor environmentally sustainable. In response, innovators around the world are trying to find ways to encourage more people to become ‘locavores’—that is, consumers interested in eating locally grown produce. There are arguments against, of course, but beyond the gospel of celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations, eating locally seems to make an awful lot of sense, if only to judge by the number of farmer’s markets burgeoning along with other harvest festivals and picnics that celebrate ‘hand-made’ food and the dedication of the people making it. These examples demonstrate that locavorism is about more than the math behind trucking food from point A to point B and the associated carbon footprint. Eva Gladeck rightfully observes: “Food is the barometer of our cultural evolution. Since food is at the heart of many of our problems, from health to environmental sustainability, it must also be the source of the solutions. Urbanites can be joyously reunited with their food. […] We can understand a great deal about ourselves by looking at our food: it is a mirror for contemporary concerns and superstitions, reflecting the spirit of our times.”
4. Exerting the right of usufruct
Usufruct is the legal right to use property that belongs to someone else. It seems that what is also known as ‘guerilla gardening’ has become an important tool in the struggle to revitalize previously industrial cities that are sliding into devastating decay. Usufruct is an especially strategic tool for the urban agriculture movement, which targets and re-appropriates land owned by governments and industry in order to empower the community with environmentally sustainable, social and even architectural development projects.
However, the most interesting aspect of usufruct is how it has forced a dialogue between the government and the people on issues of ownership, how to support local food systems and ‘normalizing’ urban agriculture. Its application has sparked the development of new schemes, such as urban land trusts, leases and eminent domains, to secure the long-term viability of community gardens and farms. It has also forced urban agriculture advocates, banks and other businesses to collaborate on creating financial loans and subsidies tailored to fit the needs of these initiatives.
5. Eating communally in the city
Most city dwellers have only recently begun to show a greater interest in how food is produced, prepared and eaten. More specifically, there is an emerging trend towards consuming food in a community setting that encourages dialogue, new discoveries and enhancing a public space. Thus, there is a rising popularity of events such as Kinfolk Dinners (North America) , Dîner en Blanc (International) and The Big Lunch (U.K.), which bring friends, acquaintances and strangers together for a shared meal.
“People who dine together rarely fight for long”.
6. Fostering social learning
Urban agricultural projects are not created with the intent of providing all of a community’s food needs. The main goal is to create a focal point that will attract a diverse group of people and generate positive social energy through learning, sharing and cooperation. The founders of the Prinzessinnengärten openly acknowledge that their garden is a place for social learning, where Berliners can learn about the problems of global industrialized farming and see first-hand the benefits of local practices.
Another outstanding example of this concept is the Brooklyn Grange Apiary Project, a collection of 30 beehives located in an old navy yard. In addition to pollinating millions of flowering plants and trees across New York City, the Brooklyn bees will also be pollinating the future of urban agriculture. More specifically, lead beekeepers are working with a team of 12 urban apprentices, who as part of a pay-it-forward program, will train apprentices of their own in due time. Turns out, the honey, as communications manager Anastasia Plakias puts it, is merely “a delicious added benefit”.
7. Harvesting the power of the Internet
Whereas various urban agriculture projects were initially spread through direct interaction and mailed packages, the Internet—and its democratization of information—has played a remarkable role in helping the movement surge forward in recent years: “While the processes of uniting diverse international engagements in urban agriculture began with direct interactions and posted envelopes, there is no question that the remarkable growth in interest in the past few years surged forward through the power of the Internet.”
8. Preparing for the future
In light of ongoing bailouts and spiralling unemployment rates in countries around the world, community projects, like urban agriculture, that feature a strong social learning aspect may become key to revitalizing devastated urban landscapes and finding useful employment for disenfranchised youth.
Policymakers and experts have been telling us for years that the consequences of our modern economic crises will be felt for many generations to come, posing a real threat to economic growth over the long-term. We are, without question, living through a ‘restructuring’ of economic order. With the future of so many organizations and businesses at risk, the youth of tomorrow will have to rely on other sources for training, support and meaningful work. Considering the nature of community projects like urban agriculture, they will be uniquely able to offer youth the opportunities they already hunger for, whether it be communal dinners where guests can share discussion and outline plans or hands-on projects that enable participants to learn a practical and satisfying trade.