Ever since the days warmed up, I’ve been spending all of my time outside. I have a new job working at an urban garden, and it started me thinking about different, more social ways of going zero waste. Namely, I’ve been thinking about urban agriculture. The process of growing and distributing food in an urban (aka highly populated) place, urban agriculture combines a couple of my interests and also offers promising solutions to a variety of the problems facing us today.
A Brief History
While urban agriculture is currently trendy, historically food production has been the domain of the poor. It is on the backs of farmers that cities were built, because farmers produced the surpluses of food that allowed for the accumulation of wealth. And before the rise of quick, easy transportation during the Industrial Revolution, food had to be grown close to home. Most urban spaces integrated government, trade, housing, and the production of food.
Urban agriculture has existed for as long as humans have had cities, and cities have pretty much existed for so long as humans have had agriculture. (There are some great books on the rise of agriculture – I recommend the classic Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity to start with). Historical references to urban agriculture include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
In the United States, a country founded by farmers, urban agriculture has been present ever since and even though farms moved to rural spaces. During the Great Depression, families cultivated relief gardens. During World War II, the government pushed for victory gardens, and families produced more of their food at home than they have ever since. Lately, the media has been abuzz with stories of urban agriculture in Detroit, and more and more cities are beginning to support urban agricultural initiatives. Google “urban garden” or “urban farm” with the name of any major city, and you’ll find at least a handful of startups.
But What Does Urban Agriculture Do?
As much as I love digging in the dirt, I’m interested in the practical social aspects of greening urban spaces. Yes, gardens grow food. I think that’s awesome, and it’s the primary reason I continue to plant things. However, too frequently urban agriculture is discussed primarily in terms of environmental sustainability. I write a zero waste blog, so obviously sustainability is very high on my list of priorities. Still, what about the people doing the gardening? Besides improving diet, exercise, and access to green spaces (all important), what does urban agriculture do?
People come together in the garden. You don’t need a common language to practice horticulture, and you don’t need common values, either. When you’re planting radish seeds, your thoughts about Obamacare or abortion become secondary to the work. And so it makes sense that urban gardens can be used as remediation tools for issues as varied as race relations and gender violence. You have to trust someone when you’re growing food together, and the garden forces that trust. It’s never quite clear what curveball the next week’s weather will bring, and as anyone cultivating plants knows, you always have to be on your toes.
In fact, a UC Davis paper lists some of the positive social impacts of urban agriculture, including creating safe spaces, reducing blight, community development/building social capital, education and youth development opportunities, and cross-generational and cultural integration.
It’s incredible to watch the social changes happen in real time. The group I work for has garden education classes, so a lot of the people are coming out to garden for the first time. It’s wonderful to see people realize their own power when their first seeds sprout, and then again when they harvest their first produce. It’s alternatively encouraging, charming, hilarious, and inspiring to hear the conversations going on around the space – you never know what topic you’ll stumble into. Most of the volunteers are college students, but the people taking classes come from a huge variety of backgrounds. We’re next to a highly trafficked path, so members of the public stop by on a regular basis to ask what we’re doing… and sometimes they get involved.
This piece is intentionally brief. I’m planning to write more, and I’m looking for scholarly resources. My inner geek is attempting a literature review. Email me! Zerowastegirl@gmail.com. I’m specifically interested in urban agriculture’s impacts on gender and race relations.
Oh, and feel free to reach out to me if you have questions about urban agriculture.
P.S. It’s easier than it looks to start your own garden, no matter your space. If you have a south facing window, you probably have enough light to grow salad greens in a flower box. And it’s a great conversation starter with the neighbors.
I’ll make a tutorial soon.