Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture
Issue Date:Mon, 2010-03-01
Island Press, 2009, 200 pp., $30 paperback
Imagine a city where the streets are lined with trees full of fruit. Imagine a city where vegetables, free for the picking, grow at the edges of public parks and plazas. Imagine a city that encourages foraging by the hungry, the needy, the citizen trying to stretch a tight budget. Those are some of the things that Darrin Nordahl, city designer at the Davenport (Iowa) Design Center, asks us to envision in his provocative little book, Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture.
Nordahl, who was trained as a landscape architect, believes the relationship of cities to agriculture is ripe for rethinking. For decades, municipal governments ignored — or actively suppressed — the potential for growing food on public or semipublic ground. Now conditions are changing. There’s an increasing awareness of the threats posed by America’s concentrated and industrialized agriculture system, by bioterrorism, and by the consumption of petroleum to transport common fruits and vegetables thousands of miles.
The current system is out of whack, Nordahl argues. In 1940, one calorie of energy from fossil fuels generated 2.3 calories of food energy. Today, he says, “it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just one calorie of modern supermarket food.” Meanwhile, there are periodic outbreaks of fatality-causing contamination in the food supply, and one of every three Americans over the age of 20 is obese.
A whole series of food-related problems could be alleviated if we made fresh, locally produced food available free or at little cost in our cities, says Nordahl, who is also author of the insight-filled My Kind of Transit (reviewed in the Dec. 2009 New Urban News). Some cities are already moving in that direction. Providence, Rhode Island, is looking at revising street-tree ordinances or zoning restrictions downtown and at adopting policies and documents so that agriculture would be permitted citywide. “Community groups in Providence are working to double the amount of food grown in and around the city over the next ten years,” he reports.
City staff in Des Moines, Iowa, have teamed up with landscape architects to create community gardens on the grounds of schools, shelters, juvenile and family centers, food pantries, and libraries. The City of Seattle, in the “urban village” section of its comprehensive plan, has set a goal of “one dedicated community garden for each 2,500 households.” In Portland, Oregon, municipal staff are trying to ensure that fruit-bearing trees can be used as street trees. Across the country, “municipal government is going to have to play a leading role” if public and semipublic land is to achieve its potential as a source of food, Nordahl maintains.
Wouldn’t it be messy — and hazardous — to have trees that sometimes drop their fruit onto the sidewalks? Nordahl argues that “almost all trees and shrubs are messy,” including many non-fruit-bearing trees that currently shade urban streets. The proper response, he says, is to encourage people to gather the fruit, and require cleanup of the pavement. Harvesting parties could be assembled. “Why not organize municipal U-Pick operations for urban orchards and other larger-scaled plots in the city?” he asks.
Some restaurants have begun cultivating gardens outside their doors or down the block. That can give them an economic advantage and assure the customers of getting food that is local, organic, and fresh. “Edible landscapes,” he argues, are going to be much more than a niche market. Each municipality, he says, “would do well to establish a Department of Food that would ‘embrace urban farming.’”
Beneficial for youth
Experience in Natick, Massachusetts, has shown that community farming is beneficial for teenagers, especially at-risk youth. Nordahl quotes Mark Winne, founder of the Natick Community Organic Farm, as saying that the farm gives young people “an alternative frame of reference that doesn’t include the local mall;” it “gives them a respite from an economic system that treats them as if they are only consumers-in-training.”
Occasionally Nordahl’s desire to help those at the bottom of society gets the better of him. He insists that community gardens should allow their produce to be taken not just by those who planted and tended it but by anyone who wants it. He argues that people should be urged to plant vegetables between curb and sidewalk in urban neighborhoods, with the understanding that anyone can come along and pick them. This strikes Nordahl as “social equity.” It strikes me as naïve and likely to lead to conflict.
The author argues that fruits and vegetables growing by the sidewalk are more attractive than an ordinary lawn. That depends, though, on the skill and attentiveness of the gardener. And if New Urbanism’s embrace of the rural-to-urban Transect has taught us anything, it’s that what’s appropriate in some locales is out of place elsewhere. Should an elegant neighborhood be fitted out with streetside cabbage patches rather than refined (but non-food-bearing) landscapes? I think that would be a strange trade.
Clearly, though, Nordahl is onto something important: food-growing is part of the urban future. I expect that we’ll see plenty of agricultural experiments in cities and towns in the next ten years. The challenge will be to figure out how, and where, agriculture and urbanism can best work together.
Posted by New Urban News on 01 Mar 2010