Let Them Eat Kale

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.

The growing interest in urban agriculture means we need to think about the city in a whole new way.

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The media moment is lasting. First ladies and queens — Michelle Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, and “Queen of Cuisine” Alice Waters — have endorsed kitchen and allotment gardens for their nutritional and educational values. The New York Times and Financial Times regularly report on urban agriculture, “edible schoolyards,” foraging, and gleaning. Organizations such as Growing Power in Milwaukee hold on to the limelight, its founder Will Allen knighted with a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship, and its greenhouses, composting facilities, job program, and tilapia tanks duly documented in videos and articles. The business world has taken notice too: New Urbanist Andrés Duany states that “agriculture is the new golf,” and a financier aims to convert 20,000 acres of Detroit’s vacant land into farmland. Whether as shorthand for sustainable land use or a loophole to acquire land inexpensively, urban agriculture and the associated idea of “the productive landscape” are central to the current discourse on the quality of life in and around cities.

Urban agriculture is about not only food, but also sustainability, health, social justice, and money. It can mean many things to many people. Hydroponic skyscrapers in cities like New York promise a bounty of tomatoes within easy reach of office workers. Strategic interventions within so-called shrinking cities such as Detroit and St. Louis seek to revalue urban land while bringing fresh produce to “food deserts” — neighborhoods without access to grocery stores offering fresh produce. Suburban developments advertise the inclusion of agricultural land as a conservation measure, a means to guarantee “safe” local food, and to satisfy our longing for a pre-agribusiness countryside. In cities like Kampala, Uganda, and Rosario, Argentina, urban agriculture is part of a participatory design process that integrates housing programs. Given this diversity of meanings and applications, urban agriculture begs for a site-specific and scale-specific nomenclature. It is a feel-good concept in need of a critical framework.

Murs à pêches in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France.The interrelationship of city and food, both in production and consumption, has a long history. The Mesopotamian city of Uruk, founded in 3500 BCE, relied on a system of flood protection and irrigation to yield dates, legumes, and grains to support its population. Versailles offers a more recent example, and one still visible today. There, Louis XIV expressed his integrated vision of garden design, urbanism, and food production. To the south of the château, the king’s kitchen garden, or potager du roi, featured 22 acres of ornamental vegetable beds and walled orchards. Just as spatially compelling were the murs à pêches (peach walls) of Montreuil, at the opposite end of Paris, whose now barely productive traces bear witness to their mark on the collective memory. Though somewhat of a cliché, the inextricable ties between culture and cultivation — semantically and conceptually — can be witnessed across societies from the floating gardens of Xochimilco’s chinampas, near Mexico City, to the hortillonages of Amiens, in France.

As the city displaced food production from its center, the relationship between living, working, and eating became more abstract. Landscape architecture was not central to early 20th-century architectural debates, yet a number of planners and designers sought to redress urbanization and crowded cities with a productive landscape system. German garden designer Leberecht Migge’s polemics were a call to arms for food self-sufficiency. Migge promoted an integrated housing-garden unit where greenhouses, vegetable beds, walls, and pergolas spatially extended the minimum dwelling and supplemented the family diet with a carefully calibrated output of foodstuff. Three decades later, Danish landscape architect C.Th. Sørensen took a more emotional and more modest stance. Based on his observation that apartment dwellers had lost their primordial relationship to the ground, his 1948 design for the Naerum allotment gardens created a dreamlike landscape that would reconnect man with the medium of dirt. The garden ovals cascade down the slope, their hedges allowing for a multitude of cultivation endeavors, both communally and privately.

The argument for self-sufficiency embodied in the allotment garden and community garden rested on an economic and moral rationale. The penury of war, the pressure of oil dependency, and economic recession have periodically prompted a yearning for food security and proper nutrition, and/or employment. To some, the current surge in urban agriculture projects reflects a phase as temporary as the World War II victory gardens, the UK’s Women’s Land Army (which put women to work on farms during World War I and II), and the 1970s’ embrace of organic gardening, do-it-yourself structures, and Whole Earth Catalog. Others contend that the new urban farmer represents a more enduring commitment to social justice and better nutrition in a better environment. Urban agriculture is in fact the product of both a top-down revolution and grassroot movements. The somewhat elitist desire to transform the relationship of Americans to food, the nostalgic collective memory of Jeffersonian agricultural ideals, the myth of old Europe, and the preservation of landscape through agritourism are all gathered in today’s “delicious revolution” and “slow food” movement. Conversely, urban agriculture rests on models tested in the developing world. The informal, opportunistic, impromptu, yet essential gardens and plots in the cities of Latin America and Africa contribute a large percentage of the local food supply. Likewise, the community gardens of West Philadelphia are crucial in strengthening the economic base, as well as the physical and mental health and cultural identity of the community.

Just as microloans have attracted global banks, urban farming and growing food as a means to ensure physical, mental, and ultimately economic health have come to the attention of the business world. Venture capitalist Woody Tesch put food economics and local production at the center of his 2008 book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, thus bringing attention to the Slow Money movement and the “nurture-capital” industry.

Recently, corporations have returned to the production of food as part of their operating structure. In a trend reminiscent of the paternalism of company towns, corporations such as Pepsico and Google have introduced company gardens to the workplace: employees, or sometimes corporate departments, are given access to on-site vegetable plots in order to boost morale, develop team spirit, improve employee health and well-being, support food banks, or even to improve cafeteria fare. (Response varies and is perhaps best described as mitigated enthusiasm.) On a larger and supposedly more public scale, the 20,000-acre Hantz Farms in Detroit promises to “rejuvenate [the] city by returning to its agrarian roots … and putting property back on the city tax rolls.” A commercial venture, it will use conventional methods to grow crops that include Christmas trees. Advertised as a win-win proposition, this “plantation” has already raised the specter of land-grab among community activists, given the critical importance of land tenure in urban agriculture.

The contemporary enthusiasm for urban agriculture presents a paradox: zoning regulation, olfactory and sound control, and moral opprobrium have erased almost all traces of food production within most Western cities. This contradiction reveals the difficulty of integrating agriculture into urban systems and the need for landscape architects, planners, and community activists to tackle policy. The perception of urban agriculture as a temporary land use for disenfranchised inner-city populations is also likely to hinder its potential to form a new type of open space.

It would be well worth reevaluating the mid-20th-century division between ornamental and productive landscapes, from an educational as well as an economic standpoint. As heirs to both agricultural and urbanism traditions, landscape architects are uniquely situated to bring the aesthetics of “third nature” (the garden) back into a new urban “second nature” (the farm). Productive open space will gain acceptance as an essential component of sustainable urbanism through highly visible pilot projects. The inclusion of an urban farm in Harvard University’s plan for a new campus across the Charles River would have performed such a role, had construction not been halted. The proposed Allston campus offered an ecological, spatial, and social laboratory to test ideas about urban agriculture. The interconnection of a productive and didactic landscape and urban spaces would have demonstrated Harvard’s commitment to sustainability and progressive development and taken landscape architecture and urbanism in a new direction.

But other opportunities are emerging. The 2009 proposal by Michel Desvigne and Jean Nouvel for “Grand Paris” carries implications for the redefinition of the suburban-rural interface. The periphery of Paris offers the opportunity to develop a new type of productive landscape, one performing simultaneously as an open-space system for the hyper-individualistic suburban tracts and as a test plot for the agricultural belt that lies beyond. Desvigne describes the 500-mile joint of varying width as a lisière — a term for a forest edge or a seam. Traces of a long-gone farming landscape — hedges, ditches, thickets, and paths — and an infrastructure of greenhouses, allotment gardens, recycling, energy production, composting, and sports fields organize this seam. Strictly codified, it is a terrain for exchange and experimentation, a means to make the landscape accessible to all users. In this scenario, planned indeterminacy hems the suburbanization of the countryside and allows agriculture to reenter the urban environment.

In such theoretical scenarios, urban agriculture offers the potential to recalibrate the social, economic, and spatial balance. It is the designer’s role to underscore the importance of urban agriculture as a designed open space with wide-ranging implications. And it is the politician and planner’s role to acknowledge it as a new landscape system, one that is aesthetic, productive, and sustainable.

Above: The thermal mass of the murs à pêches (peach walls) in Montreuil, Seine St. Denis, France, created protected environments for espaliered peach trees, typically grown in more moderate climates. First constructed in the 17th century, the walls remain in one small district (center and upper right of photo) of the modern city outside Paris, once famous for its peaches. Satellite image (top) by TerraServer; circa 1930 aerial photo courtesy

Correction: The location of the headquarters of Growing Power has been changed to Milwaukee.

2 Responses

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  1. A said, on August 5, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Nice article! Just a FYI, ‘Growing Power’ is in Milwaukee, WI, not in Detroit.

  2. […] a bit too abstract, the BostonArchitecture (No space!) site also features an interesting article on urban agriculture, and several pretty pictures from around the northeast. […]

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