The word agriculture conjures images of vast, rural, rolling farm fields, quite apart from any dense city life. Large trucks with pictures of these same farm fields drive down the highway, sometimes across the country, to deliver this produce from rural to urban locations. With the coupling of population shifting to urban areas and a rise in fuel prices, what if we grew food, not just local to the area around the city, but in the city itself? Many urban farmers are doing just that through farming small pieces of land, forming community gardens on empty urban lots, converting their yards to edible planting, growing vegetables in pots on balconies, using edible plants as ornamental landscaping, combining urban art with food growing, or even growing food on rooftops and walls. The following snapshots of communities and individuals growing food in unconventional settings show the full spectrum of urban agriculture types.
Small farms within suburban communities can be tremendously productive. Fairview Gardens in Goleta, CA utilizes a 12-acre site surrounded by suburban homes to grow over 100 types of fruits and vegetables organically. One of the many innovative techniques Fairview farmers use is to alternate which species are planted next to one another within the planted rows as an organic pest control measure (if a pest prefers one type of plant, their damage will be limited). Members of the surrounding community come to the farm to buy Fairview’s products at their produce stand, join their community supported agriculture (CSA) program, or find these products at the local farmer’s market.
John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, promotes an extremely efficient method of growing your own food through a technique called “Biointensive” gardening. Through smart methods of digging, crop rotation, planting times, and companion planting, Jeavons maps out a method to grow an entire diet of food on very little land (for example, feeding a family of four on half an acre of land). Biointensive gardening is an ideal technique for community gardening within the city as well.
Networks of community gardens are taking back vacant lots to grow food, revitalize neighborhoods, and create cooperative communities. A walk around New York City reveals fenced in community gardens in every borough. At GreenThumb www.greenthumbnyc.org, residents can search for a community garden in their area. GreenThumb is the nation’s largest urban gardening program. Since the network’s start in 1978, the program has grown to 600 gardens and 20,000 members with each garden having a minimum of ten members.
A growing number of home owners (or anyone with control of a patch of dirt around their living space) are replacing lawns and ornamental landscaping with edible plants. The “Edible Estates” project by Fritz Haeg has installed prototype gardens around the country to demonstrate how a front lawn can be converted to a productive food garden.
Even those without ground to plant in can grow vegetables and herbs in pots on small patios, balconies, on rooftops, walls, or indoors, even using productive planting as art. A summer 2008 exhibition at the PS1 Contemporary Art Museum in Brooklyn, NY, “Public Farm 1”, uses suspended cardboard tubes planted with vegetables as an art piece. At Trent University in Canada, professors and students use the roof of the Environmental Sciences building for sustainable agriculture. The produce is used by local groups including a nearby café.
Why stop at using horizontal land and roof-tops for urban agriculture? Another exciting technology gaining recent popularity is the living wall (or green wall). One company that produces a modular vertical planting system to install on wall surfaces, Green Living Technologies, has recently completed a project with Urban Farming to build a living wall in a low-income area of Los Angeles. The “Urban Farming Food Chain” wall, to be maintained by local residents, is planted with tomatoes, leeks, cucumbers, strawberries, and other edible plants. ELT Living Walls sells small living wall kits to hang on indoor walls. These mini living walls can be planted with lettuce, herbs, or other edible plants – even apartment dwellers can grow their own food. For anyone not living in rural farm country, one or more of these types of urban agriculture is applicable to your home or neighborhood. The reasons to grow your own food or support local urban agriculture are numerous and growing. Urban agriculture re-connects people to where their food comes from, reduces dependence on non-renewable fuels, utilizes wasted urban spaces, saves money, creates community, can bring life to urban landscapes, and is a key ingredient global food security for a sustainable future.