Everyday Urban Agriculture by wuzhenguang


									Everyday Urban Agriculture
From Community Gardening to Community Food Security
by Domenic Vitiello and Michael Nairn

Tomatoes always seem to taste better when you are acquainted with the person who grew
them, especially when that person is you. Many Americans have never tasted a “real”
tomato, vine ripened no more than a day or two before being eaten. Corn tastes best when
you get the water boiling minutes before you pick it. The joys of fresh produce, along
with those of saving money and building community, help explain the recent growth of
farmers’ markets and of fascination with urban agriculture.1
     Growing food in cities promises the delight of being acquainted with what we eat
and its origins more intimately, and of feeling less guilty for our (usually) smaller
ecological footprint, since it is typically organic and cuts down on waste. It is something
many city dwellers already experience through community gardens and new
entrepreneurial urban farms. As cities face the environmental, economic, and social
challenges of the 21st century, including hunger, diabetes, and dependence on global
industrial food systems based on fossil fuels, local food production will be more and
more important for building food security. How do we achieve this? What do the
hundreds of community gardens and farms we recently studied in Philadelphia tell us
about the sustainability of urban agriculture and urban life?
        In Philadelphia, neighbors breathe in scents of the butterfly bushes and basil of
community gardens where once trash-strewn lots were; they pride themselves on reviving
and beautifying their blocks. At the farmers’ market at City Hall, adults delight in buying
spinach and squash from teenagers who farm a former corner of their high school soccer
field and who actually eat sorrel. At a pig roast, children dancing to bomba drums and
eating pigeon peas with rice make grandmothers feel gratified that their garden is
preserving their Puerto Rican culture. On the urban farm, apprentices watch honeybees
returning to the city to pollinate our food and future.
        During the summer of 2008, we and our research assistants found all this when
we surveyed Philadelphia’s past and present community gardens and farms.2 These
ranged from allotment gardens with hundreds of plots on parkland, to small patches
between row houses colonized by one or two people, to gardens on vacant lots whose
caretakers had moved on. We found over two hundred active gardens where
approximately 2,000 people were growing food. We counted thirty-three acres under
food production, and estimate production of 2.2 million pounds of vegetables worth $4.4
million.3 Some people garden for the low-impact exercise, others in search of better
nutrition, still others for their mental health. But all had one thing in common: They love
growing their own fresh food, love how it tastes, and more often than not grow a surplus
that they love to give away. (Haven’t we all had a neighbor who grew just a bit too much
        Meanwhile, large scale and professional planning and design for urban agriculture
and sustainable food systems are in a speculative phase, at least in the global North.
Designers understandably fancy vivid renderings projecting skyscraper farms or golden
fields of wheat and acres of corn across vast swaths of the inner city. Our architecture and
planning students dream of inserting Havana’s roof gardens, community farms, and
corner produce stands into Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The impulse seems right, since
scaling up urban agriculture holds real potential for restoring local ecology, economies,
and health, and we have much to learn from the experience of cities in the global South
(see in particular the work of the Resource Centers for Urban Agriculture and Food
Security in Africa, South America, and Asia).4 But there are good reasons why our
designs for multi-million dollar “vertical” farms and bulk commodity—or worse,
tropical—crops in Manhattan and Chicago have not been built or tested. They have little
grounding in the reality—and pleasure—of sustainable urban agriculture, which is solidly
grounded in local climates and soils.
        The reality is that most urban agriculture in the United States, Canada, and
Europe takes the form of community gardening. This is an “everyday urbanism,” largely
disconnected from the world of professional design.5 Far from our dreams of vertical
farming or vast tracts of cropland, today’s city farms plant higher-value vegetables
intensively in limited space, growing vastly more food per acre than do industrial farms.
Yet urban agriculture in the global North remains an economically marginal activity,
typically subsisting with the aid of philanthropists.
        The inner city presents our greatest challenges for food security, but it is not
without agricultural assets. Growing food connects people to their environment and to
their neighbors, nurturing trust and relationships that tie together social, economic, and
ecological systems. Many people garden as a deliberate strategy to feed people who lack
regular access to fresh, nutritious food. Community gardens in Philadelphia concentrate
overwhelmingly in low-wealth neighborhoods ravished by disinvestment, where people
do their best in circumstances that most Americans would find intolerable. Often poor
people are repositories of vast agricultural knowledge, since a large (although shrinking)
proportion of gardeners arrived via the Great Migrations of African Americans and
Puerto Ricans or later waves of immigrants from farming regions of the world. This
knowledge is a rich, largely unreported ore in poor communities; it counters the images
of the “inner city” offered by the evening news or TV shows like The Wire. Many of the
social networks in these neighborhoods are surprisingly resilient, often coalescing around
food production sites.
        A dozen years ago, Philadelphia was home to the most robust urban gardening
support system in the United States: The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Penn
State Agricultural Extension supported 500 food-producing gardens and hundreds more
that grew flowers and shade trees. In the 1980s and ’90s, the rationale for these programs
lay in helping bring people together to take back vacant lots and build community in
places devastated by deindustrialization. During the economic boom of the late ’90s,
public and philanthropic dollars for these programs were withdrawn, and their support
system mostly dismantled. Today, the Horticultural Society supports roughly forty
community gardens and three farms through the City Harvest Program, which delivers
seedlings raised in the Philadelphia County Prison greenhouse to gardeners who set aside
plots to grow vegetables they deliver to local food banks. This is the formal side of
community gardens’ role in building local food security. Yet there is a much larger
informal side of food security in gardens not supported by any institution, since gardeners
have proven remarkably resilient in the face of declining support. This is the story of
most community gardening in Philadelphia.

The gift
When we asked Earl Johnson if he ate most of the food he grows on his 2,400 square foot
(5% of an acre) lot in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, he replied,
“I only eat some of the corn. The rest I give away to people who come by and ask for it.
There are a lot of hungry people in this neighborhood.”
        Like many older African Americans, Earl grew up in the rural South and moved
to the city in the Second Great Migration. He is retired and grows collards, string beans,
and tomatoes on the site of three demolished row houses owned by the Department of
Public Property and two private owners. Earl has gardened in the neighborhood for
twenty years in three or four different places—city inspectors have a habit of bulldozing
gardens in the dormant season. As other older men told us in North Philadelphia, growing
food is “in the blood,” part of what it means to be “a real Georgia boy.”
        Earl’s greatest satisfaction is tending his garden. Wandering through it, we got to
try the most luscious blackberries we’d ever tasted in Philadelphia. It was hard to imagine
why Earl did not devour the fruit himself. Instead, he invited the neighborhood kids into
the garden to pick and eat them. For him the only cardinal sin is greed. People were not
allowed to pick more than they could eat on the spot, and if they did they were not invited
back. “Leave enough for others.” For Earl, the pleasure of the gift relationship includes
watching young people learning to share.
        There is perhaps a more somber gratification in sustaining people of a community
whose social and economic profile should test any American’s notion of survival. By all
measures, Strawberry Mansion is one of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city. In
2000, the median household income was $14,775, and over 30% of properties were
vacant. In 2007, the median home sales price was just $22,000. The west side of North
Philadelphia is one of the centers of homicide in the city; murder occurs there at a rate
that led the nation in 2006. More than 40% of area households receive assistance with
their heating bills.6 People in neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion depend on food
banks for their regular “shopping,” in a food access system that no longer serves
“emergencies,” unless we consider hunger a constant emergency in the United States.
Community gardens help make up for that period in the year when food access programs
pump the fewest calories into poor communities, when school is out, and free breakfasts
and lunches are less available.
         There are hundreds of Earl Johnsons across Philadelphia, especially in its low-
wealth communities. Gardeners, we have found, are for the most part generous people. In
poor neighborhoods, they are usually grandparents with the time and agricultural
backgrounds that enable them to feed their extended families, neighbors, church
members, and people who just happen by. We heard stories of some gardeners
connecting young mothers to food stamp enrollment, the Federal Women, Infants, and
Children (WIC) program, and food cupboards. We also found an emerging trend of
thirty- and forty-something women stepping into this role, women who pointed to rising
food prices and the need to feed their own and other people’s children as their reasons to
start gardening. Nonetheless, the aging of people with farming knowledge and a tradition
of feeding neighbors raises important challenges to the sustainability of urban agriculture,
especially in poor minority communities. This is also true of gardens that are more
institutionalized than Earl’s.

Food culture
At Las Parcelas garden in the Norris Square section of Kensington, on the other side of
North Philadelphia, brilliant murals depict a romanticized picture of life in Puerto Rico,
while the brightly painted casita, with its outdoor kitchen and shaded porch and patio,
draws people in to rest. More than a community garden, Las Parcelas hosts formal and
informal youth programs teaching children about their heritage. Across the street, the
gardeners have built Villa Africana Colobo, a series of huts and a room for telling stories
that connect Puerto Rican children to their African roots and their African-American
neighbors. Garden director Iris Brown and her friend Tomasita Romero plant vegetables
brought from Africa to the Caribbean—yams, okra, and chilies. In the bed along the
sidewalk, they grow native Puerto Rican herbs that women up the block use in
homeopathic medicine.7
        For Iris and Tomasita, the pleasure of urban agriculture stems from the joy of
making the neighborhood in their own image and of preserving their culture in the
process. Tomasita moved to Philadelphia in the 1940s, initially working as a cook in a
small hospital, later in textiles and as a bilingual teacher’s aid. In the 1970s, Kensington’s
textile mills shut down. By the mid-1980s, not long after Iris came to Norris Square via
New York, the lots that are now Las Parcelas hosted one of the largest open-air cocaine
and heroin markets in Philadelphia. Tomasita and her neighbors stood on corners and
held candlelight vigils to discourage dealers and buyers. Then one day the Drug
Enforcement Administration arrested about sixty people. The women and their neighbors
now had a chance to transform the lots, but some had also lost family members to far-
away federal prisons. The gardens they would build provided social support, as they
cooked, sewed, and raised children and grandchildren together.
        In partnership with Penn State and the Horticultural Society, the women of the
Norris Square Neighborhood Project developed one of the landmark community gardens
of Philadelphia. Today they call themselves Grupo Motivos,8 women motivated to keep
their culture alive through horticulture and food culture. The kids from down the block
who follow Iris around Las Parcelas range from four to ten years old. They desperately
want to sleep over in the casita. Teenagers are fewer in the garden, but they show up for
the party at harvest time for pigeon peas and yucca. For them, bomba dancing is a
traditional courting ritual hip enough to perform.
        Las Parcelas participates in City Harvest. On a late summer Thursday, Tomasita
wields a machete to harvest greens for the nearby Saint Francis Inn, which feeds the
largest group of heroin users in the city. But she and Iris have bigger dreams. About eight
years ago, Iris visited Cuba with the Horticultural Society and returned inspired by the
ways in which people had developed an “edible city,” with farms and gardens on
rooftops, parks, and plazas, supplying local produce stands that fed entire
neighborhoods.9 Around that same time, the District Attorney gave them a building
adjacent to Las Parcelas, seized in a drug-related case. Grupo Motivos envisioned a
women’s center with a café offering Puerto Rican cooking classes and delicacies straight
from the garden, and they started a catering service to raise the money. With their
brothers, they built a farm stand. They want a greenhouse to extend the season, grow
more Puerto Rican plants, and raise the spirits of people who still find the Philadelphia
winter depressing. Iris and Tomasita know their gardens can be greater engines of
community food security, partly because the gardens have gotten them through hard
times before, sustaining their bodies, friendships, and culture. They also know because
they have visited Mill Creek Farm.

Farming the garden
Arriving at Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia, local elementary school students are
amazed to see a banana tree growing.10 A chorus of “Eeww!” erupts when they are told
that the tree is kept warm by the compost pile and the sludge from the toilet in the nearby
shed made of adobe-like cob and powered by solar panels. By the end of the morning,
most find urban farming strange but fun.
         Mill Creek is part of the new wave of agriculture in American cities. In 2005
Johanna Rosen and Jade Walker responded with the winning proposal to an RFP issued
by the Philadelphia Water Department, for which this was a storm water management
project. The farm is one-half of a parcel that had long been vacant, two-thirds of an acre
in total. The Brown Street Community Garden, established twenty-seven years ago,
occupies the other half. The Mill Creek sewer runs directly underneath. In 1960, the
sewer collapsed a block away, killing four people and ruining nearby houses. In the
1880s, the sewer line was installed in the creek bed, the valley was filled in with coal ash,
and houses were built on top. The badly compacted ash washed out, leaving the pipe
cracking and leaking and the foundations on top unstable. MIT landscape architecture
professor Anne Spirn documented the neighborhood and its environmental injustices in
the West Philadelphia Landscape Project.11
         Of the larger community gardens we visited, Brown Street had the least visible
leadership. Here one finds no-frills gardening—simply a place for neighbors to have a
plot of land to grow food, though the young women at the adjacent farm have lent
informal support with their compost heap and barbeque grill. One gardener, an African-
American man in his late sixties, explained that he grew most of his food for the summer,
supplementing it with very occasional trips to the market to buy meat. Between wads of
tobacco, he bragged of wooing neighborhood women with his harvest. We did not pry
further about these sorts of pleasures.
         Mill Creek Farm’s mission is both agricultural and educational. It grows a variety
of vegetables and herbs for markets and restaurants but also sells produce at below-
market prices at its farm stand to increase access to fresh food in this poor community.
Jade and Jo are able to do so because they apply for grants to support their nonprofit
organization and its mission of educating children about agriculture. Contrary to common
belief, there is a growing demand for healthy, organic food in poor neighborhoods. Many
of their customers are delighted to be able to buy affordable West Philadelphia okra, their
most popular crop.
         On many spring and summer days, the farm is filled with kids exclaiming their
ambivalence through fear, disgust, and delight at the composting toilet, beehives, and
worms. Few have ever seen how food is grown, so the revelation that carrots come from
the dirt in the neighborhood is startling for many. This is the joy of discovery, of learning
how people and cities are sustained.
         Most urban farms are experimental, searching for the right combination of
funding, products, and programs that will ensure their success. The oldest in Philadelphia,
Greensgrow Farm, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Located on the site of a former
steel galvanizing plant, it grows lettuce and basil hydroponically, heirloom tomatoes in
raised beds, and potted plants in greenhouses. Greensgrow has diversified its activities to
include a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement with a network of rural
farms, farm stand, vermicomposting, biodiesel production, a new community kitchen,
and its Honey from the Hood. It supplies mostly middle-class pleasures, as does Weavers
Way Farm, located in a historic arboretum, although Weavers Way also supports Martin
Luther King High School Farm, whose students sell their produce at the City Hall
Farmers’ Market. One of the student farmers at MLK found happiness in discovering that
sorrel tastes like sour apple Skittles.
         The future of urban agriculture is at these farms and others like them on vacant
lots, parkland, and in the densest cities on rooftops and other mostly horizontal spaces of
the urban landscape. But it is also in the community gardens that make up a vital if
sometimes not as sexy part of city food production. Some people go to great lengths to
distinguish between “farming” and “gardening,” but we believe this distinction has little
value if creating food security and local economies is our goal. Many of the gardeners we
met call themselves “farmers,” only some jokingly. Community gardens make significant
contributions to household and community food economies, and some gardeners we
encountered sell their harvest. Indeed, one family in Philadelphia’s second largest
allotment garden grows as much as the city’s third biggest farm, selling at a downtown
farmers’ market but also giving much away for free to fellow parishioners at its church.12
We also submit that the hundreds of gardeners who tend their plots with the express goal
of providing food for hungry friends, family, and strangers are performing an
entrepreneurial task. While they may not profit financially, most are duly compensated by
the profound pleasure of sharing health and happiness through food.

The real joys of urban agriculture
Spending some down and dirty time in the local community garden can help get
designers in touch with the realities of everyday urban agriculture. It will likely make the
enterprise seem both more challenging and more pleasurable than they had imagined.
        Recently we have watched with interest and amusement the extensive media
coverage of vertical farming. Finally, designers are integrating food into urban projects.
In alluring computer-generated images, futuristic skyscrapers powered by renewable
energy sources recycle wastewater from the entire city and house production systems that
can feed 50,000 people in completely controlled antiseptic conditions. What’s not to like?
As our dystopic colleague Catherine Bonier pointed out, “What they never show you is
the basement where furnaces and bunks for immigrant workers sit cheek by jowl.” One
can imagine the ConAgra Tower or Archer Daniels Midland Food Production Center
dominating the skyline of Manhattan—such companies may be the only ones with the
capital to build these towers. In the paranoid fantasy of science fiction writers, one can
see the Soylent Green Tower producing a continuous diet of Happy Meals for the satiated
residents of New York.
        Vertical farming is handicapped: It is a capital-intensive strategy for a labor-
intensive industry. It may make sense for Dubai, the new eco-city of Dongtan, or perhaps
Midtown Manhattan someday, but not for Philadelphia, Detroit, or Chicago, where both
land and labor are abundant.
        What is more difficult to imagine in skyscraper farms is the quality of life we
found at many community gardens and urban farms. The Philadelphia experience is a
more ordinary story than agriculture in hermetically sealed towers designed by
starchitects or tropical roof gardens across Havana. But it is a more real story for United
States cities in particular. It is the story of everyday, organic urbanism in which people
alter their own neighborhoods in both surprising and mundane ways. It is also the story of
people’s efforts to overcome deindustrialization and its devastating consequent ills:
unemployment, poverty, hunger, obesity, asthma, and crime.
        Our own speculative proposal for feeding the global North builds on the
Philadelphia experience. For models of planning and community development, we look
to the leading urban farming and community gardening programs of Vancouver, Detroit,
Milwaukee, and Kansas City13; and to Britain, to Middlesbrough’s Town Meal designed
by André Viljoen and Katrin Bohn, and to London’s new Capital Growth campaign. This
last effort is not a financial scheme but rather an effort to harness the energies of citizens
and community organizations to grow food in 2,012 new urban spaces by the year 2012.14
We envision more processing and canning to preserve the summer’s bounty and low-tech
greenhouses to keep food growing through the winter. We imagine the emergence of a
more humane city in which relationships and the exchange of food and agricultural
traditions are valued, whether cash changes hands or not. Urban agriculture is a solution
based more on people than on technology. It is more “kitchen capitalism” than financial
capitalism. It will not be a panacea or a quick fix. It will be, however, one important
stock in the portfolio of how people in cities feed themselves and each other in the future,
and derive pleasure from the experience.

Domenic Vitiello, Assistant Professor, City & Regional Planning, University of
Pennsylvania; Michael Nairn, Lecturer, Urban Studies, University of Pennsylvania..

1. See “Farmers Market Growth: 1994–2008,” United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural
Marketing Services, September 22, 2008.
2. Our research involved three parts: 1) a ground survey of approximately 800 sites once part of the
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Penn State Cooperative Extension’s urban gardening programs; 2)
counting and weighing of food production by crop; and 3) interviews with gardeners about the distribution
of harvest.
3. Our research shows 1,443,814 square feet under cultivation in community gardens throughout
Philadelphia during the summer of 2008. From our data and that of the City Harvest Program, an average
of 1.4 lbs of produce was grown per square foot during the growing season. A value of $2 per pound was
assigned to the harvest. This figure represents an average retail value for locally-grown, organic produce
sold throughout the city’s farmers markets.
4. <www.ruaf.org>.
5. John Chase, John Kaliski, and Margaret Crawford, Everyday Urbanism (New York: Monacelli Press,
6. U.S. Census and local property and utility data for Strawberry Mansion and other Philadelphia
neighborhoods is available on the Neighborhood Information System at <cml.upenn.edu>.
7. Iris has won one of the most important international awards for environmental justice, the Terre de
8. <www.nsnp.com/gm>.
9. Havana’s agricultural transformation is documented in the film The Power of Community: How Cuba
Survived Peak Oil, and in a variety of publications available at www.ruaf.org
10. <www.millcreekurbanfarm.org>.
11. Anne Whiston Spirn, “Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice, and City
Planning and Design,” Landscape Research, July 2005, 395–413. See, on the project,
12. These rankings include only farms growing food for people. The city’s two largest farms, both owned
by the park system, grow hay and feed-corn for animals.
13 See, for example, Growing Power in Milwaukee and Chicago <www.growingpower.org>; the Kansas
City Center for Urban Agriculture <www.kccua.org>; and Grown in Detroit <www.detroitagriculture>.
14 <www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/mar/26/cityfood> and <www.capitalgrowth.org>.

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