Is Urban Agriculture Utopian?

Edible Estates Regional Prototype #6 / Fritz Haeg

“Urban agriculture is a phenomenon today,” said Farham Karim, an architectural historian at the University of Kansas, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Upwards of 70 million people are now involved around the globe — on Farmville, at least, the popular game app, he laughed. But, in reality, there are many tens of millions farming on the ground, too. With all the growing interest, Karim played devil’s advocate, wondering: is urban agriculture scalable? And who is going to be doing all this urban farming? And if we know it’s not a cost-effective solution for solving the world’s food problems, why the persistent interest?

Food and urban life have been deeply intertwined ever since humans moved into settlements. In the modern era, there have been new conceptions of the relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his Broad Acre concept, with a “vast suburban landscape” that would be farmed. During World War II, urban agriculture actually took off, as “food production contributed to the wartime food supply.”

In different eras, there have also been “communal self-sufficiency movements.” Karim traced those all the way to contemporary artist and activist Fritz Haeg and his Edible Estate project, which aims to “attack the front lawn,” turning it from a useless, decorative object into a productive, agricultural space. Karim said new activists like Haeg “want us all to come together to toil the land.” They seeing gardening in urban areas as a way to “empower social groups and create a strong sense of community” in an age when nature and culture seem in opposition. But Karim also argued Haeg and others promoting urban gardens for social benefits are really just like the 20th century avante-garde, creating “idealized prototypes.”

The central plank of Karim’s critique of Haeg’s version of urban agriculture is that, in its promotion, it “mystifies human labor.” Urban agriculture in reality is “sweaty, painful labor.” Engaging people in cities to farm over the long-term is not easy, practical, or cost-effective. “Who is going to maintain these farms — a marginalized population? The working poor doesn’t have time.” Karim concluded that urban agriculture, at least in the West, is for the middle class who volunteer because they have time. It’s a luxury many can’t afford.

Many of Karim’s arguments are contradicted in a new book, Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up by Carey Clouse. She argues that Cuba’s unique model of urban agriculture may provide lessons for the rest of us. “Alternative models for self-sufficiency demand our attention,” given that the end of “the era of cheap oil threatens global food security” and current industrial food practices.

Farming Cuba / Princeton Architectural Press

After the U.S. began its embargo against Cuba and the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 1980s, leaving Cuba without any trading partners, the country initiated a massive campaign to turn cities into places for not only living and working but also producing food. “In the face of resource scarcity, Cubans responded by rethinking land use, implementing organic farming practices, and developing low-input agricultural systems, and honing techniques for independence on an island without oil.” By 2002, some 86,450 acres of urban land was farmed, creating 3.2 million tons of food. In Havana alone, some 12 percent of the city was being cultivated, with 22,000 urban and suburban producers at work.

All that local food production has not only created calories but also boosted resilience, largely because the system is so decentralized. “This is a ground-up movement in which growers have the power to choose the food they produce, the seeds they save, and the land they cultivate, and consumers gain increased control over the quantity and quality of food access.” And all that local control has also increased “social and civic engagement.”

The system of socialist self-sufficiency extends into all aspects of Cuban urban food production. Farmers are using animal traction, organic soil amendments, and “biofertilizers” or “biopesticides,” which are microbial formulations nontoxic to humans.

Clouse does a great job of explaining to the reader all the different farming types, bringing the diversity of the system to life through clever diagrams. For each type of farm, we learn the spanish and english names, the average size of these places, their prevalence, the products they create, the materials they are made of, and the kinds of people who farm them.

And then photographer Andrew Cook shows us scenes from this agricultural infrastructure.

Clouse explains that “Cubans hail urban agriculture as a boon for community, occasionally in all too-idealistic terms.” And in some pages of her book, she seems to apply an equally rosy lens. The reality on the ground, all that “sweaty, painful labor” Karim spoke about, doesn’t come through in this book at all.

One thought on “Is Urban Agriculture Utopian?

  1. Rebecca 06/17/2014 / 7:48 am

    Growing food does not need to be so labor intensive. While “sweaty hard labor” is certainly the way that humans have been producing food for a long time, there are many techniques available to grow food that aren’t so physically demanding. We can work smarter, not harder, with our agriculture. Permaculture offers many ecologically-based, practical and smart solutions to growing food and feeding a growing human population, as well as sustainably creating human settlements. Many of these techniques are already being implemented across the globe even today.

    If we are to move forward and have a sustainable future on this planet, urban agriculture must be a part of that future, and we can create productive systems and landscapes that feed people and that work much more in harmony with the planet, and oh yes, they don’t have to be expensive. This is not some pie in the sky dream, it’s more about smart system design. Watch the “Greening the Desert” video online (can find it on YouTube) to see the power of permaculture in action. Also do a quick internet search on raised keyhole bed gardens in Africa and you will find some very productive gardens in a confined space. Then, there are the aquaponics systems, lasagna gardening/sheet mulching, vertical growing techniques, etc., etc. We are only limited by what we choose to be open to, including organically. This requires that we get our minds out of the mindset of the tillage agriculture style that has dominated how humans have been cultivating food for a long time.

    I also don’t necessarily believe that it’s entirely about scaling up urban agriculture, but about everyone growing something, doing their part, and realizing that we cannot continue to be reliant upon a food system that transports food from thousands of miles away, is so resource intensive, and that growing your own food is only for those of the “peasant class.” It wasn’t too long ago in human history that everyone participated in growing food for their own families. We all have the ability to grow something. We just have to relearn the skills that our ancestors knew how to do.

    You can check out my blog, to learn about how I am implementing some great, much less labor-intensive methods in my own garden in my backyard.

    Here’s to a sustainable future!

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