Field notes this week:
There’s a good reason (actually, 30 good reasons covered here, plus at least 90 others to be discussed in later issues) why no-one has been able to come up with a better term for what’s called “urban agriculture.”
Last month, I made the case at the Grey to Green conference (put on by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities in Toronto) that there are 30 expressions of urban agriculture that either prevent damage (mitigation is the official phrase), or adapt positively to damage, caused by global warming. Last week, at an Urban Food Systems Symposium at Kansas State University in Kansas City where I spoke, I learned about a lot more expressions of urban agriculture that respond to other city challenges -- including refugee resettlement and poverty reduction, which Kansas excels in, thanks to the exemplary work of Cultivate Kansas City.
There are so many kinds and scales of urban ag, we need a wide umbrella term to cover them all.
Most people have heard the old advertizing jingle about a chocolate bar that “is so big, you call it Mister.” It’s the same with food production methods used in and near cities. When it’s this big, you call it urban agriculture.
I’ve now made peace with the term. We may just have to put up with its inadequacies. We all know urban also covers suburban and peri-urban, the areas close to a city. We all know that what happens to food production in cities isn’t what the Romans and Greeks meant by agriculture when they coined the term to describe food grown on open fields just outside the city, away from the uncivilized forests and hills of the barbarian countryside. It’s more likely that today’s urban ag is about food grown on roofs, windowsills, balconies and highrise units than open fields on the outskirts of the city walls.
The agriculture in urban agriculture is not in the same league as production agriculture, which usually requires heavy machinery and ample fields with no other function than food production. By contrast, the agriculture in urban agriculture is inherently multifunctional and produces more than food. It’s as likely to grow personal skills, community capacity, neighborhood cohesion and resilience as food.
Indeed, in the era of global warming, agriculture’s ability to generate spaces for the development of social skills and adaptability is likely more important than its ability to produce food. Urban agriculture is as likely to repay its investments from ecosystem services – cooling the city, managing stormwater, and so on -- as from food.
Save in exceptional circumstances, urban ag will not be competing in food production with conventional ag any time soon. Indeed, it complements regional agriculture, which is superior in terms of scale, equipment, division of labor, and so on.
My rethinking of urban ag started when Steve Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, longtime leader of efforts to challenge cement- and steel-based grey infrastructure as the only way to equip cities, asked for my help to organize a summit to mix it up between visionaries of green infrastructure and urban agriculture. That was four years ago. To pressure me into updating my thinking, Steve invited me to speak at this year’s conference on how urban ag fit with global warming infrastructure.
That’s when I found that I couldn’t come up with one good reason to do this, and had to ask people to take a wide-angle look at 30 good reasons, each a distinct expression of urban needs addressed by food production during a time of climate chaos.
The list is below, with a few additional comments from the Kansas City conference I just attended. (We’re not kidding when we call this newsletter a “report from the field.”)
ROT ON! When it comes to reducing damage from global warming, composting has to lead the list. That’s not just because composting conditions the soil and helps make it fertile. The big reason has little to do with food production. Composting is better by a country mile than the rotten alternative for handling food waste – land-fill.
If there were such a thing as a country named FoodWaste, it would be the third biggest emitter of global warming gases in the world, after China and the U.S. That’s because when wasted food rots in oxygen-starved landfill sites, it emits methane, which is 25 times worse for global warming than carbon dioxide.
By composting alone, without an iota of food production, we cut the damaging climate impact of food waste 25 times. Every resident should take part in this form of urban agriculture; no other single measure is so effective – and for that matter, so lucrative for cities.
The cost of landfilling food waste in Canadian cities is estimated at $31 billion, which makes composting a big money-saver right from the git-go. That justifies devoting resources to support residential composting, and large urban and peri-urban farms to mass production style composting. It can convert $31 billion in costs to $31 billion in revenues – from red ink to black ink; that’s a big $62 billion deal.
CHARRED REPUTATION: Mixing bio-char with compost is a great enhancement of compost’s ability to store carbon in the ground, which is already a move in the right direction.
People who understand compost and its workings do not talk about moving to a carbon-free economy. On the contrary, we want a carbon-rich economy – rich in carbon stored underground, but not in the atmosphere. Bio-char – mostly charred bits of scrap wood and sawdust – multiplies the ability of compost to store carbon underground.
Adding bio-char to compost is like putting a condominium for microbes underground; microbes seek shelter in the countless pores in a bit of charred wood and break down leaves and other materials to convert them into soil carbon. This is the best use of the principle of drawing down carbon emissions from the atmosphere and storing them underground.
Again, before an iota of food has been produced, the precursor of urban ag makes a major reduction in the dangerous emission of global warming gases.
GASSY FOODS: Another version of composting is to place human manure, animal manure, and food in a machine that closes off oxygen, thereby converting the rotting food into methane, which is basically a kissing cousin to natural gas. Talk about gassy food! The methane gas is widely used to heat homes. When the methane is burned for fuel, the process cuts its global warming impact about 25 times. In effect, food waste is converted into a renewable low-emission fuel. The degassed food that’s left after fuel has been removed can still be composted.
URBAN AG FASHION STATEMENT: In another expression of urban agriculture, compost reduces energy emissions when it is turned into a material that would otherwise require a new expenditure of energy. Compost is just as flexible as fossil fuels (which are really just ancient compressed compost) to make many materials, including clothing. What more proof do we need of Abby Rockefeller’s old saying that “waste is a verb, not a noun.” Inventors can create clothing from compost – a veritable second harvest and second life for food.
Please take note: we have not yet grown an ounce of food, and yet we’ve reduced massive amounts of global warming emissions, thereby reducing and even preventing some of the inevitable future damage from global warming. We have the power to do this, but it’s a case of “use it, or lose it.”
KITCHEN GREENHOUSE: Another window of opportunity is the windowsill, which often has room to grow fragrant as well as tasty herbs – thereby reducing the use of fossil fuel-based air deodorants, and again reducing (or as the policy wonks term it, mitigating) future damage.
CAN’T BE CONTAINED: Sun-facing porches or apartment balconies are the equivalent to spare rooms for food-producing guests. The food container can be disguised as decoration because many herbs and pots are very attractive to look at. Since most store-bought herbs are imported from afar, and many are subjected to energy-intensive preservation techniques (such as nuclear radiation), porch producers bypass another source of global warming emissions.
UP AGAINST THE WALL: The writing for global warming may be on the wall, but the wall can be partially covered by using the area close to the building as a microclimate for crops. Rhubarb comes up early when it benefits from the heat reflected from wall surfaces. No use for the wall to just stand there – it’s also an ideal place to put climbing plants. Very ivy league, and a very nice way to shift from the 100-mile diet to the 100-foot diet for some food items.
HEDGE AGAINST INSECURITY: Good fences make good neighbors, it’s said, but edible hedges make even better ones. I grew up with a raspberry hedge between my parents’ and another family’s house, and that’s how we got to know each other – talking while picking during the salad days of summer. Raspberries are perennials, so they sink thick roots into the soil that draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground. And there’s never a need to take a car trip to the store to buy fresh berries.
NO BLOWING HOT AIR: The backstory to urban air pollution is that the cutting of lawns with polluting lawnmowers is responsible for about 5 per cent of North American air pollution. As well, many grass seed mixes are designed to exclude plants that draw down nitrogen from the air (clover, for example), thereby forcing people with lawns to buy fertilizers made from fossil fuels. You get rid of both forms of pollution by getting out of the turf war of lawns, and make peace with the planet by growing food.
Again, even when the urban ag activity is directly related to food production, the global warming reduction still comes primarily by reducing emissions that have little to do with how productive your garden is of food. Just scrapping the lawnmower works wonders: no grass growing under the feet of these city farmers.
Not that the food production possibilities are small potatoes. Scholars at University of Montana estimate that Americans give over the equivalent of 128,000 square kilometers to lawns, three times more irrigated area than is used to grow corn. Although lawns can serve as a “carbon sink” if the grass clippings are left on the lawn, it’s hard to imagine that is anything like the carbon that would be stored if that area were devoted to well-placed fruit, nut and syrup trees and berry bushes. In the past, lawns expressed the wealth prestige of a person who could afford to buy food and could show off a lawn that grew none. When global warming peaks, this statement of conspicuous consumption will convey the same moral standing as wearing a fur coat.
FLOWER POWER: Flowers do not like to be seen as mere eye candy and a pretty face. One reason they’re prominent in natural settings is that they feed pollinators – about which more to come. Some flowers are edible to humans as well as to bees. Anyone worried about neighbors’ reaction to a yard dominated by food production has only to turn to edible flowers, and even pretty medicinal flowers such as Echinacea.
MONEY GROWS ON TREES: It’s estimated that an urban tree produces $50,000 of value over its lifetime by providing shade, buffering noise, blocking wind, storing water, preventing erosion, capturing airborne particulate that ends up causing lung diseases, and so on. A fruit, nut or syrup tree adds the value of food to the $50,000.
Trees are also ideal for “carbon capture.” Their trunks, roots and branches all store carbon, and keep it out of the atmosphere.
By reducing the amount of fossil fuel heat needed for home furnaces in the winter and air conditioners in the summer, trees also stand for reduced use of fuels that cause global warming emissions.
It’s estimated that ten billion of the world’s three trillion trees (down from 6 trillion before the agricultural revolution) are lost each year to logging. If city residents planted their fair share of ten billion logged trees, each city resident would plant two trees a year. If one tree produces nuts and the other fruit, that’s urban agriculture.
CATCH THE BUZZ: You can bee the change you want to see and protect biodiversity from the chaos of climate change at the same time, by growing habitats that are pollinator-friendly. Plant some milkweed for butterflies, and perhaps an apple tree or flowers for bees.
It seems like cities may be a safer place for pollinators than the countryside because toxic pesticides are so common in rural areas. The combination of pesticides and destabilized climates makes pollinators quite vulnerable and turns city yards managed by gracious hosts into the equivalent of a safe harbor in a stormy sea. This is urban agriculture that helps nature adapt to climate change by protecting the substantial portion of food production that is made possible by pollinators.
HARD RAIN GONNA FALL: The compost bin is one tool of the urban food gardener. Another tool is the rain barrel, which captures the soft water that plants evolved to thrive on – not the hard and chemicalized (with fluoride and chlorine) water that comes from hoses.
The rain barrel captures water falling from roofs and keeps it out of gutters and sewers that can easily overflow when the rain falls too hard, as is to be expected in an era of destabilized climate change.
Rain barrels always made sense, but they make added sense and save added dollars when used for food production, and to prevent stormwater overflows.
DOUBLING DOWN: Global warming will be bringing stormy weather to many cities, and city residents need to be prepared to fight flood and storm damage with urban ag techniques that store excess water runoff in a safe place. That’s what rain gardens are intended to do. Above ground may look like a tiny hill that’s been managed in the course of “edible landscaping,” planting flowers that are as beautiful on a salad as in the open air. Below ground and below the topsoil is a layer of gravel and a trap for water. Once again, food production doubles down on global warming by helping city residents adapt to excessive rainfall.
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: Until the rise of industrial agriculture and mass consumerism during the 1950s, the kind of people who now prefer wild-caught fish then preferred wild-picked greens, fruit and mushroom. These products are usually nutrient-dense and taste-rich, as well as fossil fuel-free; no fossil fuel fertilizers or pesticides are needed.
Foraging is also a great way to earn the calories you eat by burning them while you work – the perfect balance that kept obesity from being a problem until very recently in human history. Since the human body is one of the most efficient users of energy in the world, any activity that uses human energy and reduces fossil fuel energy will be good for climate protection. That’s why a culture of activity rather than a culture of consumerism is good for the weather.
SEASON EXTENSION: Cities are full of microclimates, little nooks and crannies that reduce wind, or add heat, or provide shade. Many microclimates in today’s cities make the weather hotter, which is harmful in an era of global warming. This is what is meant by the term “heat island effect.” Black pavement has a way of attracting the sun’s heat, steel and metal have a knack for conducting heat, and cement is adept at storing heat into the nighttime, when cities used to get cooler.
Overcoming the heat island effect, and overcoming the impermeability of cement and pavement and their inability to absorb rainfall are the twin functions of green infrastructure, which should be phasing out old-fashioned one-purpose grey infrastructure wherever technically and economically feasible.
Food production is one of the prime techniques to put potential city microclimates to work. Leftover dark under-padding from rugs does not belong in landfill. It belongs between rows of plants, where it will attract heat. The ability to give plants an extra few weeks time during the spring and fall enables city growers to plant foods that would, in the past, not survive in a temperate climate.
The abundance of microclimates explains why cities are places where newcomers and immigrants can plant more of the comfort foods and world foods they grew up with. As this becomes more common, urban ag will become a factor in reducing unneeded long-haul transportation of foods, which is quite energy-intensive. As well, it will promote the comfort level of immigrants in their new surroundings, and help them develop community skills that will be essential as the world heats up.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: When seen from the right perspective, cities are excellent places to grow food. Cities are close to the customer and close to key inputs – clean water, nutrient-rich dish water, compost, animal manure, packaging, and so on.
A city’s waste becomes its wealth when it is used for food production. Instead of trucking in new products, so-called waste can be wheel-barrowed down the street or across the yard. This is the efficiency of what’s called the circular economy -- instead of the constant to-and-fro traffic of a linear system, a circular system circulates and reuses ready-at-hand materials. Every time something is reused, it avoids the need to expend fresh energy on producing a new item, and avoids the needs to truck it in. Urban ag is a prime tool in reducing traffic jams, major creators of smog – to be avoided whenever possible.
In a world that is short of water – certain regions that are now dry will become desperately short of water as droughts increase in severity due to global warming -- the city is awash in high-quality drinking and cleaning water that can be reused. The ability to make full use of a circular economy, and thereby conserve resources such as water and compost, makes urban agriculture a major tool of adapting to climate change.
Get used to thinking of urban agriculture in terms of its advantages – including its unique social and ecological functions. The urban in urban agriculture is more a way of signifying its differences from production agriculture than it is a signifying its difference with rural food production.
SHOUTING FROM ROOFTOPS: One of the greatest unused resources or capacities of cities is flat roofs, which typically cover a sixth of city space. New buildings can be built with engineered green roofs, and even engineered greenhouses. Old buildings can make adaptations with containers. Roofs greened that way are ideal habitat for diverse species, most notably birds, which perform a major function in making agriculture possible by eating insects that would otherwise eat crops.
Green roofs are also ideal for plants that need sun exposure. And the more plants there are on a roof, the cooler a roof is, and the less heat that has to be countered by air conditioners.
The food grown on the roof may or may not be grown as productively as it can be grown on a farm, but the investment is repaid from cooling the surrounding area in summer, storing rainwater instead of sending it down the sewer after a downpour, preserving biodiversity that is essential to agriculture, and a healthy ecosystem.
Roofs greened with container gardens can also serve as social spaces. Some office complexes use them as interesting places where tenants can meet clients over a coffee or lunch. Some seniors’ buildings add a miniature golf section to the garden or provide a walkway where people can stroll and take in the view, without any fear of being robbed or pushed on a busy city street. Some buildings use the roof as a playground for a nursery school, which can include gardening as a playtime activity. In its own way, such a use is the perfect illustration that in cities, food production is about learning and recreation, not just work.
BUSINESS IS LOOKING UP: For new highrises, it is cost-effective to build an engineered green roof into the construction process. Such roofs are often explicitly not designed for people, but with engineering functions in mind.
In such cases, plants are chosen because of their ability to store water and keep it out of sewers, not provide food for humans, birds or bees.
Engineered green roofs provide both the city and building owners with a number of eco-system services. They extend the life of the roof by many years, and reduce energy use in the building in several ways. They also cool the area around the building in summer when plants evaporate water that fell down as rain a few days before. They thereby prevent some measure of global warming in the future, while absorbing some of the problems of less predictable weather today. In 2016, Canada’s environmental commissioner estimated that such technologies designed to reduce the damage from storms linked to climate change repay every dollar invested with 3 to 5 dollars in savings – the reason why an increasing number of cities make green roofs a requirement of all large new buildings.
Some use the opportunity of a new building to use the roof for commercial food production. Instead of wasting roof space above the supermarket, some supermarkets are building commercial greenhouses that provide door-to-door delivery of fresh greens for the produce section, for example. Other building owners use the green roof as just another rental space, and provide greenhouse structures for their food producing tenants.
The Netherlands, top food exporters despite the small size of the country, rely on greenhouses to jack up productivity, and there is no reason this cannot be duplicated by using waste space (unoccupied roofs) in cities. Boxstore malls can do double service as farms!
MARKET ECONOMY: Some cities have enough space to establish an outdoor market garden with commercial potential. In Kansas City, for example, the outstanding group, Cultivating Kansas City, manages a nine-acre space and uses it to provide a four-year training program for refugees with an interest in becoming professional food producers, often buying land on the outskirts of the city.
But many cities will rely on greenbelt areas for market garden-size production. That’s a good reason for cities to zone such areas as primarily agricultural. Those are areas all cities will rely on for basic food security, in an age when disruptions to transportation of long-distance food have become a matter of when, not if. Cities have a duty of care and fiduciary responsibility to ensure that space is available to ensure the food security of residents in the event of increasingly common storms, fires and other disruptions. Such zoning is a prime planning tool for using urban agriculture to support the city in adapting to an era of climate change.
UPSCALE GUERILLA GARDENS: Guerilla gardening once referred to people who dropped seeds (or seed bombs, surrounded by a small ball of soil) in areas judged to be in need of food plants. There are now more businesslike ways of organizing makeshift arrangements. One, developed in Saskatoon in western Canada, is called SPIn, which stands for Small Plot Intensive agriculture. Wannabe farmers ask individual neighbors if they would donate use of their backyard for a productive food garden in exchange for access to as many plants as they can eat.
Sixteen neighbors with a quarter acre each create a four-acre market garden. It’s recommended that such farmers focus on high-turnover crops and specialty crops that produce the most commercial value for the least space – heritage tomatoes and garlic, or sprouted peas, for example.
There are several beneficial spin-offs to such schemes. The homeowner gets access to free fresh veggies. The farmer gets access to virtually-free land and high-quality hose water and the protection of a fence. The soil draws down more carbon from the atmosphere than grass would, thereby storing more carbon in the soil than is released to the atmosphere. The community gets access to unusual and fresh veggies. A new farmer lands a job.
Non-business versions of SPIn include “Yes, In My Backyard” (YIMBY!!), organized by Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto on behalf of residents on low-income who wish to grow more of their own food. They can be paired with seniors who can no longer do the bull work of gardening, but enjoy seeing their land used that way, and are happy to donate.
Can you imagine a city smart enough to provide a tax deduction to homeowners who support such schemes?
SOMETHING’S FISHY: Aquaponics is a way of bringing the circular economy directly into food production. A fish tank raises fish, which provide lean and brain-friendly protein for shoppers. The fish poop is recycled as irrigation water from the fish tank, fed to the soil in which plants grow. Fish bones can also be composted to create soil. In turn, feed for the fish can be grown in the garden.
This is what is called a closed loop system – the ideal for recycling waste materials into productive use. It’s certainly a way to grow a garden without commercial fertilizer made from fossil fuels. When done in a neighborhood, the system makes fish and vegetables available without any transportation fuel.
Aquaponics reduces the pressure to eat fish – people should be eating fish twice a week, good for the brain and mental well-being -- from the ocean. Oceans are already stressed by both over-fishing and high acidity in ocean waters caused by excessive carbon released from fossil fuels.
I would argue that this can become the most significant impact of aquaponics – a prime tool for giving some breathing space to oceans smothering in carbon and plastic. There is no food security or climate security without a healthy ocean. Urban agriculture can contribute to this by incorporating aquaponics in a variety of ways.
THE GREAT INDOORS: Farming is usually associated with the great outdoors, but the great outdoors is not always friendly to food production for humans; after all, the great outdoors were not created for human advantage.
So growing indoors can become one in a long list of adaptations humans have made to the environment to produce food for themselves.
Indoor agriculture is sometimes referred to as vertical agriculture, a reference to the project of Dickson Despommiers, a champion of growing food in agricultural highrises. Such methods are favored by people who are sometimes called “techno-utopians,” which is about as much my favorite thing as techno-music during a workout at the gym.
But the nice thing about the breadth of urban agriculture is its breadth. There’s room for every experiment, and no need for in-fighting. There’s no reason for an apartment storey to lie vacant when a new tenant can farm indoors, without a worry as to excess rain, cold, heat or wind.
HOOPED: Adapting to seasonal foods is the way our ancestors dealt with the change of seasons. Winter was a time when fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t available, and they were all the more cherished in the season when they were fresh. Limitations of transportation of food may make that a necessity again, but for the foreseeable future, a more likely way of adapting to seasons is the hoophouse – a low-cost (unfortunately plastic-based) way of extending seasons so that a goodly number of fresh fruits and vegetables can be made available for up to eight months of the year.
Hoop houses rely on protection from the wind, their capacity to store heat from the earth below, and on the smarts of farmers who can deliver a small amount of heat to keep plants alive and fresh, if not support their continued growth.
Hoop houses also give farmers an opportunity to get a premium price by being early at the market, when people are starved for the taste of the first fresh asparagus and the first strawberries of spring.
LIVING ARCHITECTURE: Plants and livestock can perform many functions that are presently fulfilled by fuels, machines and heavy construction materials that require lots of energy to build and maintain. The combination of animal (or human, for that matter) manure with plants residues (corn stalks for example) can produce high-quality fertilizer, and put fossil fuels out of the fertilizer business.
One way to highlight this option is to incorporate life into the design of buildings. A green or living wall, for example, can capture pollution particulate that otherwise ends up in the lungs of people, causing disease. We can green walls and utility poles – create as much plant biomass in cities of tomorrow as was there before the city was first built by knocking down trees and other plants. We can use plants in homes to provide functions otherwise provided by fossil fuels – most obviously in the case of fragrant plants that substitute to often-toxic air deodorizers.
We can build with wood, which in effect locks up the carbon from trees and withholds it from the atmosphere for centuries. Trees can be raised along highways with precisely this purpose in mind – using agriculture, as it was used prior to the fossil fuel era, for fiber, fuel and fabric as well as food.
POWER PLANTS: Plants can be used to substitute for cement- and metal-based infrastructure. A tree well-placed beside a house, for example, can cool the home during the summer, reducing the need for air conditioning, and block the wind during the winter, reducing the need for heat from the furnace.
On a grander scale, a forest can cool an area by as much as 5 degrees during a summer heatwave, countering the “heat island effect” of pavement and cement, and allowing buildings to turn off their air conditioners and turn on their fans instead – a huge reduction in energy expenditure. Why not create such forests out of community orchards?
Individual trees also serve as a safe harbor for wildlife – most obviously birds and squirrels, but many other critters as well – which is important when climate stress stresses animals that have not evolved for the range of temperatures to which humans can adapt. Trees also draw up water from the deeps, which is useful for farms trying to reduce irrigation.
Landscapes can be adapted for both too much and too little rainfall. Trees don’t sue a city if their basement is flooded, and can actually help a city manage excess rainfall during a fierce storm by holding the soil firm, creating air pockets in the soil that can store water, and holding some of the rainfall in their leaves, to be evaporated or dropped after the rain is finished.
Plants can also clean the pollutants that are produced by city life, and either neutralize them or store them in one place that is easily controlled, rather than released into the environment.
Urban agriculture is part of a broader movement to bring plants, and even wildness, back into the city – as part of the infrastructure of both word and recreation.
GROWING TOGETHER: Urban agriculture, especially its expression in community gardens, makes a major contribution to the neighborhood and community life of a city, which is key to the success of any locality that faces the kinds of stress that will be visited on everyone – rich and poor alike – in an era of unprecedented climate stress.
We need to spread the skills associated with growing food and preparing it from scratch. We need to learn cooperative techniques that will allow us to share the many knowledges that are present in a city. We need to know who is who in a neighborhood, who is old and fragile and needs a neighbor to knock on the door during a heat wave. Community gardens promote two kinds of social capital – bonding capital, which brings people of the same family or background together, and bridging capital, which brings very different kinds of people together, so they can learn to respect and appreciate each other and work together.
Community gardens are a major tool of community infrastructure. This is why local governments need to ensure that community gardens are at least as accessible as emergency ambulance and fire services, libraries, schools, neighborhood parks. They are all part of modern services that need to be available at the neighborhood level during an era when adaptation to the unexpected is an ongoing journey, and when resilience – the capacity to respond to ongoing stresses – needs to be embedded in the ongoing life of every community.
ABCs OF FOOD: Elementary public schools are rare public facilities that enjoy both the space for food production, especially during prime food growing season over the summer, and the trust of a neighborhood that makes community projects easier to start. They are a logical place to have community gardens, which can be overseen by students during the spring and fall seasons. They are also a logical place to inaugurate a new generation of curricular offerings in food literacy, as well as new course materials for that give life to old subjects – be it health, science, social studies, math or business. School gardens are an expression of the commitment to build multiple skills of urban agriculture and food security needed for resilience in the younger generation.
GARDENS WITH A DIFFERENCE: To ensure that no person is left behind or left to feel apart – a key element that allows vulnerable people to feel confidence they will belong and be part of solutions – community gardens must provide facilities for people with varying abilities, just as the ramps leading up to public buildings allow access to people on wheelchairs, as well as walkers, baby carriages and suitcases. People who cannot stand and people who cannot bend over need gardening spaces raised to the proper height. It’s not a sink or swim attitude that needs to be fostered to face climate change, but a hang together or hang separately attitude. Community gardens with features adapted to people with different needs are part of building that team spirit that makes for successful adaptation.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Modern cities are densely populated because that’s the most efficient way to provide transportation services and access to libraries, museums, theaters, concerts, restaurants, and the like.
But density comes with its own problems – noise, crowds, hustle and bustle. Many people need temporary respite from this, a place and time to reconnect with another part of themselves that resonates with nature’s rhythms. This need is sometimes referred to as “biophilia,” and sometimes as “nature-deficit disorder.” Urban agriculture is a community service that can be designed to provide such biophilic services. They are the counterpoint to the rush and push which are also part of a thriving city. They complement each other.
In a society plagued by stress and mental health ailments, gardens, and other greenspace activities are part of creating the inner calm and quiet space essential to effective change management.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,”
says the great psychotherapist Victor Frankl, author of the classic study of the character of the relatively fortunate ones who survived Nazi concentration camps during World War 11.
“In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
It’s to be hoped that the expected trauma of climate change will not equal the terror of the Holocaust. But climate change will inevitably create exceptional levels and intensity of stress that will require major adaptations by people and institutions.
To be successful, that adaptation should include space for public-provision of allotment and community gardens as part of basic essential services, akin to schools, police, libraries and recreational parks.
The food from urban ag will do much to prevent the worst from global warming. Much more important, however, the process of urban ag – both in terms of relations with nature and relations among people – will be significant. I can’t think of anything more urgent for cities to undertake in preparation for the coming climate changes. We need to think about climate change in the plural—there will be climate changes. We also need to think in terms of the wide range of needs of people.
TAKE A TINY ACTION
Please forward this issue of the newsletter to your city or county councillor, along with a brief note asking that they inquire with City staff and colleagues about the possibilities of incorporating urban agriculture with green infrastructure when preparing new infrastructure to mitigate and adapt to global warming.