No Farms in our Cities’ Futures?

I am listening to this especially pessimistic take on urban agriculture and wanted to cast out my reactions to see how others feel. Orion is one of my favorite publications, and I was listening to this episode of their podcast as I made breakfast this morning. I was at one moment nodding my head in total agreement and then shaking it in disbelief the next. This post is my attempt to resolve and sift through through those two reactions.

In his July 2011 piece in Orion called “Back to the Future: A Road Map for Tomorrow’s Cities,” James Howard Kunstler asserts: “Growing food on city rooftop gardens is fine but limited. Urban kitchen and dooryard gardens are historically quite customary. Community gardens on empty lots are a swell idea. But we better get our heads straight about where most of the food will have to come from, especially when a lot more of it will have to be grown locally. The appropriate place for that is outside of town. There’s a big difference between gardening and farming. Some activities are essentially rural and some urban, and we need to reestablish this distinction.” Hmm.

All of this on the heels of the big release and backlash of Stanford’s “Anti-Organic” study. Now, it is oversimplifying the claims to say that the Stanford study and that Kunstler’s piece take a negative view of local food, organic ag, and urban farms…but I am hearing enough negativity and oversimplification in both, so I wanted to share some counter-points.

I believe in the power of growing food in urban and suburban areas for another reason—that when a person can connect with the food they grew they will value it more. Or at least they will value it differently than an anonymous McNugget. Part of the reason I am so convinced of this is that I have experienced this transformation of growing food myself. This is why I wan to share that experience with others.*

Food governs so much of our lives with an invisible hand. Living in the city can distance us from the sources of food—as Carolyn Steel puts it, the food just “arrives magically from somewhere else.”

But how much can community gardens and rooftop farms do to reconnect us with something so huge?

According to a quote on his Wikipedia page (which, parenthetically, links to the wrong place), Kunstler also asserts that “. . . we’ll have to dramatically reorganize the everyday activities of American life. We’ll have to grow our food closer to home, in a manner that will require more human attention. In fact, agriculture needs to return to the center of economic life.” He has also asserted that “we’ll also have to occupy the landscape differently, in traditional towns, villages and small cities. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming” (from The Washington Post). I am nodding in fervent agreement, now. We do need to re-envision the role of food in cities. But I do not think we can only take a page out of the past and develop rural agriculture again. We live in an age of plurality—let’s embrace it intelligently. Urban and rural farms should thrive, compete, and serve different needs.

When it comes down to the numbers though, Kunstler is right. “. . . we better get our heads straight about where most of the food will have to come from.” Given the tremendous growth rate of cities, I cannot see how we can possibly feed 7 billion people on a local (and note: seasonal) diet. Any individual efforts to farm, to can, and to educate others about food are noble and crucial, but the reality of food distribution must be addressed.

*I must acknowledge the racism and classism embedded in this ‘people should learn where your food comes from’ narrative I evoke. Please see Julie Guthman’s piece here detailing “discourses that reflect whitened cultural histories, such as the value of putting one’s hands in the soil.” I offer an awareness of Guthman’s critique and also must believe that there is important work to be done in the realm of urban food education. The idea that once someone has tasted an heirloom tomato that they will be “converted” to buying organic produce? That, I assert, is a tragically white-washed dream of conquest. At least I think so.
All photos in this piece are by elizabeth birnbaum.

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