A Short, But Not So Brief History of Urban Farming

Recently, urban farming has begun to take off in major cities, such as Brooklyn, NY, LA,  Detroit, Oakland and Philadelphia (my favorite). However urban farming is not new news, this practice has been taking place since way back (think 1900’s Great Depression era). Did you know that even further back in the day (1893) Detroit citizens were told by mayor Haze S. Pingree to use vacant lots to grow their own food? There were over 400 acres of  “Pingree potatoes patches” that helped to sustain their communities and ease malnutrition (thank you “Slow Foods Detroit” for these fun facts). Urban farming has some seriously deep seated roots.

(check out these Detroit farming monks)

The urban farming trend has come and gone in many places, passing through cities when needed and then leaving after communities have gotten back on there feet.  For example, I bet you never knew that the concrete jungle of the Bronx was full of urban farms in the 1970’s? After postwar urban manufacturing began to move down south (and then eventually to China and Mexico), landlords were left with an excess of vacant lots. Often times these landlords would drive out tenants by cutting off their electricity and water and then create fires (arsonists anyone?) so they could collect insurance. Like a beautiful phoenix, out of the ashes would rise urban gardens and community farms. These gardens would not only provide food to communities, but also would serve as a space for coalition building, community organizing and cohesion. (inspired by this Grist article)

So why the sudden rise in urban farms again? Is it all the recent  hipster homesteaders media coverage? Or is it something larger?

(Megan Randall this is for you)

I have hope that urban farming’s recent rise to fame is due to more than just it’s popularization in trendy cities lately(what up San Fran and Brooklyn).

In fact, I think it’s due to a much larger (and much more depressing) reason; our food system is broken.

Food deserts have become common place in many poor urban communities and in some ways have become strategic moves by commercial developers and retailers. Based off of the demographics of the community, including annual income, race, etc. retailers will decide whether or not it is worth it to invest the capital needed to open a grocery store.

No really, it’s true; did you know that New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward, a predominantly Black community, had yet to have a single grocery store open in it until over 5 years later. Yes that’s right, over 5 years without a single source of fresh food within this community and today there are 1/3 less grocery stores in the entire city than there were before Katrina (read more about Food Deserts in NOLA here).

This is not an isolated phenomena, more and more we see that poor urban communities (which fyi are predominantly communities of color – talk about racial and food injustice) have a lack of access to healthy food. The USDA estimates that 13.5 million people live in a food desert (that includes rural communities as well).

Like I said before our food system is broken.

With healthy food being inaccessible to many communities both urban and rural, it is undeniable that a change needs to happen. And it is. Just look around, urban farms have gained notice not just in the environmentalist world, major news sources are picking up on this growing (no pun intended) trend.

So why be hopeful about urban farms sticking around this time? What about the current movement will ward off the threat of concrete encroaching in on these fields?

Well mostly I think it’s the growing need to re-envision sustainability. I am not talking about having a literally green city, unfortunately the design of cities mean that even the most dedicated urban farmer would not be able be able to feed a city (sorry 10 mile diet, you’re just not going to work). What cannot continue to exist though is cities functioning as only consumers of food and not producers. This one-sided relationship between urban communities and food, has so obviously failed us (think back to food deserts) that there needs to be a change.

Urban farms are providing just that. Through these collective spaces, real community change does occur. Urbanites are empowered through the process of growing their own food, learning valuable and marketable skill-sets and are fed by what they produce. For poor urban communities, the food security, resource access and agency that is formed through urban farming is much needed.

Not only does urban farming provide a venue where access to food can take place, community growth occurs and a sense of pride and empowerment through work emerges, but it also provides jobs, green space and real changes to our current food system.

By easing the amount of  dependency we have on fuel, labor and chemical intensive, large scale farming and transportation of food,  the environmental burden of our food system is also being reduced.

So urban farmers keep up the good work. This is just the change we need to:


One response to “A Short, But Not So Brief History of Urban Farming

  1. Dad talks pretty frequently about how, in an effort to embrace modernity, the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he grew up abandoned a lot of things like small scale urban farming, someone coming door to door collecting household refuse and rags to resell or repurpose them, and reusable containers like milk bottles. It doesn’t surprise him at all that they’re all experiencing something of a resurgence.

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