Friday, March 25, 2011
Living in a large city like New York, LA or DC has its perks: museums, films, music, lectures, public transportation. There’s an amazing amount of human diversity crammed into a relatively small geographical space. The culinary options alone are worth the experience. However, there’s an obvious lack of green space and available land for growing food. Asphalt, pavement, highways and overpasses, parking lots and high-rise buildings leave most of the soil compacted below an impenetrable layer of human “progress.” In many cases, the soils that do remain are heavily contaminated with the legacy of decades of industrial activity – lead, mercury, petrochemicals, to name a few – which make eating vegetables grown there a serious health risk.
In response, a growing wave of urbanites around the country are re-assessing city spaces and growing food in the most wonderful and peculiar places. Last night, as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing a documentary titled “Truck Farm”. Filmmaker Ian Cheney built a mobile garden in the back of his Dodge pick-up and uses the ‘truck farm’ as a segue to explore a much larger story about urban agriculture and growing food in densely populated cities. Here is an excerpt:
Growing food in urban spaces makes sense for a number of reasons. First, it’s where most of the consumers live. This means that produce doesn’t have to travel very far from farm-to-plate, reducing the amount of petroleum needed for transport and refrigeration which also reduces emissions of CO2. In addition, produce just tastes better when its fresher. In our industrial agricultural systems and global food chains, some produce travels thousands of miles and can take up to two weeks to venture from farm-to-plate. In that time, many of the robust sugars and flavors will break down and nutritional content is compromised. This is a major reason why much store bought, conventional produce tastes so bland.
Certainly, truck farms aren’t going to feed entire cities. Creative city-folk are also exploring abandoned lots, interior window areas, lawn-space, and roof-tops as viable spaces for growing food.
Most major cities have millions of square feet of rooftop space – the potential for growing food is immense. The benefits go far beyond local food production. Rooftop gardens help to reduce storm water runoff, improve city air quality, act as natural cooling for buildings and reduce the phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. Start up companies like Recover Green Roofs (Massachusetts) help to design and build living roof systems and they are sprouting up all over the country. Here’s a short video about Recover Green Roofs:
Here’s a video about rooftop gardens in New York:
In many cities around the country community groups are building elaborate urban farms on reclaimed land and are showing us that even the smallest of plots can be very productive. Growing Power is a non-profit started by former NBA star Will Allen with urban farm locations in Milwaukee and Chicago. They build soil fertility by creating 6 million tons of compost a year – mostly from organic material and food scraps from local restaurants. Their two-acre lot in Milwaukee includes six greenhouses growing over 12,000 pots of herbs, lettuce, greens and hosting six hydroponic systems that grow Tilapia and Perch (the poop from the fish feeds the plants!). The green house system maximizes the use of space by growing vertically, and thereby dramatically increases its productivity. Part of Allen’s mission is to build strong communities with healthy, affordable, and sustainably grown food. Here’s a short video about Growing Power:
There is a similar movement underway in New Orleans – a city with a rich agricultural and food history. City residents are reclaiming growing space within the city while others are attempting to revitalize local distribution systems for many of the idle farms surrounding New Orleans. For more information, see this recently published photo essay.
Still others are exploring the potential for growing food inside of the buildings where we live and work. The Windowfarms Project is the brainchild of Britta Riley. Riley and her team have pioneered a vertical hydroponic system that utilizes recycled materials and allows city dwellers to grow vegetables and herbs year round using window space and light. The design and efficiency of the growing system has been continually improved by many individuals contributing feedback from cities all around the world. Riley calls this “process of ordinary people contributing small innovations to collectively solve environmental problems R&D-I-Y” or Research and Develop-It-Yourself. Blueprints for designing a window farm system and much more information can be downloaded for free at their website. Here’s a short video:
Expanding on the idea of using windows in existing buildings for growing food comes the idea of vertical farming, which involves designing and building entire city structures with the sole purpose of growing food. The idea is simple. The availability of arable land is finite – yet, we need to continue to produce more food to feed our ever growing city populations. A vertical farm might be built within a city using the upward space of a 6 or 7 story building to grow crops, thereby decreasing the land area used and maximizing the productivity per unit of land area. Here’s a short video:
Last – there’s some really interesting Urban Farming adventures happening in Portland, Oregon. One that I’d like to mention here is the Sellwood Garden Club (SGC). The SGC approaches individual home owners throughout Southeast Portland and turns their grass lawns into individual farm fields that collectively nourish hundreds of people including farmer’s markets and local restaurants. So, instead of having a big farm outside of the city somewhere – many different homeowner’s lawns combine to form a collective growing space. Each homeowner “leases” the lawn space to the SGC (including access to water). The SGC does all of the landscaping, bed building, growing, and harvesting. In exchange for the use of the land, each homeowner receives a weekly CSA box full of an assortment of fruits and veggies grown on all of the different properties. Innovative and amazing. This is a model that could easily be reproduced in city and suburb areas throughout the country. It is estimated that the amount of lawn space in the continental USA is roughly 63,000 sq. miles!!! What an enormous potential for growing healthy food close to home.
Read more in this Portland Mercury Article.