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Urban agriculture isn’t new

In fact, it’s been around since 3,500 BC when Mesopotamian farmers began setting aside plots in their growing cities. In a review of urban agriculture throughout modern history at a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., a diverse set of academics and designers ranging from historians to landscape architects discussed how the practice has evolved over the ages, often been highly ideological, and continues to be loaded with meaning. Organized by professor Dorothee Imbert, ASLA, chair of the master’s of landscape architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis, the conference looked at why urban agriculture is such a hot topic among the public and designers now but also hoped to put the current interest in a broader context. As Imbert said, “the inter-relationship between food and the city has a long history.”

Here are snippets of presentations that covered aspects of urban agricultural history in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the U.S.:

David Haney, Kent University School of Architecture, said London in the 1880s was the first “global, industrial city,” in part defined by its massive slums. Public parks were an early “instrument of social reform,” an effort to bring green space to the poor masses but urban agriculture soon became another tool for improving the conditions of the urban masses. As the Salvation Army got its start, one of its first programs were “farm colonies” designed to help urbanites “take care of themselves.” In fact, urban agriculture was viewed as a way for “everyone to become self-sufficient.” Haney explained the early role of anarchist thinkers like Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin, who had been imprisoned for pushing for social reforms in Tsarist Russia and eventually became an influential social reformer in the UK, informing the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, who created the “Garden City” concept. Haney explained how early London urban agriculture communities rooted in anarchist beliefs went on to influence the growth of utopian urban farming communities in Germany. One called Eden, an early vegetarian community, is actually still a “well-known brand” in Germany.

Haney thought that the idea of self-sufficiency and urban agriculture has come full-circle again, gaining traction through today’s “eco-villages.” These “intentional, small” communities may have a lineage based in ”anarchist” beliefs, but are now more widespread. However, Haney doubted whether these are actually “models for urban growth,” given they aren’t planned to be part of broader urban developments.

In Israel, the early Zionist settlers in the 1920s saw small urban farms as critical to the development of a new Israeli society. By 1942, there were more than 4,600 urban farms, most of which were between 1,000 and 1,999 square meters, said professor Tal Alon-Mozes, a professor at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology. She described how many of these communities were comprised of women’s settlers associations that were key to “women’s empowerment.” Out farming in virgin territory, the women experienced “a sense of self-fulfillment, personal regeneration, and new hope.”

Early on, then, urban farms were ideological and connected with the goals of the Zionist movement. In the first master plan of Israel in 1951, urban farms had a “protected” place. However, Alon-Mozes said, eventually the Kibbutzim, rural farms separate from urban areas, dominated, becoming more prosperous and closely associated with Zionism. “They overshadowed small urban farms.” Kibuttzim were essentially the winners, and “history is written by the winners.”

Jumping time and space, professor David Rifkind, a professor at Florida International University, zoomed in on Italy’s fascist government in the 1930′s and the role of reclamation and urban agriculture projects in their African colonies, particularly Ethiopia. The government of Mussolini was interested in the “neat organization of landscape, its segregation into districts,” which also mirrored its efforts to create a system of “hierarchy and control” between Italians and the native Ethiopians and other nationalities. Urban plans in Italy’s colonies included “symbolically-rich spatial organizations” that reinforced the idea that Italians were at the top of the heap. Ordered landscapes moved parade routes from ancient Ethiopian sites to modern Italian ones. There were separate markets for Italians and Ethiopians, with linear parks serving as barriers. The Italians saw reclaiming Ethiopian swamps — unusable yet fertile soils — as central to their effort of taming and controlling alien lands. “Tilling soils” was also viewed as an activity of the empire.

Back in Italy, consuming a range of agriculture products from the colonies was viewed as a patriotic act. Rifkind showed funny images of children eating bananas from Ethiopia, being told that they were supporting the homeland through their daily breakfast. “By eating grains, fruits, oils, salts from the colonies, Italians were participating in the empire.” The Italians pushed food production in the colonies to boost self-sufficiency among the colonies as well though. With the onset of world war, Ethiopia needed to be able to stand on its own and not drain Italy of resources. Overall, urban agriculture was seen as a way to “cultivate the territories, control the local population, earn foreign capital through exports, and resettle and reform unemployed Italians sent over from the home country.” Still, Ethiopia never ended up serving the role Egypt did for ancient Rome, becoming the breadbasket for the empire. It just wasn’t a great place to grow many types of grains.

Back to Europe: In France, in a little known episode, great Modern architect Le Corbusier attempted to bring rational, scientific approaches to the typical French farm. Professor Mary Mcleod, Columbia University, said in contrast to the common understanding of Le Corbusier, he was for “increased density.” Upon visiting New York City, he was quoted as saying the “skyscrapers are much too small.” In the 1930s and 1940s, agricultural reform also became an interest of his. Some of his early urban concepts offered individual garden plots, with a professional gardener responsible for plowing and fertilizing 100 plots each. In contrast to the romantic visions of farming in Israel and the totalitarian ones among the fascists in Ethiopia, Le Corbusier wasn’t deluded, calling “the whole thing ridiculous and too much work.” He thought the last thing an urban worker would want to do coming home from work would be to engage in back-breaking gardening work to yield a few tomatoes. “Growing food is a job, not pleasure.”

In an effort to bring his rational, scientific approach to the countryside, he started corresponding with a local French farmer who also wanted to make farming Modern. Translating his Radiant City concept to the countryside, Corbu came up with the little-known and ultimately untested Radiant Farm model, which offered distinct zones with small pastures, woodlands, fields, and detailed community plans. No one would finance the project. McLeod seemed to say Le Corbusier’s “futile utopianism” was just another variant of ideological forms of agriculture that never really took off.

In the Netherlands, the rational, scientific approach actually worked though. Zef Hemel, University of Amsterdam, described how the 20th century “polders,” low-lying, man-made tracts of land formed with protective barriers or dykes, were created to create urban agriculture opportunities in expanded cities. Polders can be land reclaimed from water, land purposely-flooded and then reclaimed, or drained marshes. Hemel said the Dutch “love planning and don’t need to have any ideology to do it. We are just very practical.” In the Netherlands, the demand for polders came from an expanding Amsterdam, seeking out more agricultural lands around the city. Then, before World War I, the country started a campaign of “food self-sufficiency,” which led to the development a 30-km long dyke that yielded a 180,000 hectare plot for agriculture. A second polder created just before World War II was almost stymied by the Nazis but the Dutch managed to complete their work, creating a “livable, beautiful place with 40,000 acres of new nature.”

Today, Holland’s polders, which are productive farm landscapes, communities, and woods, are threatened by climate change given they are about 10 feet below sea level. Some Dutch policymakers are already worried about increased salinization as rising seal levels pour saltwater into protected freshwater bodies. Others are thinking about whether floating barge farms will be feasible. The Dutch are worried.

For professor Laura Lawson, ASLA, Rutgers University, people garden for “food and a whole lot of other reasons” in the U.S. Community is an important element, or as Lawson laughed, “drinking goes hand and hand with community gardening.” In the early 20th century, there were “vacant lot cultivation associations” designed to put unemployed workers to work. Hundreds of families were given plots as a loan, with the goal of making them self-supporting. By 1934, some 36 percent of relief food was grown in these gardens. With World War I and II, the U.S. saw the rise of war or victory gardens. In 1918, there were more than 5 million war gardens and by 1943, there were 20 million victory gardens. As an example, in Chicago, there were 2,200 acres of land donated to cultivate produce. For WW II, there were 33,000 gardens covering nearly 1,800 acres.

Today, Lawson said many cities are now revising local codes to allow for urban agriculture. Land trusts sometimes purchase land, enabling communities to commit to growing things. However, even in food deserts, not everyone wants to become an urban farmer: One Detroit focus group said “not everyone has the intent or capacity to participate.” At the local level, community organizations often take the lead, given most urban farms are non-profit. Lawson argued that in these local instances, there is often a divide between the landscape architects (experts) and community organizations (grassroots). Landscape architects have been ambivalent about urban farms in the past. During WW II, many were concerned about these pop-up gardens ruining their landscape designs.

In a later conversation, questions were raised about the role landscape architects should actually play in urban agriculture. One attendee implied that a systems-scale approach may be the most appropriate perspective for landscape architects. Lawson said that may end up being the right role, but “many landscape architects don’t teach gardening and perhaps need to or they will become unrealistic about what it entails.” Still, urban agriculture is expected to present “aesthetic” challenges for landscape architects. Can these designers make the spaces for the messy growing process and the equipment of a working farm seem more functional, beautiful, and integrated into communities? Lawson thinks that more landscape architects need to go to community groups to “learn their issues.”

This is the first in a series of posts about Food & The City, a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. Read the second post, How Tokyo Invented Sushi.

Image credit: WWII Victory Garden, San Francisco / San Francisco Chronicle

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