Computer-run automated skyscrapers of hydroponic farms. The future of urban agriculture? Image: Lindsay Curren "31 Days of Urban Agriculture."

Computer-run automated skyscrapers of hydroponic farms. The future of urban agriculture? Image: Lindsay Curren “31 Days of Urban Agriculture.”

Over the past month perhaps you’ve seen my Kickstarter campaign to fund the poster art show called 31 Days of Urban Agriculture.

During the time I’ve been on the fundraising mission I’ve continued to do the art for the show and, behind the scenes, to continue researching the issue and writing the essays that will be in the show chapbook.

One of the things that’s been most surprising for me to find in my research are assertions by various groups or individuals that urban agriculture only operates in very specific ways. Notably, that urban agriculture is only such if it is industry-focused — in other words, profit-generating businesses. The Urban Farming Institute of Boston defines urban farming on their About Us page as, “the growing of agricultural products for income.”

There’s no doubt that the business side of urban agriculture — from profitable cultivation to distribution in various food businesses — is key to a thriving city farming model. But to suggest it ends there misunderstands the history of agriculture and the context of our times.

While agriculture in general began as an organized form of cultivation, its primary purpose was to sustain the communities rooted around it. That trade then became a viable outgrowth of regular cultivation is true, fostering an enhancement of human options and year-round food security. But trade was secondary to the life of the people dependent upon the food from their own agricultural community.

So while business is essential, it’s not the first issue at hand in urban agriculture. More important are the resilience, sustainability, stability, and health of the local community.

But it might not seem that this is the case when the lens we look through remains unclouded by awareness of the true predicaments of our times. Only if we are free from the restraint of energy, climate, and economic realities can we insist on a model of farming, or anything else, no matter how high-tech or energy-dependent, as long as we think it can “make money.”

Intelligent density

A similar assertion, such as one by Mary C. Rowe in “The Sky is the Limit for Urban Agriculture. Or is it? What Can Cities Hope to get from Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture?” calls for a firm divide between industrial-scale food production to feed large numbers of people and the quaint things communities do to fix up tired lots or make nice with the neighbors over tomatoes and sunflowers. She writes,

Urban agriculture is something else altogether. It’s about growing food within the city, at a scale that has the potential to put a dent in food security challenges. Scaling up growing food in cities is a laudable goal: but this idea needs to move from a quaint aspiration that mainly takes root in shrinking cities in North American where urban neighborhoods have been abandoned as the industrial economy has vanished. In those cities, re-pastoralizing parts of the city landscape may make sense, in the short and intermediate terms. But in dense urban environments, in rapidly growing cities in the global south and north, what makes more sense is integrating productive planting into everyday urban design.

I can see the merits of her case in distinguishing between what seem to be dying cities which now look to metro-farming versus ones that are pulsing more and more with the throb of the concrete metropolis, with the latter not having room for precious land to be taken up by pea-patches and millennial city-slickers with shovels and hoes. Rowe prefers an integrated approach for population-dense cities that greens-up the picture without all that pesky soil.

Just the facts, Ma’am

But I want to carve the case somewhere in between.

At the risk of sounding like my urban ag tent can hold anyone and anything, I feel compelled to render my analysis through the lens of key facts in our world picture, especially those facts which are likely to recalibrate all conditions for everyone — namely world-wide peak oil (which the International Energy Agency says occurred in 2006), devastating climate change impacts, and the hidden but real global economic implosion which is built in part on the former two.

In a world free from energy concerns we can easily build 50-story skyscraper apartment-house farms on every corner of Manhattan, Tokyo, and Dubai. Or we can imagine we’ll be retrofitting existing highrise apartments and offices in the world’s most populous cities to be mean-green sky scraping machines.

But to this analyst, the numbers don’t add up.

The resources are in depletion. The climate can not sustain unconventional energy acquisition like fracked gas and deepwater oil. And the economy is not actually built on bullish Wall Street sociopaths moving numbers around. Instead, the economy is dependent upon the actual living, breathing resources of nature.

Meantime, here in the United States we have a government and media more interested in debating whether Obama is a Muslim and whether the Cloud is insecure for nudie celeb pics than we are in addressing our real energy and resource picture.

In the face of unforgiving climate data we’re still arguing over whether Keystone XL is a viable source for transporting the worst possible kind of oil — the bitumen from tar sands — than in discussing anything remotely resembling a national mass transit system, true New Urbanism, or whether we can sustain using single-use plastic bags FOREVER as we check out at the grocery store larded down with…plastic covered products.

Is a nation currently consuming 69 or so million plastic drink bottles a day that concerned with directing dwindling fossil fuel resources toward greener, denser cities with innovative new build outs?

To that end, small counts, because it’s the only thing that’s really real — that’s really doing something in the here and now. So positing small-scale food processors, local farm stands, and community gardens as cute but ultimately irrelevant fosters a false dichotomy about what is or isn’t in Club Urban Ag.

Growing together

In the end, as energy crises bear down on us more and more, as the nexus between unsustainable energy and an eroding climate delivers a can of whoop-ass that we can’t market our way out of, we’re going to need to seat Urban Agriculture on a continuum from the lowly potager gardener to the possibly reliable rooftop farmer; from the posse of bee-loving skeppers scattered along the El Train to the aquaponics factories producing both protein and roughage; from the kiddies learning in a schoolyard classroom garden that a tomato is actually fruit (and how to make salsa) to four-season high tunnel production houses churning out large quantities of produce on reclaimed land.

This is to say nothing of the urgent need for healing and reconnection around both nature and natural cultivation that’s been spawned by an era of cold materialism.

Urban Agriculture is not one thing, but many different things. Even 31 Days of Urban Agriculture will hardly touch on all things urban ag needs to be, can be, or will be.

But one thing’s for sure — if we imagine it can only be high-tech, energy-dense, Buck Rogesrs-eque visions of a futuristic city-on-a-hill with big returns on investment for the early-in crowd, we’ll be disappointed.

With all cultivation, it’s like the old Buddhist saying, “Chop wood, carry water.” Or maybe in this case it’s “Seed, weed, and carry water.”

The community garden, seed library, canning workshop and apartment windowsill culinary herb tray are as essential to this humble future as are a million urban ventures that flesh out our food picture — entrepreneurs providing produce, meat, fish, fungi, training programs, urban planning charrettes, and maybe — maybe — tech-heavy green visions or a new urban landscape both sophisticated and sustainable, pulsing and productive, sky-high and low-land.

In the end, it’s not about a corporatized and top-down model of feeding people as some centralized industrial vision that was as equally flawed in Communistic terms as it is in Capitalistic terms.

Really it’s about people knowing what it takes to feed themselves and having access to the means to do it — with a little trade with locals thrown in for good measure.

But as long as we think we’re living in a perpetual motion machine of endless energy unto the horizon we’ll never see this and so fail to prepare people for a transition to a lower-energy world where food is one’s personal concern as much as it is society’s.

It’s time to stop spending money and energy figuring out if we can grow our future crops on Mars, and import them back to our depleted soil, for example.

It’s time to come back to earth, spaceman, and just pick up our plows.

— Lindsay Curren, 31 Days of Urban Agriculture

Help support many vision of urban agriculture by backing Lindsay’s 31 Days of Urban Agriculture.