The hard asphalt of the road’s not so solid
a boundary after all, nor the red bricks of the buildings.
Despite what you’ve heard, the soil can be rich
here, too — in apartments, in homes, in the old warehouses
now reclaimed by rows of ripe tomato, clean stalks
of fresh green basil, round heads of buttery lettuce.
A garden will grow almost anywhere; it only needs someone to care for it.
— Matthew Kosinski
This year, our Ignite series is taking a broader look at the natural world and considering how we can reconnect with more holistic ways of thinking about it. This month, in honor of Green Market, we’re exploring the long history of urban agriculture as a tool for building community, nourishing the planet, and breaking down arbitrary boundaries between the city and the countryside.
It was 1880, and Sir Ebenezer Howard had a problem. Over the course of the previous decades, the Industrial Revolution had slowly driven more and more people into England’s cities in search of work in the booming factories. Rural areas were rapidly losing their populations, becoming desolate ghost towns. Meanwhile, the city streets were overcrowded and unsanitary. People were miserable, sick, or both.
An urban planner, Howard felt there simply had to be a better way — and, eventually, he found one. In 1898, after years of brainstorming, researching, and writing, Howard published Garden Cities of To-Morrow. This curious tome — destined to become an urban-planning classic — advocated for the creation of what Howard called “garden cities.” Unlike your typically chaotic city of brick, steel, and huddled masses all jostling up against one another, a garden city would be a carefully planned community surrounded by vast stretches of untouched rural land.1
Howard’s book included a number of arresting diagrams laying out his plans for “slumless, smokeless cities”;Source: Wikipedia
The garden cities were to be organized in concentric circles. The core of the city would contain a park, as well as government and cultural buildings. Next would come a ring of houses, then another ring of green space for more parks and schools, then another ring of houses. Finally, it would all be enclosed in a ring of industry — and beyond that, rural land reserved for farming.2
While Howard’s garden cities never became the norm, two English towns, Letchworth and Welwyn, were built according to his concept. More importantly, urban planners in the years since the publication of Garden Cities of To-Morrow have shared Howard’s concern about controlling population density and creating green spaces in urban areas.3
In their quest to bring rural and urban ways of life together, Howard’s garden cities seem like an earlier incarnation of a trend we’ve been seeing a lot in recent times: urban agriculture. Ultimately, though, the breaking down of the rural/urban divide has its roots in the very origins of the city itself.
“The breaking down of the rural/urban divide has its roots in the very origins of the city itself.”
What Came First: the City or the Farm?
The typical story goes that the invention of agriculture roughly 12,000 years ago granted hunter-gatherer societies the stability they needed to settle down in one place and form the precursor communities to modern cities — but new evidence has challenged this traditional view.
Ancient Egypt was one of the first societies to practice large-scale agriculture; Source: Wikipedia
As urban theorist Jane Jacobs explains in The Economy of Cities, preagricultural settlements of hunter-gatherer societies have been discovered in Europe and Western Asia, which suggests people started to create dense settlements before they learned to farm. Over time, these settlements began to trade tools, edible plants, and animals among one another. This created the conditions for agriculture to flourish — meaning the earliest farms were more like urban community gardens than the isolated industrial farms of today. The divide between agriculture and urban life only opened up later, once the settlements grew too densely populated to support the scale of agriculture needed to keep everyone fed.4
And, really, the rural/urban divide isn’t as vast a gulf as it seems. As illustrated by the garden cities of Ebenezer Howard, the line has repeatedly been blurred throughout history, especially in times of socioeconomic turmoil.
Howard’s garden cities were a response to the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.5 Likewise, urban planners became increasingly interested in mending the rural/urban divide during the Great Depression, as a means of restoring social order. Urban and rural populations alike were out of work and going hungry, and urban planners thought bringing more agrarian operations into urban centers could help feed people and create more jobs. Planners imagined a system of job sharing, whereby workers would rotate between tending communal farms and staffing the remaining factories.6
Conceptualized during the Great Depression, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was never built, but its vision of a decentralized city composed of “citizen-farmers” speaks to the growing interest in urban agriculture during the period; Placejournal
Urban farming also made a comeback during the 1970s, when American manufacturing jobs began to move from cities like New York and Detroit to the U.S. South, Mexico, and Asia. As wealthier residents fled for the suburbs, the poor and unemployed people left behind often couldn’t afford to pay their rent. Unscrupulous landlords, looking to recoup their losses by any means necessary, responded with an “arson crisis”: That is, they started torching their buildings to collect the insurance money. The resourceful residents of these areas hit hard by arson took to turning the ashen lots into gardens, growing food and building community at a time when both were desperately needed.7
“The resourceful residents of these areas hit hard by arson took to turning the ashen lots into gardens, growing food and building community at a time when both were desperately needed.”
Healing the Divide, Healing Ourselves
The current resurgence of urban farming can be traced back, in part, to the Great Recession and a handful of concomitant crises like water shortages, the disappearance of arable land, and increasing wariness of the environmental impact of industrial farming.8 The accelerating visibility of climate change, linked heavily to urban life and modern agriculture, means we are likely on the cusp of a boom.
It seems that when people are hurting — socially, economically, spiritually, or emotionally — reconnecting with and reclaiming our agricultural ancestry is an almost automatic response. It’s hard to say just what it is about urban farming that makes it so attractive in times of distress, but the very real material benefits of healing the rural/urban divide suggest it is one of the most nourishing things we can do — literally and figuratively.
Will Allen tends to one of his closed-loop tilapia-farming systems; Source: UWM
Take, for example, Growing Power, a former Milwaukee urban farming operation that, at the height of its success, grew enough food to feed 10,000 people. Founded by former professional basketball player Will Allen in the early 1990s, Growing Power blossomed from a single farm to a network of greenhouses that helped people learn trades and access healthy food in an area where jobs and grocery stores were both scarce. Growing power also converted tons of city waste into natural fertilizer, diverting it from landfills.9
Unfortunately, after 25 years of operation, Growing Power ran into financial trouble and dissolved in 2017. Fittingly, however, Allen is still farming and still training local students and residents in his urban agriculture techniques.10 As journalist Stephen Satterfield put it in an article on Growing Power’s closure, “A common adage for Allen was, ‘We’re not just growing food, we’re growing community.’ By that measure, his success is timeless.”11
“‘We’re not just growing food, we’re growing community.’”
A similar nonprofit, Slow Food USA, distributes seed kits for urban gardens, as a means of “tell[ing] the stories of our multicultural foodways.” Its 2020 Plant a Seed campaign aims to introduce urban agriculturalists to lesser-known crops like the fish pepper, in order to both promote greater biodiversity in urban farming and highlight the culinary contributions of people and communities who often go overlooked by history. Like Allen, Slow Food USA believes sustainably cultivating the land and empowering the people on it are equally necessary and fundamentally inseparable activities.12
Local governments, too, have turned to urban farming initiatives during difficult times. In the midst of the Great Recession, towns and cities across the United States transformed undeveloped space into public food forests. As one example, the Parks and Recreation Department of Des Moines, Iowa, started cultivating fruits and nuts in public parks to increase food security, promote economic self-sufficiency, and bring residents together around a shared harvest.13
In 2015, the artist Mary Mattingly created Swale, a floating food forest in New York City; Source: Mary Mattingly
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s love affair with urban farming has stretched back for centuries. In the 1800s, the Vacant Lot Cultivation Commission supported efforts to turn empty spaces into community gardens. Today, the city is home to one of the country’s largest agricultural high schools, as well as nonprofits like Greensgrow, an educational urban farm that offers discounted farm shares to recipients of SNAP benefits.14
So You Want to Be an Urban Farmer?
On its face, the rural/urban divide seems almost natural. In truth, it’s an artificial distinction, and the longer we perpetuate it, the more damage we do. By divorcing communities from their food sources, we make it that much harder for people to access healthy food. The industrial farming system we now have in place is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the production of crops — not to mention all the energy consumed in transporting those crops to urban areas. That’s if the crops make it to the cities in the first place: Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, world hunger rates have actually risen, according to the United Nations.15
“A more holistic approach that brings agriculture and urbanity together gives people more control over their food.”
On the other hand, a more holistic approach that brings agriculture and urbanity together gives people more control over their food. It also brings communities closer together and reduces reliance on fossil fuels, while paving the way for more biodiversity in our gardens and on our plates.
And you don’t need to be a nonprofit or government agency to get started. Even if your community doesn’t have a garden (yet), there’s plenty you can do on your own right inside your own apartment.
The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a greenroof and commercially operated vegetable farm atop a three story warehouse in Brooklyn, New York.; Source: Roof Top Farms
Ethical Unicorn has an excellent beginner’s guide to growing food at home. They recommend reaching for high-yield plants that are relatively easy to grow, such as chard, spinach, rocket, and sweet potatoes. Plants like these can be cultivated in pots under fluorescent lights, while herbs like basil and parsley are ideal for growing on windowsills. If you want to maximize yield while minimizing waste, Food Revolution Network outlines all the crops you can grow from food scraps. That includes avocados, bok choy, ginger, and much more.
And if you’re angling to one day take your operation to a higher level beyond your own kitchen, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s urban agriculture toolkit. That covers everything from soil and water quality to land access, business plans, raising capital, and managing risk.
It’s unfortunate that modern society has come to view urban and rural spaces as such a dichotomous pair, but as the history of agriculture attests, the separation is not inevitable. Each of us can play a small part in bridging that divide and bringing about a more integrated, holistic, and altogether healthier world. All it takes is some soil, some seeds, and a little elbow grease.