Urban Agriculture

On the way back from a walk in the park this morning, I played spot the edible garden. It wasn’t hard – ripe figs, laden olive trees, patches of lush green kale, silverbeet and salad greens, a wild pumpkin vine, herbs aplenty. And that was only the front yards. For most of us, food growing in our backyards is a labour of love rather than need, the joy of bringing into our kitchen ingredients grown by our hands, with the added benefit of pruning our grocery expenditure. How different might these streets would look, I wondered, if we really had to eat from our immediate environment?

The story of two cities - Detroit and Havana – are both fascinating examples of urban farming beyond the hobbyist.

Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the US, and served as a symbol of the country’s industrial might, known for its automobile industry and rich musical culture. However when the production line ground to a halt, so too did the city. The population shrunk from 2 million in the 1950’s to 700,000 in 2013. Crime and unemployment skyrocketed. An estimated 40 square miles of urban land lay abandoned.

A few far-sighted civic leaders suggested urban agriculture as an alternative. Could the once pioneer of industrial capitalism reinvent itself as a pioneer of urban food production?

So it seems, judging by the 1400 urban gardens and farms located throughout the city, and the more than 70 urban gardeners who now sell fruit and vegetables at local market outlets, most of which use organic or permaculture principles.

Rebecca Salimen Witt, who runs the non-profit Greening of Detroit, says that Detroit is becoming a model of urban agriculture. “Some of them are little postage stamp gardens in someone’s backyard, and some of them are full scale urban farms that are growing produce for sale, serving as someone’s primary living.”

The city is even putting worms to work to remediate ex-industrial land. Hundreds of thousands of worms have been scattered onto newly tilled vacant lots, loosening up the soil and allowing rainwater and snowmelt to percolate down into the dirt instead of running off into nearby sewers.

Gardening similarly saved the Cuban capital Havana from poverty. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, in conjunction with a tightening of the US blockade, meant that Cuba could no longer import sufficient food or oil. The country responded to the shortage in fuel by becoming a leader in urban agriculture in order to diminish the food miles.Petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers were replaced with organic principles. Rather than shriveling, the city and its people bloomed.

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared Cuba to be the only sustainable nation based on ecological footprint and human development index. 

Havana and Detroit are just two of an increasing number of green rags to riches stories. I just hope we can emulate the vision without the crisis.