Here’s a good one for the “think global, act local” contingent. A group of folks up in the Twin Cities are taking vacant urban lots and converting them into productive urban farms.
Stone’s Throw Urban Farm is a unique and vital embodiment of community supported agriculture. With the resilient spirit of weeds growing up through cracks in a sidewalk, they move into abandoned spaces, turning them productive and green.
Alex Liebman, Emily Hanson, Nate Watters, Eric Larsen and Julie Aponte have jointly (with a lot of help) put together 18 micro-farms on vacant lots, comprising a little over two acres all together. Their process involves finding the lots, getting permission from the owners to plant gardens, recruiting local city dwellers to support the effort through volunteering as well as donations, and lots of organization and weeding. They are currently raising some 40 different crops including a variety of greens, beans, brassica (broccoli family), cucurbits (melon family) and herbs.
They sell their produce through local farmers markets as well as through select wholesalers and their CSA which includes 100 members.
Their goal is to strengthen the local food system, provide a healthy source of good nutrition to city residents and to reverse the sense of decay that generally accompanies vacant lots. At the same time they are hoping to turn enough of a profit to be able to sustain themselves.
Of course they have attracted a few complaints along the way by homeowners worried about their property values, but most of the locals are on board with it.
This, of course is part of the broader trend of urban greening, which is being embraced in many cities with an excess of vacant lots. Cleveland, for example has over 20,000 vacant lots which costs the cities over $3 million annually just to mow. Surely something more productive can be done with this land.
Perhaps the largest such effort is Philadelphia Green, which manages some 5,200 lots in the City of Brotherly Love, though they do not specifically plant food crops They take a clean and green approach, where work crews remove debris, deposit topsoil, plant grass and build fences. Their goals are to:
- Develop and preserve community green space
- Plant trees
- Create green streetscapes
- Revitalize parks and public spaces
- Reclaim abandoned land
- Provide long-term landscape management
- Support open space planning
- Build community capacity
But given the preponderance of food deserts in this country, and the growing locavore movement, the time is ripe to bring agriculture back into the neighborhood. According to USDA data, 10% of the US is now engulfed in food deserts, where the only food available within easy access is whatever can be purchased at fast food restaurants and convenience stores. These are great places to get lots of empty calories.
Further north, Rochester Roots focuses on “…creating a locally sustainable food system that ensures community food security.” Their program encourages low-income people to obtain and become involved in fresh, locally grown and highly nutritious food.
Some critics, like economist Edward Glaeser argue that converting urban land into agriculture is not sustainable, based on the theory that reducing density means reducing sustainability. However, he fails to take into account, the large amount of rooftop and vertical space available as well as the great many vacant lots in relatively low density neighborhoods like the ones being exploited in the Twin Cities. Besides, Edward, an urban lot surrounding by skyscrapers would hardly get enough sun to grow anything on anyway.
In NYC, buildings are beginning to sprout rooftop greenhouses that not only provide garden space, but also extend the growing season. A number of these are located on supermarket roofs, a trend you can expect to see continue.
Of course, cities are not likely to ever be able to grow all the food they need within their borders, but that’s not exactly the point. People need to see where food comes from. They need to be able to put their hands in the dirt if they want to. It’s a surefire antidote for a stress-filled day at the office. And if our continuously complexifying global food delivery network should ever break down, or simply run out of gas, which it invariably will; well, there just might be enough food around the neighborhood to keep folks alive, at least for a few days.
[Image credit: Courtesy of Stone’s Throw Farms]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.