Posted by & filed under Book Review, Food Philosophy.

Back to the Land in the City

When I’m not writing blogs for Golden Gate Organics, I make my living – in part anyway – by researching and compiling nonfiction anthologies for high school students. I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, and it’s a pretty great gig because I get to learn about each topic in depth as I research possible articles to include in the books. When I pull the material together and write an introduction, it’s kind of like doing a monster book report or a term paper.  As a result, I know far more about such topics as solar storms, WikiLeaks, uranium mining, drunk driving and e-waste (among other random things) than most people would ever care to know.  Anyway, the title that I’m currently working on is Urban Farming, a topic that I suggested to the publishers myself a year or so ago.


Urban agriculture is really hot right now, what with the whole urban homesteading movement taking off like wildfire nationwide, and my own interest was driven by the fact that I’ve got a little  (tiny) plot in a community garden, and that I keep bees, make plum wine from my tree and do some home canning. A friend likes to call me “Pioneer Woman,” but I’m nowhere near as pioneer as my neighbors, who keep backyard chickens, roast their own coffee beans and make lovely soaps and some very good beer.


We all live, mind you, in a residential neighborhood in East Oakland, so the pioneering – such as it is — is of quite limited scale. But we’re still part of what has become a bona fide urban agriculture movement over the past decade. And although the Bay Area was at the forefront of the trend, urban farming has now definitely gone mainstream.


An urban farm, it turns out, can take many forms, but a definition from one of the books in my research stack seems to sum up the idea pretty well: “An urban farm is an intentional effort by an individual or community to grow its capacity for self-suffriciency and well-being through the cultivation of plants and animals.”


The most common manifestation of the urban farm idea, of course, is still the community garden, but a surprising number of other initiatives – from CSA (community supported agriculture) farms, to public space orchards to nonprofit, educational or actual for-profit urban farms — are springing up in the midst of cities nationwide.


And it seems there are just as many motivations for urban agriculture as there are models:  getting closer to one’s food, promoting slow food and “locavore” eating, increasing sustainability, boosting local economies, building self sufficiency, promoting community, reclaiming and revitalizing neglected inner-city spaces, increasing food security, reconnecting with cultural traditions, improving public health, providing job training and rehabilitation. And more.


I’ve just begun digging (pun intended) into my big stack of research material, but a few titles have really stood out and impressed me so far. Here’s a brief look at a few books you might like to check out if you are interested in learning more about the urban farming movement, the various forms it is taking, and the positive changes it has the power to effect:


Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer  – in which the author and her boyfriend move to Oakland, rent an apartment, take over the vacant lot next door and turn it into a squat garden, complete with chickens, rabbits and pigs that they slaughter for meat. This book has been out for a few years now, so I’m a little late to the party, but learning about the early days of the now infamous Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland is fascinating, and the book is something of a love letter to Oakland besides. (Novella Carpenter, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.)


Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival – in which essays and photographs lovingly document twelve urban farming projects from around the country. From profiles of community gardens in Seattle and Denver, to for-profit farms in Kansas City and on Brooklyn rooftops, to the transformative Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, this book explores a wide variety of successful urban agriculture models and settings. The stories are varied and inspiring, and the photos left me with the feeling that seeing is believing what is possible. (David Hanson and Edwin Marty, Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.)


The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities – in which a somewhat wonkish former city planner from Vancouver critiques the industrial food system and then makes the case for urban agriculture by dissecting problems and quantifying viable solutions. Which is to say, this book is chock full of both public policy points and statistics to further the arguments for, and the successful operation of, urban agriculture initiatives. (Peter Ladner, The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2011.)


Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution – in which urban agriculture is presented through a more global lens. After explaining how the industrial food system contributes to a global food and health crisis, the chapters are broken up to spotlight urban farming activities in communities around the world: Paris, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and Cuba.  I was pleased to discover that many of these places (in Europe and Cuba) have long, historic traditions of urban farming, which just goes to show that everything old is new again.  (Jennifer Cockrall-King, Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. New York: Prometheus, 2012.)


The thing that struck me most about these books, however, is their unabashed optimism that urban farming can not only change our relationship with food, but that it can help heal our planet and our communities as well. I was left with the strong impression that urban agriculture is not just about the future of food, but about the future of the world.