A Non-Traditional Approach to Environmentalism

(Growing the #UrbanJungle)

Urban Gardens like these rely on skill, soil, and most of all a loving caretaker.

Between the hashtags #junglalowstyle and #plantsmakemehappy there's a significant shift afoot.

As silly as it seems, images on Instagram focused on sprouting avocado pits (no doubt left over from toast toppings) are really onto something:

Growing the #UrbanJungle may just be the way to a brighter future.

Driven by our innate desire to be close to plants, we are rediscovering one of our oldest and most atrophied skills: Gardening.

It’s easy to see that gardens aren’t the same as farms. Despite the enormous differences in scale, gardens have an outsize impact on our food, our soil, and most importantly our understanding of the natural world around us — because of their proximity to our lives.

Gardens rely on human labor and skill, need healthy soil to thrive, and ultimately represent quality over quantity. With rising urban populations, gardening has also been adapting to suit city dwellers, among whom it’s more popular than ever.

In gardens, beauty and diversity are the primary goals. This is all the more true in the urban jungle. Increasing yield, a standard goal of production scale agriculture, is often forgotten because one motivated gardener can grow enough tomatoes for their whole block — even if they have to be patient while waiting for harvest.

Food grown this way becomes a joy to share instead of a commodity to be traded (or even thrown away, as is the case of many larger food supply chain mechanisms).

Most importantly, people simply love being around plants. Maybe this is because people are drawn to beauty — or understand at some level that we need the plants as badly as they need us. Public parks are a panacea for the ills of the city dweller for just this reason.

Today we don’t just need to grow food: we need to strengthen communities, and further develop environmental sensitivities as a matter of human survival. Urban gardens are a crucial part of the resistance in a troubled world. Gardens already have a history of creating impact in America — notably Victory Gardens in WWII - but today represent a direct, actionable, and eminently feasible way to facilitate social justice, make life more beautiful, and yes, grow better food while encouraging people to share it. Gardens connect us and our communities to the natural systems that we rely on.

I discovered early on that motivated, locally based individuals made the #UrbanJungle come to life — individuals who did it for the joy that cultivation brings to their lives and the beauty it brings to their communities. Indeed, the nicest neighborhoods in the world — and by no coincidence the enclaves of the wealthy — host gardens, landscaping, flowers, trees, and more.

The 3rd edition of the GreenCube hard at work

With this in mind, I became interested in finding ways to democratize gardens, especially in urban areas where their aesthetic impact would have the most profound effect on as many people as possible.

I designed and build self-watering GreenCubes, partnering with local businesses who rented them from me on a monthly basis. This model succeeded at first, but didn’t scale well — and I quickly found that I became the motivated, locally based individual who took care of them all.

So, I went back to the drawing board and created Hirbi, shrinking my design for the Greencubes to an egalitarian size, and taking Agritecture’s indoor farming class to learn how to grow windowsill-sized plants at scale, then setting up a system to ship live plants modeled after meal subscription services like Blue Apron.

Instead of shrink-wrapped ingredients for dinner, we’re trying to deliver change - giving people a fun experience and ready-to-grow materials to expand the #UrbanJungle.
Hirbi & Friends

Hirbi is designed to empower urban gardens by making it simple for everybody to succeed at growing. Self-watering vases mean watering once a week and a sunny window is all that is needed. Biodegradable, Keurig-style sleeves allow for the plants we grow to transfer seamlessly in and out of the vases, ending up in gardens and larger containers as they grow after their two-month tenure on our customer's windowsills, desks, or kitchen counters.

Through this apparatus, Hirbi aims to plant a seed — an interest and brief education in gardening, as well as the materials needed to spur a new kind of green revolution in a way that relates back to our kitche==ns.

We’re on a mission to grow change on windowsills because growing the #UrbanJungle gives us tangible evidence that we are surrounded by a biological marvel — and inextricably linked, as humans, with a system of plants, microbes, birds, and bees.

We need to get back in the business of cultivating in our neighborhoods and homes. After all, life is the only thing worth living for.

James Hunt is an activist and entrepreneur with an agricultural technology background and experimented with Hirbi 2017–18.