Democratization of Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture is often a hidden yet nonetheless crucial component of the economies and cultures of metropolitan cities around the nation, and St. Louis is no exception. Urban Harvest, New Roots Urban Farm, The Sweet Potato Project, Gateway Greening, and the International Institute are a few of the many examples of safe, economically reliable, and self-sustaining collaboratives that provide urban farming, fresh produce, and business skills to residents throughout the St. Louis community.

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Towering above the bustling metropolitan streets of downtown St. Louis sits the Urban Harvest STL Food Roof, a living and growing testament to the power of urban green space. With the mission to build community around inclusive and resilient local food systems, Urban Harvest functions as a living laboratory for local farmers to innovate with vertical growth, hydroponics, and different soil types. Amidst this emergence of scientific phenomenon and development exists a unification of ideals; everyone within the Urban Harvest community is driven by a firm belief in food justice and the importance of sustainability. “It’s cool to see people come in with such different perceptions of nutrition, fulfillment, nature, and poverty,” says Molly Calvo, a current junior at Washington University in St. Louis and former intern at Urban Harvest. “Everyone shares a love of food and a desire to works towards a future for St. Louis where everyone can have and define their own relationship to food. This implies a standard of food access that simply doesn’t exist for everyone, so even while we’re all joking around while we work there is a palpable goal with personal importance.”

The powerful culture of urban farming that Molly talks about is an international phenomenon. AgroArte is a unique collaboration between hip-hop and art that works to activate create and sustain urban agricultural space in Comuna 13, an infamously violent community in Medellin, Colombia. Colombian rapper AKA, the spokesperson for the organization, coined the term ‘agrarian hip-hop’ to describe his fight to reclaim lands that were seized by violence. “Hip-hop is from the street, but under the street is the land,” he explains.

“The land is our territory and our fight.”—AKA

AKA began his journey into urban farming by cultivating crops on the side of the road in Medellin, and fifteen years later his roadside garden has exploded into a dense urban jungle with food growing every few blocks of Comuna 13. AKA’s AgroArte initiative has led members of the community to mark the plant’s vessels with words of love, remembrance, and hope for loved ones lost and for the spirit of their community. Comuna 13’s response to violence and injustice is a lesson in the healing and community-building power of collaborative and self-sustaining agriculture.

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The agricultural communities in both St. Louis and Medellin share the fundamental commonality of acting as a connection between the both the built and natural environments and a city’s residents. By employing locals, utilizing found urban resources, connecting directly with neighboring consumers, and having a tangible impacts on the urban ecology, urban farming is a crucial ingredient in a city’s functionality. Interestingly, urban agriculture is intrinsically tied to the varying levels of food justice throughout the St. Louis community. As Molly so eloquently puts it,

“It’s hard to hold onto pride for an increasingly inclusive food scene when some people living blocks from burgeoning restaurants are entirely serviced by the familiar combination of structures which deny health to predominantly black St. Louis residents.” — Molly Calvo

I hope that we can move towards providing the basic need of food to all the city’s residents. This feels like an issue overdue to be solved. The question should be how can we include all of St. Louis’s residents in food as an exciting and positive industry, but we are still stuck on providing basic access. It’s difficult to know that while Urban Harvest and other organizations are really listening and making connections, larger structural issues of urban planning and policy have to be addressed before we can move past this.”