Reporting on a generative study with growing possibilities

How Green is My Alley:

Why the Low-Hanging Fruit of Food Security, Urban Agriculture and Community Development Can Be Found in Parks, Boulevards, Alleyways, Schoolyards and Institutional Lawns

By Wayne Roberts

Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas and Streets for Healthier Cities is an unusually important book, if only because the topic is so unusual — how people in cities and towns can grow food on public lands

Loads of books on urban agriculture have been published lately, but these manuals and manifestoes usually assume the growing will take place mainly on private or commercial land, such as backyards or rooftops. Gardens on public space, commonly called community gardens, are usually meant for individuals who don’t have a house with a yard, or groups that aren’t linked to an institution with its own land.

Because, don’t you know, food, like the land it’s grown on, is primarily a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace — that is the all-encompassing assumption behind the dominant food system.

So when Darrin Nordahl wrote a book devoted to food production on public lands, he was definitely charting new territory.

Darrin Nordahl helps a city official and volunteer plant an idea from his book on Public Produce

I remember when my food career was just beginning during the 1990s, and urban agriculture was considered radical and weird because so few people thought of cities as places with enough space to grow food.

Today, urban agriculture on public land seems just as radical and weird, because so few people have even thought about how much land governments own, how much could be made available for food production, and how many public benefits could be harvested from that decision.

That’s what makes the book unusually important. It’s not only about new territory that food can be grown on, which is unusual enough. It’s about new public purposes of food production, which is more important and more unusual.

The edition I’m reviewing is the second, published in 2014. Before anyone says it, I will admit I’m a bit late to do a review. My excuse is that I’m writing this to prod the author and publisher into doing a third and updated edition.

Some books stay young for a long time

In today’s world, when new technologies and trends are coming onstream faster than ever before — especially in the food sector — many books and journals are dated by the time they’re published. Three years later, they’re antiques.

So I’m going to pull the dirtiest trick a reviewer can pull, which is to review the book the author didn’t write — for the very good reason that Darrin Nordahl wrote it three years ago, when conditions were very different. But the topic is even more important now, and the author needs to do an update to give it the relevance and attention it deserves. I’m offering to write the forward!

HOW MUCH LAND ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?

Nordahl, I hasten to add, is not arguing that entire cities can be fed by farming unused parcels of public lands. He is saying food can do much more than feed people and fill their tummies. It’s the many public functions on behalf of environmental protection, community development, food security and food literacy that deserve a place on public lands.

If local governments were more welcoming to innovation, Nordahl’s book could be sent to the Department of Low-Hanging Fruit, or the Department of Opportunities Waiting to Happen. In the absence of such departments, we need to make an issue of this.

Abandoned malls might become the new commons

It’s quite amazing how much high-quality public land is readily available and accessible — we, the people, already own it, it’s mostly of good quality (cities and towns were usually built on the most fertile soil), and it’s literally next door. It’s easy to forget that governments, including cities, are among any country’s largest landholders. Los Angeles owns 26 square miles of vacant land, for example, and Detroit has the dibs on 40, Nordahl points out.

Although Mother Nature is no longer making more land, government-owned land is a growth business — the result of a steady increase of companies that aren’t paying city taxes any more. Amazon and other e-tailers are creating a landrush in abandoned shopping malls, for example, and as the population leaves, several formerly industrial cities are redefining themselves as “shrinking cities.”

As soon as it’s realized that even damaged and paved-over lands can readily support food production, simply by putting rich and clean soil in bins and raised beds above-ground, farming becomes an opportunity — for employment as well as food. To see what can be done on land deemed valueless, Doubting Thomases are invited to check out the brilliant and beautiful work of urban ag leaders such as Will Allen and Michael Ableman.

Hospitals, such as Thunder Bay’s St Joseph’s Care Group in Thunder Bay, Ontario (pictured above) increasingly see food gardening as a therapeutic activity for both staff and employees

By combining Google Maps and GIS, the amount and kind of land available in any area can now be easily tallied. In Ontario, Project SOIL (Shared Opportunities on Institutional Lands) counted over 1000 acres available just beside public health facilities in various cities and towns. Project leaders also counted 26 benefits to the hospitals, patients, staff, as well as local citizens and taxpayers, from making use of that bounty for food production. For deep insights on how such projects work, and to motivate yourself to spread this model, visit here.

While rural areas remain preferred places to raise staple grain and pulse crops and livestock, cities and towns have the space to grow fruit, vegetables and similar specialty crops inside or close to their borders.

NICE AND WHIMSY DOES IT

Despite the potential in this neglected field, Nordahl does not make the case for bringing serious full-on production agriculture to town. He sees food production on public lands as an introduction to food that enhances city and neighborhood life as well as food appreciation, not a strategy to feed the city.

There’s more growing here than food

I like the whimsy of the way Nordahl pictures success — kids chasing butterflies in pollinator gardens, and that kind of thing. He rarely uses the term urban agriculture, and is most at ease depicting his ideal of public food as a walk in the park.

He’s picturing boulevards beautified by plants, school yards filled with kids delighted by the combination of school lessons and their own play in the garden. His food scene is one of delicious food eaten fresh off the tree or out of the dirt — food as part of a vital public life, not the commercialized experience of food in a supermarket or the private life of a kitchen.

In my view, this is the tone food advocates should be setting more often. Of course, we have to prioritize advocacy around food-related problems, such as hunger and chronic disease, but the message should always be positive — that the growing and eating of food are occasions for joy and celebration of Nature, community, personal agency and pleasure. Paying attention to issues such as public produce allows us to present that side of the good food advocates’ personality.

Policy nerds like me need constant reminders that most people are more interested in food than food policy. People are more likely to have their imagination tweaked by the thought of picking an apple from a tree for their kids while on a family walk than they are by the thought of gardening after work every day in an effort to become food self-sufficient.

Happy meals shouldn’t be the only way to find happiness and delight. How about public art and gardens?

Nor should we minimize the importance of making food a delight. My favorite phrase in the American Declaration of Independence is the reference to every person endowed with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is worth knowing that the pursuit of happiness can be classified as revolutionary. Indeed, it is one of the many functions of food that it makes life a pleasure, not just a chore, a delight, not just a function. And making more people happier with the simple things of life would hardly be a silly thing for today’s world.

To me, the book belongs in the category of “people-centered food policy” — the view, which I have been championing as of late — that food policy should look first to the needs and desires of people, and design the nutrients of dietary science and the yields of agricultural science with people’s needs in mind.

Indeed, the book disappoints me most when Nordahl tries to make a serious case, such as a claim that growing food on public lands can address public policy problems such as food deserts, hunger and food insecurity. He very much overshoots here, and might confirm the stereotype that good food advocates are lightweights when it comes to real problems of everyday people — on the scale of 50 million people coping with food insecurity on a regular basis in two of the world’s more affluent countries, United States and Canada.

FOOD SECURITY AND THE CASE FOR PLAN B

The problems of food insecurity loop back to problems of chronic poverty, which in turn loop back to problems of deep racial and gender inequalities. Food insecurity should not be mentioned in the same breath as a stroll along a boulevard garden or orchard-lined park, lest it be thought that these serious problems are being belittled. Though food offers important empowerment opportunities for people in disadvantaged and underserved communities, serious and meaty policy is needed to address the economic and social problems underlying food insecurity amidst mountains of surplus and wasted food.

Food security relies on resilience, which relies on local capacity everywhere

This is not to suggest that Nordahl doesn’t understand food systems or food policy. I believe his chapter on food security is first-rate, and makes two cases that neither the United Nations nor US Department of Agriculture have kept up to date on.

These two powerful bodies insist on defining food insecurity as a problem experienced by households of people on low income, who do not have physical, social and economic access to food at all times.

Few government bodies do what Nordahl does — which is to define food insecurity as a problem confronting all people, not just the poor. Like national security, food security is an equal problem for everyone, because the real barriers to robust food security go far beyond inequality of income.

Centralization of food production in one vulnerable area creates food security for all

The very construction of a cheap long-distance food system in a world where climate change threatens to interrupt all overly long supply chains has created conditions of food insecurity that will affect everyone.

Someone might bet the farm, but no-one should bet any region’s food security on California having enough water to continue as the salad bowl for all of North America. Likewise, the conditions in crowded factory farms have the potential to breed any number of epidemics affecting humans as well as livestock. Decentralization leading to smaller farms spread over more regions, closer to more centers where people live, needs to become top-of-mind for serious planners.

It’s famously known that people in today’s cities are “nine meals from anarchy,” because city supermarkets only have three days of food at hand. If Just in Time deliveries are interrupted, the run on food will only last three days.

The saying is well-known, but what governments have a Plan B?

That Achilles’ Heel of a long distance food system is the crux of the matter when it comes to the due diligence obligation of cities to prepare some form of Plan B in the event of emergency. Local governments are the frontline government for such emergencies because all people live locally, and must to that extent eat locally.

Some versions of urban agriculture are leading candidates for Plan B. Cities can encourage and incentivize homeowners to grow more food in their yards, and can encourage and incentivize provision of green roofs on the flat roofs of institutional buildings. But due diligence suggests that the place for governments to start is in places they already own and control, where people can learn skills that may save lives. It’s a bit like making sure a certain percentage of the population has taken St John’s Ambulance first-aid training.

TALE OF TWO CLAIMS ON CITIES

Nordahl makes two distinct proposals to city governments on the subject of public lands.

First, he argues that food security is a duty of local governments; therefore, they need to permit land uses of public lands which fulfill that duty. Sad to say, few cities presently accept that obligation to ensure food security. Most would argue that food is the exclusive mandate of “senior” levels of government.

Nordahl’s second claim is implicit in the kinds of suggestions he makes for public participation and leadership in gardening projects that take place on public land.

This claim comes from the very nature of food and human relations to food.

Think about how a local government acts when it delivers services of energy and water utilities, when it provides for public safety and policing, when it offers public transit, when it funds schools, and when it deals with food. The government buys buses and hires drivers, and treats people as customers who pay for the service. The government hires police, and expects citizens to obey them. Governments fund schools, and put principals and teachers in charge. And governments are held responsible if anything goes wrong.

Growing food in cities engages people, and cities must engage too

There’s a huge difference with the kind of food projects Nordahl proposes. His proposals, quite rightly, require direct citizen engagement, even initiative and leadership. Good projects require ongoing partnerships with people in a neighborhood or community. Government staff become facilitators and enablers who empower citizens. Governments don’t know how to do that kind of direct democracy very well.

Such a new relationship is especially difficult for typical departments dealing with “parks and recreation,” where it’s typical to believe parks must be protected from grubby and practical activities such as food production and farmers markets, while recreation is mostly active recreation, such as sports. Staff who put up signs such as Do Not Walk on the Grass are unlikely to warm to ideas of digging up the grass to plant veggies. Resistance to various kinds of food-related suggestions has led to some parks and rec departments gaining a reputation for a “Culture of No.”

Canada is fortunate to have a smart organization dedicated to working with Parks and Rec staff to overcome this divide between government departments and new types of park users. Anyone favoring food production on public lands needs some version of this organization.

FOOD PRODUCTION IS COMMON AND COMMONS

Lots of ways to create public spaces that give people a chance to unwind and just plant themselves down for a rest

The likelihood is that food production on public lands won’t happen until citizens are empowered to treat public lands as if they were versions of the ancient commons, which belonged directly to the people who used them to gather food, fuel and fiber and for their own pleasure. But few governments see government-owned lands as a version of the commons; the lands are seen as government property, which the government alone controls in order to provide a public service. Governments are often as jealous of their control of public property as private landowners.

Opening public lands up for food production eventually needs an agenda for the democratization and “commonization” of the public sphere. I think that understanding has also been reached by a group of avant garde planning scholars drawing on experiences in Bologna, Italy, which has had an intense experience with people reclaiming abandoned and vacant land for food production.

Should food on public lands be classed with the creative commons?

My own view is that the most practical way to move on this agenda is to establish organizations along the lines of “Friends of Younameit Neighborhood Park.” Such organizations, leaders of which could be elected and accountable in much the same way as ratepayers organizations or parent-teachers associations, would negotiate with government officials over land-use policies and volunteer prerogatives that affect food in their particular park. In effect, this would turn public lands into a working commons.

WHETTING THE APPETITE FOR PUBLIC LANDINGS

Nordahl’s book has whet my appetite for a new edition, because I see the need to explore or expand on at least ten issues that have become issues since the second edition came out. Here they are in no particular order:

· The rise of precarious employment — as many as half the jobs in many areas are occupied by the “precariat” — means that many people will want access to land that they can use as one of several ways they make it through the month. Gardens are also an excellent opportunity to learn new skills for fulltime jobs.

Composting is one example of a circular economy

· Local governments need to confront the multi-billion dollar issue of food waste, which is the end result of a “linear” system that goes from “farm to fork.” In the future, we need to plan more circular economies — from soil to soil, for example, treating waste as a resource for a new activity. Food producers on public lands are in an excellent position to circularize food waste into compost and recycled grey water into nutrient-rich irrigation. Gardeners could even be paid a fee for their waste management work of turning waste into a resource.

· The success of public efforts to reduce cigarette smoking has lessons for reducing junk food. A strategy of relatively non-intrusive “nudge” policies encourage people to “do the right thing” because the right thing is the easiest thing to do, or the most fun thing to do. Allowing healthy foods to be grown on boulevards, in alleyways, in public parking lots, in parks, at city halls, in school yards during summer makes nutritious food as accessible and delightful as any junk food.

Multicultural gardens are at home in public parks

· Cities have become multicultural. Food provides opportunities to help cities become intercultural — please teach me about your culture and I am happy to teach you about mine, if you wish. Producing foods that express First Nations heritage, for example, should be as obvious as the exotic enclosed gardens that most cities built during the 1800s. Community gardens allow people to share ideas and seeds about crops that grow well in the local climate.

· We have only begun to explore the potential for eating “edible weeds.” These can be allowed to grow free along wilderness paths and other areas designed for rambling walks.

Gardening in barren traffic ares beautifies, stores carbon, cleans air, and maybe offers a snack

· Traffic safety problems are leading many local governments to adopt some version of “living streets” or “street reclaiming” planning — which goes beyond road bumps, which slow cars down, to initiatives that invite residents to treat the street as front yards shared by slow-moving cars. Opportunities abound in such street redesigns to provide opportunities for food production. In other words, food becomes a tool of new kinds of planning that humanize the city.

· Cities facing intense rainfall and storms during this era of global warming are increasingly exploring “green infrastructure” — such as green roofs, green walls and rain gardens, which beautify the city at all times while protecting the city during storms that commonly destroy old cement-based infrastructure. There is no reason why the plants on green roofs and walls or in rain gardens cannot be food plants, adding another layer of value and public benefit.

· Shopping malls will almost certainly need to be reinvented. They are well positioned to become areas featuring green infrastructure and food production.

· One good public service deserves another, and local government support for food production leads logically to libraries being enlisted — as places that lend not just books but gardening tools and micro-processing equipment.

· The concept of the “sharing economy” has been taken over by services such as Uber and Air B & B. But the original idea was for people to turn Internet connections into a hub — places to exchange goods or services. Such platforms encourage people who are already growing food to use the inevitable surplus created by any garden to swap for other goods or services.

The forest commons of India inspired many food leaders, including Vandana Shiva

The great Indian thinker on food issues, Vandana Shiva, has argued that food has created a movement of ands, not buts. Given this truth, it is not really possible to write a book exclusively on public produce, as Nordahl well knows. The topics inevitably widen into food on public lands and the economy, and transportation and health, and so on. That’s one reason why Nordahl’s book will be in continual need for expansion.

On top of that, the idea of producing food on public lands is what Barry Martin, of the Toronto-based communications firm Hypenotic, calls “generative.” It encourages others to run with particular aspects of an idea.

Good on Nordahl for having generated this unusually important conversation.

(If you enjoy this, please check out my free newsletter on food and cities at http://bit.ly/OpportunCity; that way, you won’t miss any of my items!)

(to learn about generative, Hypenotic-style, see http://www.bmeaningful.com/blog/2014/09/barry-martin-founder-hypenotic/)

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