The New Urban Agriculture: Growing the Second Green Revolution

In the emerging era of urban agriculture, growers are boosting food security, cultivating community, and trying to change the world.

Brooklyn Grange

Brooklyn Grange, a commercial farm in New York City, uses Rooflite growing medium at two sky-high locations for a total of 2.5 acres of veggies and a 30-hive apiary.

Photo by SuperStock/Citizen of the Planet

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This article was condensed from Rebecca Solnit’s article “Revolutionary Plots,” which was first published in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion and may be found at Orion Magazine.

The anti-war poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon reports that toward the end of World War I, Winston Churchill told him that war is the normal occupation of man. Challenged, Churchill amended this to “war — and gardening.” Are the two opposites? Some agriculture is a form of war, whether it’s clear-cutting rain forest, stealing land from the poor, contaminating the vicinity, or exploiting farmworkers, and some of our modern pesticides descend from the chemical warfare breakthroughs of World War I. But gardening represents a much wider spectrum of human activity than war.

Could it be the antithesis of war, or a cure for social ills, or an act of healing the divisions of the world? When you tend your tomatoes, are you producing more than tomatoes? We are in an era when gardens are front and center for hopes and dreams of a better world, or just a better neighborhood — or the fertile space where the two become one. There are farm advocates and food activists, progressive farmers and gardeners, and, maybe most particular to this moment, there’s a lot of urban agriculture. These city projects hope to overcome the alienation of food, of labor, of embodiment, of land; the conflicts between production and consumption, between pleasure and work; the destructiveness of industrial agriculture; the growing problems of global food scarcity and seed loss. The list of ideals being planted, tended and sometimes harvested is endless, but the questions are simple: What crops are you tending? What do you want to grow? Community? Health? Pleasure? Hope? Justice? Gardens represent the idealism of this moment and its principal pitfall, I think. A garden can be, after all, either the ground you stand on to take on the world or how you retreat from it, and the difference is not always obvious.

Production with Purpose

This second Green Revolution is an attempt to undo the destructive aspects of the first one, to make an organic and intimate agriculture that feeds minds and hearts as well as bodies, that measures intangible qualities as well as quantity. By volume, it produces only a small percentage of this country’s food, but of course its logic isn’t merely volume. The first Green Revolution may have increased yield in many cases, but it also increased alienation and toxicity, and it was efficient only if you ignored its fossil fuel dependency, carbon output and other environmental impacts. It was an industrial revolution for agriculture, and what is happening now is distinctly postindustrial, suspicious of the big and the corporate, interested in the alternatives. This is more than a production project; it’s a reconnection project, which is why it is also an urban one — if we should all be connected to food production, food production should happen everywhere, urban and rural and every topsoil-laden crevice and traffic island in between.

Today, major urban agriculture projects are firmly rooted in Burlington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and dozens of other U.S. cities. Sales of vegetable seeds have skyrocketed across the country. Backyard chickens have become a new norm, and schoolyard gardens have sprung up across the nation. Organic farms and farmers markets have proliferated, and for the first time in many decades the number of farmers is going up instead of down. Though those things can be counted, the transformation of awareness that both produces and is produced by all those things is incalculable.

We think more about food, know more about food, care more about food than we did 20 or 30 years ago. Food has become both an upscale fetish and a poor people’s radical agenda, a transformation of the most intimate everyday practices that cuts across class — though it has yet to include all of us. The inner city is still a food desert: a place where access to decent food, or even to food, is not a given.

Thought of just as a means of producing food, the achievements of urban agriculture may be modest, but as a means of producing understanding, community, social transformation and catalytic action, they may be the opposite. When they’re at their best, urban farms and gardens are a way to change the world. Even if they only produce food — it’s food. And even keeping the model and knowledge of agriculture alive may become crucial to our survival at some later point. Food is now a means by which a lot of people think about economics, scale, justice, pleasure, embodiment, work, health and the future. Gardens can be the territory for staking out the possibility of a better and different way of living, working, eating, and relating to the world.

The rise of chickens, bees and other agrarian phenomena in the city means that cities are now trying to craft ordinances to govern all aspects of food production, from backyard chickens and goats to the slaughter of animals raised for food. In Minneapolis, plastic hoop houses have come up for consideration — though some think of them as an eyesore, others consider them useful occupants of vacant lots. Part of what is at stake is redefining the urban environment: Do we want to see food produced? There are beautiful gardens; there are also compost, manure and other less decorative aspects, including animal butchery.

Nowadays, though a surprising number of young idealists take on the grueling work of running an organic farm in the country, there is no longer such a strong sense of separation, and urban agriculture is what might be newest about this new green revolution. Urban also means that it stays small, for the most part, and that it engages with what cities have, both good and bad. That means, among other things, hunger, health issues, race, poverty and alienation, as well as diverse cultures, lively engagements and cross pollinations.

Growing Community: City Slicker Farms

In 2001, a young woman who’d grown up in the Bay Area’s agrarian Sonoma County decided the abundance of vacant lots and the dearth of decent food sources in impoverished, isolated West Oakland, Calif., had a clear solution. Willow Rosenthal started City Slicker Farms there, a thriving project that started with people and then figured out how to work with the land. Though they farm several leftover and abandoned parcels of land in the neighborhood, their most impressive achievement is setting up residents to become backyard gardeners. They provide soil testing and the materials to get started, share labor at the outset, and then provide two years of technical assistance so that the gardens keep thriving. Local residents donate their under-utilized lots, where staff and volunteers work and where neighbors come by to chat and check out the chickens or the beets. Some of the land has even been set up to create hangout places. The public sites produced more than 7,000 pounds of food in 2013, but the Backyard Garden program produced nearly 30,000 pounds. It’s not feeding the entire community, but it’s modeling the ways such a project could scale up to become a major source of food and a transformation of place.

The food is great, the community relations seem to be thriving, and yet the project faces the same problem so many people in the neighborhood do: money. They have to raise it, there’s never enough, and there’s no self-sufficiency in sight for the staff of eight and the public farms, whose food is sold at farmstands on a sliding scale from free to full price. Because they’re farming skills, hope and community as much as lettuce, there’s no way to put a price on what they produce.

You might say that the Bay Area has these kinds of projects because it’s the Bay Area, and it’s true that the wider community is exceptionally affluent. West Oakland is home to many low-income families who, because of the surrounding wealth, are confronted with rising property costs — which makes access to land exceptionally difficult. City Slicker Farms’ recent acquisition, about 1.4 acres located in the heart of West Oakland, is an attempt to contend with this challenge.

Places such as Philadelphia and, most famously, Detroit have the opposite situation: a fairly dire economy but lots of available land to cultivate. In 2006, when I went to look at Detroit’s post-ruin landscape of agriculture and weedy nature, I was amazed the city even then had 40 square miles of abandoned open space — places where the concrete or asphalt was mostly gone, along with the buildings. The city had a verdant green hole in it nearly the size of San Francisco, and that hole was being filled in a little with community gardens and small farms. The place was, in some profound sense, post-urban. It had the space to do what West Oakland’s farmers dream of: grow a lot of its own food.

Detroit without money and jobs looks like the future that may well eventually arrive for the rest of us, and its recent experiments in urban agriculture were attempts to figure out how to survive. Much of the gardening that is now often educational or idealistic may soon come to meet practical needs in the United States, and given the rising levels of hunger in this country, it’s necessary now. In Detroit, a significant number of people get a meaningful amount of their annual diet from gardens. Clearly there is room to increase this informal do-it-yourself food supply.

The victory gardens model suggests how prolific backyard and urban gardeners can be and how, scaled up, they can become major contributors to feeding a country and to food security. A 2011 study by Sharanbir S. Grewal and Parwinder S. Grewal of Ohio State University envisioned what it would look like for Cleveland — another Rust Belt city with lots of potential green space and lots of hungry people — to feed itself. The most ambitious proposal included 80 percent of every vacant lot, 62 percent of every commercial and industrial roof, and 9 percent of every occupied residential lot, which could provide up to 100 percent of the city’s fresh produce, along with 94 percent of its poultry and eggs, and 100 percent of its honey. It would keep up to $115 million in food dollars in the city, a huge boon to a depressed region.

Clearly what might work in Detroit or Cleveland or Oakland is not so viable in superheated Phoenix or subarctic Anchorage. And then climate change can upset these enterprises as much as it can any agriculture. In 2011, the 46-acre Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vt., was devastated by torrential rain that washed out soil as well as plants. Spring deluges interfered with planting; Hurricane Irene did in many of the fall crops.

In an increasingly uncertain time, what is certain is that agriculture has invaded cities the way that cities have been invading agriculture for the past several centuries, that the reasons for this are as manifold as the results, and that the peculiar postwar affluence is over for most of us, and everything is going to become a little more precarious and a little less abundant. Given these circumstances, urban agriculture has a big future. Another lesson from the victory gardens is, with seeds and sweat equity, a lot can happen quickly: If the need to grow food arises, as it did during World War II, the gardens will come.

Revolutionary Plots

You could argue that vegetable seeds are the seeds of the new revolution. But the garden is an uneasy entity for our time, a way both to address the biggest questions and to duck them. “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks,” famously said the gardener and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack, and in so doing engages the political questions of our time.

But you can’t have a revolution where everyone just abandons the existing system — it’ll just be left to the opportunists and the uncritical. Tending your own garden does not, for example, confront the problem of Monsanto. The corporation that developed genetically modified organisms as a way to promote its pesticides and that is now trying to control seed stock worldwide is a scourge. Planting heirloom seeds is great, but someone has to try to stop Monsanto, and that involves political organizing, sticking your neck out and confrontation. It involves leaving your garden. Which farmers have done — in 2004 the wheat farmers of North Dakota defeated Monsanto’s plans to introduce genetically modified wheat worldwide. But they didn’t do it by planting heirloom organic wheat or talking to school kids about what constitutes beautiful bread or by baking. They did it by organizing, by collective power and by political engagement. The biggest problem of our time requires big, cooperative, international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.

Feeding the hungry is noble work, but figuring out the causes of hunger and confronting them and transforming them directly needs to be done, too. And while urban agriculture seems like a flexible, local way to adapt to the hungry, chaotic world climate change is bringing, we all need to address the root causes directly. Maybe there’s something in the fact that the word “radical” comes from the Latin for “root”; the revolutionary gardener will get at the root causes of our situation, not just cultivate the surface.

Churchill cast gardening and war as opposites because he saw gardening as a retreat into a peaceful, private realm. Our age demands engagement. City Slicker Farms produces it as one of their crops. You could imagine the whole world as a garden, in which case you might want to weed out corporations, compost old divides, and plant hope, subversion and fierce commitments among the heirloom tomatoes and the chard. The main questions will always be: What are your principal crops? And who do they feed?


Writer and historian Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books about the environment, landscape, community, art, politics, hope and the power of stories. This piece was condensed from her article Revolutionary Plots in Orion, July/August 2012.