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.

| April/May 2015

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.

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