Based on the history of urban agriculture in North America, it would be appear not. Although it has only recently started to make headlines, urban agriculture (UA) has arguably always existed – insofar as humans have engaged in food production in and immediately around their settlements ever since they started to settle. And even UA on a grand scale in North America is nothing new: according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Victory Garden movement during World War II produced – at its peak – an estimated nine to ten million tons of fruits and vegetables (or approximately 40% of the country’s crop) in the twenty-odd million gardens planted in the backyards of Americans. The fact is: UA is well-established in many parts of North America and will most likely remain so – whether or not Detroit becomes the new “garden city” of the 21st century, as suggested recently by a number of observers.
Why then does UA make headlines? As far as I can tell, there are a couple of reasons. First, UA has attracted the attention of both community activists and policy-makers in light of the “food desert” (or more recently, the”food swamp”) debate. Indeed, community groups, foundations and other groups have begun looking to UA as a way to remedy the lack of access to fresh and healthy foods in many inner-city neighborhoods of North America. I was myself involved in researching this very topic for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – and I think it deserves to be discussed more fully in another post, so I won’t get into the details. For but for those interested, here’s the report.
Another reason why UA is attracting so much attention right now is because the traditional (or grassroots) conception of UA is being challenged by a number of corporations (such as Hantz Farms), which are proposing large-scale, for-profit urban agricultural exploitations with often little or no community involvement. Through the interviews I (as well as colleagues of mine) have conducted in Detroit, it is apparent that a number of community organizations that are involved in UA (e.g., the Greening of Detroit, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Earthworks Farm, etc.) see these commercial farms as a potential threat – and more generally as undermining the project of UA as a form of community affirmation.
That said, it seems to me there is a more fundamental issue at stake here, and that is: the cultural contradiction that is inherent in the expression “urban agriculture”. Again, this could be (and should be) the subject of its own essay, but let me summarize my thoughts in the following manner: the “urban” has been culturally defined in the Anglo-American world as “that-which-is-not-rural” (as per the writings of Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Abercrombie, Benton MacKaye, Lewis Mumford and their descendants) and agriculture associated with the “rural life”. The expression “urban agriculture”, therefore, is inherently subversive (much more so than “urban gardening”, for example, which we can more easily conceive of) as it calls into question the very notions of “urban” and “rural”.
Which brings me to the work of an exceptional urban agriculturalist (landscape architect by profession and philosopher by training) in our very own Montreal: Ismaël Hautecoeur. I interviewed Ismaël in the context of my research on UA and child obesity (given his extensive experience with, among other things, rooftop gardening) and he said something which really struck a chord: “we are not really cultivating fruits and vegetables, we are in fact cultivating gardeners”. What he meant by that (I think) was that growing even a small fraction of our own food has the potential to transform not just our diet, but more importantly, our relationship to our own urban environment. And this is why UA might be a key to reintegrating nature (writ large) into our urban lives.