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How cities can embrace urban agriculture and weaken the grip of 'big food'

Many city governments around the world are encouraging agriculture in urban areas--so long as it stays small scale and doesn't challenge the status quo. Mike Duff argues that cities must learn to embrace 'urban ag' social movements as a way to engage citizens in shaping their own cities, and encourage these movements to scale up to reduce the power of 'big food' businesses to subvert planning processes. The key challenge will be regulation--cities should create a new land use designation entitled 'urban agricultural use' to accommodate a healthy balance between urban lifestyles and urban farming.

Mike Duff

Cities: Detroit, New York-Newark

Topics: Land, Property and real estate, Community organisation, Food and agriculture

Honey from Hackney or Philadelphia, tomatoes from Brooklyn or Queens — on both sides of the Atlantic, growing one's own, and doing so locally, is becoming part of the zeitgeist. And with increasing media coverage of an impending food crisis, it seems impossible to ignore.

City managers are increasingly looking for ways to understand it — both from a regulation perspective, but equally to determine what is needed to foster and support these activities.

The rationale for supporting agriculture within cities isn't immediately obvious — it isn't prominent in modern cities, nor has it ever really been typical, to have food production within urban areas. In many ways, being surrounded by agricultural fields was always a sign that one had ventured outside the city limits — it was a defining non-urban factor.

Allotments in England, Schrebergarten in Germany, OrganopĆ³nicos in Cuba, community gardens in the US, are all planner-recognised urban agricultural land uses, and illustrate that food production in cities is not unheard of. It would seem that as long as urban food remains within a small-to-medium physical scale, and essentially non-commercial (or at least "social" in its degree of commerciality), it can successfully pass within current urban regulations. For the most part, these current methods of deploying agriculture within cities imply that it plays a complementary or additional role to other food sources such as grocery stores and markets, and that it makes efficient use of small parcels of land without being land-hungry.

Essentially, urban agriculture is non-threatening to the status quo in its current formats. It is generally argued that it is incapable of producing food at costs which compete with 'big food' (or industrial food). Research is now showing, however, that the elimination of transport costs through local growing, and the design of rooftop greenhouses that are 'parasitic' (i.e. that harvest waste energy from their host buildings) such as the Bronx tomatoes to be grown this year, can bring this produce well within, and indeed under, supermarket prices.

And what is to say that a little scale is not what is lacking to bring locally-grown urban produce within the supermarket price point? The Cuban OrganopĆ³nicos also offer an (admittedly non-capitalist) model which has proven affordable to thousands.

It is interesting therefore to see an example of an American city, at the centre of a complicated battle over urban agriculture. Detroit, a city formerly known for its auto industry and musical heritage, and more recently for its suffering at the hands of our current recession and a crash in the car industry, is a hot bed of urban agriculture and 'urban ag'-related discussion at present.

As Motor City has been shrinking, more and more land has become available, either for free or at rock-bottom prices, and used by those residents who remain, as land for growing crops. Detroiters are a hardy bunch, and many who could leave the city still remain, and those who can't leave their financially underwater properties are often the voices and energy behind these projects. At present there are almost 900 community garden projects across the city.

An interesting pastime, these are also a critical food-growing resource for a city where, increasingly, the 'big shed' food sellers have moved out as population densities wane, leaving the local liquor store one of the only places to buy food — if you can call it that.

Accommodating urban agriculture

While on the one side, these urban agricultural projects are finding favour and support with the city, for their economic, aesthetic, social, educational. health and open-space related benefits, the city is also faced with a number of dilemmas.

Most importantly, how to regulate them? As more and more land becomes available, and prices continue to languish, larger urban agricultural projects become more viable. Is there a limit to how big one of these projects can be? Are there regulations regarding what can be practised on the site — can one keep cows, chickens, bees, horses, for example? Is an abattoir urban agriculture? Or a battery farm? The City of Detroit is confronted with a need to develop a strategy regarding these issues.

At the same time, machinations regarding the State's 'Right to Farm Act' have the city worried that if they begin to redesignate land within the city limits as 'agricultural' their influence over these tracts will be diluted, and their fiscal entitlement to tax the land may be at risk. It may also open up the land to agricultural uses which are anti-urban, either in scale or other impacts. It seems that a hybrid land use designation called 'urban agricultural uses' is what is required here — one which thinks about urban food production across the myriad sectors in which it operates.

While this debate rumbles on, a certain John Hantz pushes ahead on the Hantz Farm project, with his own money. Hantz seeks to buy up substantial tracts of land at current market prices, to take his large scale projects forward. Hantz' project, from some imagery is reminiscent of Dickson Despommier's Vertical Farm research being undertaken at Columbia University, deployed at an urban scale.

But it is important to note that it is being taken forward in the aforementioned grey regulatory environment. While the project will create jobs, and will bring dollars to a city in dire need of them, it might not, at least initially, bring the kind of agriculture that Detroiters expect. It is anticipated that most of the first few years of growth will be "forestry products" — Christmas trees, that is, and the byproducts which can be made and sold from these pine trees. Not surprisingly, the ideological conflict between those behind the community garden movement, and these larger, more commercial operations attempting to literally gain ground in Detroit, rages.

It often feels that our modern cities, and even our modern urban sustainability work, leaves food production by the wayside. We are grateful to 'big shed' food retailers for feeding us, and are therefore somewhat comfortable with the likes of Tesco, for example, having the largest property portfolio in the United Kingdom, capable of holding city planning authorities to ransom.

It must be said though, that despite the economic barriers created by big supermarkets and the industrial food chain which supports them, urban agriculture is clearly happily flourishing at the small to medium scale. Increasingly, as the business modelling work behind the New York schemes show (the Bronx and Columbia University above), it is becoming possible to compete with big food, producing organic, transport-free, cross-seasonal produce, within the most urban of places. So much adversity has done the urban agricultural movement well, it would seem, as it has given it lofty ambition. It is now that the interesting bit must happen — the success of such products will inevitably push these projects to upscale, and cities must be ready, and accommodating.

The energy and social capital behind such projects, which is increasingly 'movement-esque', is an incredible asset which even the most top-down of city legislators must acknowledge is worth supporting. Detroit is a fantastic example — where Mayor Bing has employed a team of designers (including my company) to 're-imagine' the city, in part, by auditing the bottom-up initiatives underway there, and bringing these together, into the city's future planning, by contributing strategic direction. Detroit acknowledges that it needs to get ready to accommodate urban agriculture at a larger scale.

Engaging urbanites in shaping our cities

Food, and therefore urban agriculture, is a particularly powerful tool to get urbanites engaged in shaping their cities. For a start, it is common to everyone — we all eat. On top of that, it is social — we socialise our children around the dinner table, celebrate achievements over nice meals, feel good, worse, bad or better from eating; it is economic — we spend our cash on food, and its growth, processing, delivery marketing and retailing creates jobs, and it is 'big business'; and it is environmental — it shapes our landscapes, organises our open spaces, forms habitats, provides ecosystem services, shapes our cities, creates and absorbs pollution whilst demanding and supplying resources.

Seen like this, food can not only be a lens into how we live, but a way for those involved in it to shape our inhabitation directly. The usurpation of the majority of our food chains by 'big food' — companies like Monsanto, who patent seeds and force farmers to buy new each year; Cargill, whose stranglehold with three other companies on US grain markets means they almost set prices; and Tesco, whose retained large bank could accommodate 145 more mega-stores and gives them leverage over city planners — suddenly seems ludicrous, if not dangerous.

Why should these companies stand between citizens, and their right to shape their cities and lives? If we choose to break bread with our neighbours, why should an essentially social transaction line the pockets of these companies? The truth of the matter is, they are so big, in numbers, in assets and in geographic scale, they are almost beyond control. They are certainly beyond the reaches of city-level legislators. It would appear we have quietly stood by as one of our fundamental human needs has become an energy-intensive, polluting and unhealthy cash cow, delivering profits to a select few.

While it must be said that a sustainable food system, for a growing population will be diverse in sourcing, and therefore include 'big food', the environmental, social and economic impact of this industrial food chain must mean that they cannot be our sole provider. We would not, as city designers, have developed city road networks without petrol stations to fuel our vehicles — why is it that we think it is sensible to have cities which don't produce fuel for our people? It is not!

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