Is Urban Agriculture Utopian?
“Urban agriculture is a phenomenon today,” said Farham Karim, an architectural historian at the University of Kansas, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Upwards of 70 million people are now involved around the globe — on Farmville, at least, the popular game app, he laughed. But, in reality, there are many millions involved in it on the ground, too. With all the growing interest, Karim played devil’s advocate, wondering: is urban agriculture scalable? And who is going to be doing all this urban farming? And if we know it’s not a realistic solution for solving the world’s food problems, why the persistent interest?
Food and urban life have been deeply intertwined ever since humans moved into settlements. In the modern era, there have been new conceptions of the relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his Broad Acre concept, with a “vast suburban landscape” that would be farmed. During World War II, urban agriculture actually took off, as “food production contributed to the wartime food supply.”
In different eras, there have also been “communal self-sufficiency movements.” Karim traced those all the way to contemporary artist and activist Fritz Haeg and his Edible Estate project, which aims to “attack the front lawn,” turning it from a useless, decorative object into a productive, agricultural space. Karim said new activists like Haeg “want us all to come together to toil the land.” They seeing gardening in urban areas as a way to “empower social groups and create a strong sense of community” in an age when nature and culture seem in opposition. But Karim also argued Haeg and others promote urban gardens for social benefits are really just like the 20th century avante-garde, creating “idealized prototypes.” Can we go beyond these and create a “useful model for urban agriculture?”
The central plank of Karim’s critique of urban agriculture is that in its promotion, it “mystifies human labor.” Urban agriculture in reality is “sweaty, painful labor.” Engaging human labor in cities over the long-term to farm is not easy, practical, or cost-effective. “Who is going to maintain these farms — a marginalized population? The working poor don’t have time.” Karim concluded that urban agriculture, at least in the West, is for the middle class who volunteer because they have time. It’s a luxury many can’t afford.
Many of Karim’s arguments are contradicted in a fascinating new book, Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up by Carey Clouse. She argues that Cuba’s unique model of urban agriculture may provide lessons for the rest of us. “Alternative models for self-sufficiency demand our attention” given that “ending the era of cheap oil threatens global food security” and current industrial food practices.
After the U.S. began its embargo against Cuba and the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 1980s, leaving Cuba without any trading partners, the country initiated a massive campaign to turn cities into places for not only living and working but also producing food. “In the face of resource scarcity, Cubans responded by rethinking land use, implementing organic farming practices, and developing low-input agricultural systems, and honing techniques for independence on an island without oil.” By 2002, some 86,450 acres of urban Cuban land was being farmed, creating 3.2 million tons of food. In Havana alone, some 12 percent of the city was being cultivated, with 22,000 urban and suburban producers at work.
All that local food production has not only created calories but also boosted resilience, largely because the system is so decentralized. “This is a ground-up movement in which growers have the power to choose the food they produce, the seeds they save, and the land they cultivate, and consumers gain increased control over the quantity and quality of food access.” And all that local control has also increased “social and civic engagement.”
The system of socialist self-sufficiency extends into all aspects of Cuban urban food production. Farmers are using animal traction, organic soil amendments, biological pest control, and “biofertilizers” or “biopesticides,” which are microbial formulations nontoxic to humans.
Clouse does a great job of explaining to the reader all the different farming types, bringing the diversity of the system to life through these clever diagrams. For each type of farm, we learn the spanish and english names, the average size of these places, their prevalence, the products they create, the materials they are made of, and the kinds of people who farm them.
Clouse explains that “Cubans hail urban agriculture as a boon for community, occasionally in all too-idealistic terms.” But the reality on the ground, all that “sweaty, painful labor” Karim spoke about, doesn’t come through in this book at all.