Urban Farming: A Return to the City’s Essence

Walk the city streets and your eyes are always drawn up, up to the steel piercing the sky, to the towers approaching but never grasping the clouds, never fully consuming the nature from which they’ve taken so much. Down the avenue is a concrete canyon of artificial darkness, miles upon miles of busy feet and wheels, smaller and smaller in the distance, fading into obscurity in the shadow of behemoths.

Walk the city streets and start looking down now, pause and consider the layers of the city, the layers of life: outer shell and inner essence. The land from which the towers rise can do more than just provide a sturdy foundation for our fantasies of always bigger and forever sleeker and more modern.

It is not that long ago that the land beneath the skyscrapers gave physical and spiritual sustenance to cities, even to New York City. As recently as the mid- to late-19th century, much of Manhattan’s fertile land was still divided up into private farmland estates. The city planners who began to dream up and draw the orderly grid of modern Manhattan in 1811 had to take those parcels of land into account in their plans, and ultimately the grid came at a large cost: it disconnected most New Yorkers from their food source, left them disjointed and disengaged, neglectful of humanity’s birthright of healthy, fertile soil. The birthright does not come without conditions and caveats: to sustain life, soil must be nurtured with care, not exploited and abused, and certainly not trampled on by concrete and steel. The city today is a place of linear and vertical expansion, no longer of cyclical nourishment of human and soil. To see what the city used to be, check out The Museum of the City of New York, which currently has an exhibit of drawings and photographs of New York City as farmland in the mid- to late-19th century, and which also contains plans for the Manhattan grid drawn up early in the century.

In recent years, maybe as a result of tough economic times, maybe as a result of the growing local, organic food movement, or maybe as a result of some expanding consciousness which we cannot see but can only feel coursing through us and returning us to our roots, there has been increasing interest in growing food in the urban context. In “Land Spreading Out, but Not So Far and Wide,” The New York Times discusses the growing popularity of continuing education agriculture courses offered by universities to people interested in small-scale urban farming. Universities have been pressed by popular demand to offer courses for beginning urban farmers especially, as opposed to the traditional extension department courses offered to rural farmers looking to improve their crops.

In a key passage relating to the economic viability of this trend, a program coordinator “gives better odds to those who hope to supplement their income while holding onto their day jobs.” At the same time, in “Rooftop Farms to Expand in Queens and Brooklyn,” The New York Daily News reports on the plans of three rooftop growing operations in New York City — Gotham Greens, BrightFarms, and Brooklyn Grange — to expand in the near future. Implicit in their expansion is the concurrent expansion of career opportunities in urban farming (without the need to maintain previously-held day jobs).

Urban farming returns a city to its essence. It reconnects city dwellers to their food source. It empowers the local community, increasing its self-sufficiency by reducing its dependance on the corporate food supply. It beautifies rooftops and empty, neglected lots. It certainly makes for a spiritually fulfilling, socially conscious avocation.

But one question remains: does urban farming create jobs? If it does, then it will stand a much better chance at being a long-term healthy, sustainable, empowering alternative to the corporate food system that is doing so much damage to our soil, our environment and our health.

                                                                      Brooklyn Grange
6 Responses to “Urban Farming: A Return to the City’s Essence”
  1. Arvind Dilawar says:

    Great point about New York returning to its agricultural roots, but what can regular New Yorkers, those who aren’t taking classes and aren’t part of rooftop growing operations, do to push this trend and benefit from it themselves?

    • ehimmel says:

      That’s a good question. Every time we eat, we have a chance to choose the healthier, more sustainable path. Three times every day we can buy organic, we can avoid the processed foods, we can use our dollars to vote for the better options. We can all support local food producers by shopping at Greenmarkets. We can grow food on a very small scale — on a rooftop, a windowsill, a front yard — for not a whole lot of money. We can petition for GMO labeling. Basically, all the small steps will eventually add up to a powerful shift in the system. For simple, practical ways to act on your ideals, also check out Nourish: http://www.nourishlife.org/act/be-the-difference/

  2. As always Mr. Skycolor, your words are notes that play on the strings that make the soul sing. Thank you for connecting the world to metaphor, beauty, and possibility.

    I think you’re right on when you say that “[Urban Farming] reconnects city dwellers to their food source.” However I don’t see that the presence of an urban farm NECESSARILY leads to an empowered community less dependent on the corporate food supply.

    But there is a truth I feel we’re circling at which you’re observation hints. Urban Farming holds the potential to empower a community. But is it Urban Farming that is the key component to reduce dependence on our corporate food supply or is it empowered community that makes the conscious decision to build the infrastructure for a new paradigm starting with the food that goes into their bodies?

    I’m beginning to think that beginning with community is the trigger that makes the urban farm’s presence and financial viability more robust.

    And somewhere in there is the answer to the jobs question. Urban Farms may be able to provide jobs. Urban farms connected to alternative economic ownership models may be able to provide more jobs for longer. I think that is the next crucial step in the urban agriculture movement. If we’re going to replace our current paradigm we’re going to have to build the alternative paradigm. Alternative economic ownership models necessarily do this.

    Returning to our essence, remembering we are each other, we care for our communal needs in order to meet our personal needs.

    • ehimmel says:

      You’re making some great points here, and I agree completely. The community that we seek to create extends beyond the fences of the garden. It therefore requires that many other elements — both tangible and intangible — exist and work in concert with the garden in order to truly empower that community. And it probably does start where you say, with the strong sense of community first, with a certain mindset or infrastructure already in place or developing. Also I really dig the last line of your response; very nice sentiment in there.

  3. Howie Lippman says:

    Eric- You got the passion.

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