When we think about food and farming, it’s easy to imagine a bucolic setting of rural pastures, far removed from the busy hum and thrum of city life. It’s true that right now most of our food is produced on rural farmland, but does it really make sense to transport all that food to where most of the people are – in cities?
What if cities could feed the world? Growing most of our food locally, within the city, could practically eliminate the cost of transporting food. Fortunately, the success of urban agriculture has already been shown by the nation of Cuba.
In 1989, Cuba was dependent on the Soviet Union for imports of fuel and food. Essentially overnight, they were forced to find a new way to feed themselves. Havana residents took matters into their own hands, planting fruits and vegetables on balconies, empty lots, backyards, and anywhere they could grow something. In just two years, there were gardens and farms in every neighborhood of the city. By 1998, Havana was producing about 50% of the country’s vegetables, without any use of pesticides.
In San Francisco, permaculturists once estimated how much food could be produced by utilizing all of the available backyard, side yard, and front yard space for growing food. It turns out that San Franciscans could produce an estimated 385 million pounds of food a year!
Urban spaces are a prime opportunity for implementing permaculture design. By growing food in our backyards, we can utilize the greywater from our homes and nourish the soil right beneath our feet.
Typically, the greatest barrier to a flourishing urban agriculture is local policies on zoning and commercialism. Recently in San Francisco, legislation was passed to incentivize and streamline urban agriculture projects. There was previously no program to survey and coordinate urban agriculture throughout the city. Oftentimes, urban farmers grow an abundance of food, to the point where they could sell or give away a large portion of their harvest. The questions policymakers are interested in include, at what point does an urban farmer become a commercial entity, and how much traffic is the urban farmer generating? When considering the urban farm as a commercial entity, does it fall into the appropriate zone?
Other cities are not so open to streamlining urban agriculture projects. In New York City, Mayor Giuliani pulled the land from community gardeners for development projects. Fortunately in the end, guerilla gardeners were able to rally the support of their fellow citydwellers and reverse his policies to allow their community gardens to stay for good.
Beyond backyard and community gardens, there are other hidden places where food can grow. In the next part, we’ll talk about vertical gardens and rooftop gardening.