- Posted By: Rose Hayden-Smith
- Written by: Rose Hayden-Smith
Yesterday, I moderated a panel on urban agriculture at the annual meeting of the California Planning Association, which was held in Santa Barbara. The room was packed: urban agriculture is a hot topic these days. Micro-farms, backyard chickens, bee keeping, raw food markets all present challenges – and opportunities - for planners and communities. In our discussions yesterday, the idea of “scale” and definition came up frequently. The consensus of the panel? Within urban areas, urban agriculture should encompass everything from backyard gardens to commercial agricultural operations.
In practice, urban agriculture has been a persistent and organized activity in urban areas for well over a century. And one could argue that places like The Common in Boston make “urban” agriculture” an even older model. Farming on the urban fringe has long been a feature of American life. Farmers markets are not a new feature of American life; they represent one of the oldest models of food distribution…from farmer direct to consumer.
The Panic of 1893, an economic downturn that brought distress to both urban and rural populations, was particularly difficult on Americans; there were few social safety nets for the poor and destitute. (Programs like Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – came much, much later). The Panic of 1893 created a dangerous social climate in America, particularly in urban areas teeming with unemployed factory workers. The crisis brought to the fore a model of relief gardening that quickly took hold across the United States. The “Potato Patch Farms” model, also called the “Detroit Experiment,” emerged under the leadership of Detroit’s mayor, Hazen Pingree. Pingree’s model connected hundreds of acres of vacant land in Detroit with unemployed workers and their families, who were provided with the materials, tools and education to garden the unused land. This was done in a systematic fashion. Pingree’s idea of ethical relief was met with strong resistance from many who believed that the unemployed – many of them immigrants – were too lazy to work. Skeptics, of course, were wrong: 3,000 families applied for the 975 allotments available the first year of the program (1894). The program grew during the next two seasons (1,546 families participated in 1895, 1,701 families gardened in 1896).
The city’s agricultural committee kept records of the investments made into the program and the value of crops harvested. In 1896, the value of food produced in Detroit’s potato patches was greater than the money provided to needy citizens by the “poor commission.”
The idea quickly spread to other urban areas: New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle were among the nineteen cities sponsoring vacant lot projects on some scale according to an 1898 report. The model Pingree developed in Detroit was particularly innovative and visionary for its time; by the early 1900s, there was a national vacant lot cultivation organization that encouraged urban agriculture and city garden. These programs clearly provided a rationale for the cultivation of vacant lots – “slacker land” - during the Liberty/Victory Garden effort in World War I.
To this historian, today’s economic climate feels quite a lot like 1893. And urban agriculture is once again coming to the fore as a viable, necessary and welcome addition to the food landscape. Detroit and many, many other urban areas, faced with issues created by depopulation, high unemployment, food deserts and other enormous challenges, are again looking at urban agriculture to provide solutions. I applaud the dozens of planning professionals who attended this session, engaging in iterative discussions with panelists and other participants. They will play a vital role in creating public policies that support healthy and resilient food systems in our communities, and which acknowledge that increasingly, communities want explicit connections with their food.
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
I’ve been pondering a lot the last three weeks, trying to think outside the box, and trying to proceed as if there is no box at all. Two weeks of conferences in a row, one the Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Conference, the second sponsored by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Very different conferences, but a common theme: Food Systems All the Time.
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
The Verde Partnership Garden is located on the campus of Verde Elementary School in North Richmond. It is a true partnership: both a school and community garden project. It's one of the loveliest gardens I've ever seen.
The project's coordinator is Cassie Scott. A gentle and wise woman, she shared some of the garden's history with me.
The Verde Partnership Garden project serves an extremely low income North Richmond neighborhood that despite its poverty, is rich in diversity and a sense of community. Like many urban areas in America today, North Richmond is poor. Per some statistics, ninety-seven percent of North Richmond families are eligible for public assistance, and the average family income is below $21,000 per year.
More than a decade ago, the area where the market garden now resides was a trash-strewn field behind the school. Richmond has a large population of Laotian refugees. A number of those Laotian refugee mothers - many formerly subsistence farmers from the Mien group - appeared one day and began quietly working. They sought no public permit. They saw a need, and they filled it.
Within three days, these women had claimed unloved and unused public space in the center of their community - the school where their children attended - and turned that space into 25 family garden plots. They hand-tilled each one, and in so doing, transformed a school. One of the school's employees, a child therapy intern with a background in organic gardening, was inspired by their work, and in the adjacent area, cultivated a small children's garden. Several organizations also became involved in the effort, including Catholic Charities. So began the Verde Partnership Garden.
This garden grows healthy children along with healthy food. It serves the school as an outdoor laboratory that brings classroom learning to life. It has distinct areas that encourage nature study and human interaction. Using the garden as its center, teachers and community volunteers teach cooking, nutrition, job readiness, literacy and leadership classes. The garden is a wonderland for children, providing areas of exploration, study, and contemplation.
The original field portion cultivated by a generation of immigrants eager to put down literal (and figurative) roots in the community, has now become a production-oriented garden, a student-run business. It provides food for the community, rolling into the larger effort of the 5% Local Coalition's work to produce and consume 5% of Richmond's food locally. It demonstrates the potential of urban agriculture to produce meaningful quanitities of food for local communities.
The garden may be helping Verde Elementary School in other important ways. The school placed last in statewide academic testing in 1999, the year when the garden programs began. Since then, per some statistics, Verde Elementary School’s test scores have increased at the fastest rate of any school in the state. The school also serves as a place to teach peace and cooperation among diverse groups of students. I visited the garden twice, and each time, there were community volunteers there supporting the work, busy students, and just an overwhelming sense of peace, purpose, and deep community.
There are statistics, and then there are the things that defy quantitative analysis. A shady nook to read a book, plants to touch and smell, an area for pollinators...and a place for school and community to come together.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."