Saturday April 19, 2014 Full Website »

Wanted: More Practical Discussions of Urban Farming

Just months after celebrating their success in getting their city to change its zoning laws to allow for urban agriculture, two young city farmers learned the land they'd been leasing had been sold. They also began to come to grips with the reality that together, they'd earned about $15,000. (Yes, $7,500 a person--for the entire year). So they wonder, what to do next?

Their plight is far from uncommon in the oft-celebrated world of urban agriculture, which is why I was left wanting more from the otherwise impressive new book, Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture. The book, which began as a traveling exhibition, argues that, in the past few decades, urban agriculture has advanced from being a brainiac futurist concept to a fertile plan for real-world solutions. It showcases 40 projects, with the aim of demonstrating how the production of food can lead to "visually striking and artistically interesting solutions that create community and provide inhabitants with immediate access to fresh, healthful ingredients." In so doing, Carrot City follows a general trend of considering urban ag as a design issue rather than an economic/government/agriculture one.

Some challenges that Carrot City might have explored further include the not-too-distant-future fate of those featured vacant lots, under-utilized rooftops, and other temporary homes that have been made available to aspiring aggies. It's that pesky question of economic viability: few farmers are making a killing these days, but do urban farmers have even a hope of maintaining livelihoods within the urban core? What's the right business model for urban agriculture? Should you sell to restaurants? Create CSAs? If you've secured land, how secure are you there? (aka What happens when the the owner wants his or her land back?)

In his smart and cleverly titled review ("Carrot City: Design's New Schtick") at Design Observer, design critic John Thackara rightly points out that 1) fascination with gardens in the city has been around for a century or more, waxing and waning in popularity over the decades; 2) policy is as important as design vision, the latter point not made often enough in the almost overwhelmingly positive media representations of the topic. Much of urban agriculture's successes owe a debt to the recession: As Thackara writes, farming in the city is "emerging from necessity, not from the studios of cerebral architects." Design and architecture no doubt make urban agriculture more appealing, but practitioners and would-be carrot cultivators need to focus on more than community creation. Growing things can be environmentally sustainable, but even the most gloriously designed living walls and verdant roof tops need to be as pragmatic as they are aesthetic.

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

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