Urban Agriculture

Gardening of edible plants occurs in many different circumstances. Home gardening will be most familiar to most people, including gardeners of edibles, gardeners of ornamental plants and those rare people who don’t garden at all.

Next most familiar might be farming. Residents of the Monterey Bay area will at least drive by acres of many kinds of edible plants, and a significant number of our neighbors have spent time in the fields.

Then we have community gardens. Some fortunate people have direct experience with managing a small allotment of space within a community garden, to grow a personal preference of vegetables or, in some cases, ornamental plants. These small parcels often are borrowed spaces within urban surroundings, making good but temporary uses of the soil for a few people to enjoy the cultivation of plants and benefit from bringing the produce to their own tables or the tables of friends.

Too often, we hear about such gardens in our communities when the landowner decides to build on the land and requires the gardeners to abandon the soil they have been improving, perhaps for years.

My early exposure to such events was in Berkeley, in May of 1969. During a work-related visit to that city, in a multistory building with oversight of what was called the People’s Park, I observed a confrontation between armed police officials and peaceful people who wanted to maintain their occupancy of a small parcel of land. Using helicopters and tear gas, the officials won that day, but today, part of that parcel contains community gardens. This history perhaps demonstrates the dedication and persistence of gardeners.

A more organized approach to making productive use of otherwise idle urban lands is being demonstrated in Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority recently awarded substantial grants to community organizations for projects with goals in selected areas:

  • Environmental Stewardship and Restoration
  • Parks, Trails, and Public Access
  • Environmental Education
  • Urban Agriculture/Food Systems

This program represents a positive move toward protecting the natural environment and humanizing the urban environment.

Some communities have adopted policies to encourage and support community gardens. Good examples can be found in the western cities of Washington and Oregon. In many areas, however, community gardens are authorized and managed ad hoc, without a long-term perspective. The status of local ordinances in the Monterey Bay area would be an interesting study.

Street Farm coverA recent book inspires interest in a constructive approach to community gardens. The book is Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, by Michael Abelman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016. 239 pages).

In this book, Abelman describes his several years of developing small farms (up to two acres) in urban areas in California and Vancouver, Canada. He and his colleagues managed to gain access to underutilized parcels in urban areas, often after considerable effort to secure permissions and meet local ordinances. The parcels typically were either paved parking lot or contaminated land, so these prospective farmers constructed raised beds to make agriculture possible.

Raised-bed gardening is a better strategy than attempting to improve native soils with an excess of clay or sand.

Abelman approached his street farming adventures by assembling crews of workers from the community’s homeless populations, including people who were distressed for various reasons. In this respect, his projects have a constructive social purpose as well as the goal of producing organic food of good quality for sale. Their sales were typically through farmers markets, but have also included direct sales to restaurants, including Alice Waters’ the highly regarded Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Abelman’s operating model generated enough income to pay his workers and meet the day-to-day expenses of urban farming. It also produced good will for the cooperating landowners and demonstrated the value of the persistent pursuit of a creative vision. Street Farm includes impressive photographs of highly productive farms in urban settings.

The stories in Street Farm culminate in Abelman’s “Urban Food Manifesto,” in which he expresses his visions, both “radical and terribly obvious,” of how we feed ourselves. He offers good and solid ideas that could be pursued in every community.

This book brings to mind Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, which will be a future topic.

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