The Farmed City


Pearce also argues that it’s not enough for cities to recycle their waste and design green buildings: they need to farm. Trucking bad-tasting food thousands of miles at the cost of huge amounts of green-house-gas-producing petroleum to your unpleasant local supermarket with the hideous lighting, frigid air, and terrible music–when it could just as well be grown down the street? That is the definition of insanity. 

Urban farms, on the other hand, actually improve the micro-climate. And they make urban life less desperately awful and disconnected from the Prozac called “greenery.”

In centuries past, as New Scientist points out, farming went on close to every city center. Wanna bet the food tasted better than the engineered slop we Americans eat?  Even today, in Shanghai, with an exploding economy, a third of the land within the city center is used for farming. The city pretty much feeds itself, and the farmers who do the growing get rich.

This seems ideal to me for many reasons, and one of them is moral–a form of earth-lover’s morality. In any crowded city in a crowded world, no piece of land should be wasted. It’s just wrong. The old Italians in Brooklyn when I lived there in the 1980’s knew this. They had vegetables gardens in their backyards and even little vineyards.

I cheered when I read that New York Times piece a few years ago about people buying abandoned lots off the tax rolls in Detroit–a failing car-based city if there ever was one–and starting to farm them.

Of course, my own experiments in urban farming in Saratoga Springs, New York have proven to be embarrassing failures. My hens cannibalized each other when confined to their yard. My vegetables were simply stunted by the awful, sandy soil. So now I grow my vegetables in the country and get my country neighbor to give me eggs.

But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t make it work here, if I had to.  Several tons of manure might do my backyard some good.

And in more favorable conditions, i.e. California, where they have that Jack and the Beanstalk magic soil, the people in a group called Path to Freedom feed themselves entirely on a fifth of an acre in urban Pasadena.

The great thing about Path to Freedom is that from the pictures, the garden appears to be rather beautiful. I’d argue that we need to start throwing arugula seeds onto vacant lots and sidewalk strips and into city parks for aesthetic reasons alone.  Forget the planet.  A well-maintained vegetable garden is as lovely as the Louvre any day.


  1. Interesting article and great links!

    Last I looked, “real” gardeners loved all sorts of plants, including rhododendrons, impatiens and juniper – lovely plants, one and all. Real gardeners plant what they love and don’t give two hoots about what self-declared arbiters of taste have decreed to be socially acceptable, whether these arbiters are moved by knee-jerk conformism or knee-jerk anti-conformism.

    Think I’ll go shopping for rhodos and junipers, seeing as I haven’t committed those gardening faux pas yet. I’ve already got liberal sprinklings of yellow flowers which, for some unfathomable reason, tend to enrage garden snobs also.

    Please, spend more time presenting stimulating ideas and less time playing fashion police. You do the first well enough that I keep coming back. You do the second frequently enough that I am tempted almost every time to make it the last.

  2. Janet, you are so right. Used well, any of these plants would be great. They just tend not to be used well in the suburbs with which I’m familiar. And really, if I’m going to have to stop loathing the plants of my suburban youth in order to be fair, well, I’ll just quit blogging and start judging Olympic pairs skating.

    P.S. I love yellow plants and am filling my backyard with them.

  3. LOL! You go ahead and loathe any plant you like. I’ve got a fairly long list myself. Just don’t throw the words “real gardener” in with them, and I’ll behave and keep quiet.

    I personally can’t stand green flowers, half the new echinaceas and any clematis that is trying to resemble a pompom, but I know lots of real gardeners who love them. Of course, their taste isn’t as exquisite as mine… ;o)

  4. Janet, I was falling asleep last night thinking of your comment and wondering where I went wrong. It was that obnoxious phrase “real gardeners” that did it–turned my list of most hated plants into a fashion judgment. And I am NOT a fashion critic!

    Real gardeners use any damned plant they like.

  5. Sorry, Michele, not trying to keep you up at night for sure.

    The “you” was plural, by the way. It is one of the unfortunate short-comings of the English language that we can’t make that clear without a lot of contortions.

    Shall we switch to French?

    Au plaisir…

  6. I live within a city proper, but it’s kind of like a suburban street, each house with its own lot, so there is plenty of room for gardens.

    One problem with veggie gardening in a city is soil contamination. When we first moved in I had a soil test run by the state university, and got an eyebrow-raising report: lead levels so high that if we had the soil trucked off-site we’d have to have it registered as hazardous waste. In times past, our street was part of a tannery complex, and the houses are old so there was plenty of lead paint, and as my partner pointed out, probably even lawnmower exhaust contributed to lead accumulation.

    Long story short, we’ve decided not to grow vegetables in the ground here, and you have to wonder about pollution levels in soil, potential plant uptake of heavy metals, and human ingestion, in any city vegetable plot.

    There is sketchy data about lead uptake in vegetables (the most I could find were cautions not to grow root crops), but there is an ongoing project in our city confines experimenting with removing lead from soil with certain plants.

    That, however, only begs the question, what happens to the plant material afterward? You can’t eat it or compost it, because the lead just goes back into the cycle again.

    I couldn’t find any information about how the university researchers intended to deal with that.

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