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Food and the city - Urban agriculture and the new food revolution

Food and the city

By Jennifer Cockrall-King
Published by Prometheus Books
Website: www.prometheusbooks.com
2012, 372pp, ISBN 978 1 61614 458 6 (Pb), US$21

Urban agriculture, growing food and even rearing livestock within cities, is a fast-growing phenomenon. Most widely publicised have been the experiences of developing economies, where rapid urbanisation is most evident: from dovecotes and beehives on the rooftops of Cairo and fruit and vegetables on the roofs of Dacca, Bangladesh, to tyre gardens in the Caribbean and vegetable plots in the 'townships' of Johannesburg, city dwellers are striving for a degree of self-sufficiency in their food supply. Food and the city, however, is about urban agriculture experience in more affluent economies, where urbanisation and poverty are also evident - Canada, France, UK, US and Cuba, where arguably urban agriculture saved the country from starvation in the 1990s when Cuba lost its main trading partner, the Soviet Union.

Introductory chapters critique the modern food industry, dominated by mega-farms and a handful of multinational organisations that supply the ubiquitous super stores, which have displaced the small independent food retailers. Local and regional produce has been replaced with globally sourced supplies delivered on a 'just-in-time' basis, adding carbon-heavy food-miles, and dependent on transport, whose failure for any reason would leave only three days food supply on market shelves. It is to counter all these losses and risks that urban agriculture is having a renaissance. Focusing on Paris, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Cuba, the author's first-hand reports describe a diverse range of urban agriculture projects that have both provided significant food production, often for the most needy, and also community-based action that has helped heal suspicions and divisions based on race, colour and income.

The author saw for herself how, following the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, one fractured community was helped to heal through a community garden, using the extensive agricultural experience of recently arrived Latinos to transform "a blighted eyesore into an incredibly lush and productive fourteen-acre oasis." In Detroit, "the most impoverished city in the nation" where population decline has left empty lots in abundance, "urban agriculture has taken off, including 500 gardens where all produce is free to the community." Vancouver is where SPIN (Small Plot Intensive Farming) has taken hold among the most ethnically diverse population in Canada, while in Toronto the YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Backyard) garden-sharing programme connects people who want to grow food with those who have the space. Paris has drawn on a long tradition of urban agriculture dating to the early 19th century, community gardens producing vegetables and, of course, wine. In London the vast construction site around the major rail termini of Kings Cross and St Pancras has spawned the Skip Garden, utilising the large metal construction rubbish bins or skips to grow crops and fruit trees. A youth-based organisation, Global Generation, "maintains the Skip Garden and runs the educational programs…around 400 kids a year attend the programs…getting hands-on experience with planting, looking after and harvesting food." This is just one initiative in addition to London's existing 30,000 allotments or community gardens, which are due to be increased by 2012 in time for the Olympics.

The book may appear to be written for a 'Northern' readership but has much to inspire those living or working in the 'South', especially the chapter on Cuba, where the author visited twice and was amazed by the productivity of its organoponicos: "These astonishingly productive food gardens, often growing in little more than a foot (30cm) of soil in raised beds over concrete, opened my eyes to just how much food could be produced in a city when people really put their minds to it." And not just in Havana, but in many Cuban cities and towns.

The common denominator to the stories in this book are that almost all started through the vision and efforts of individuals. One such is Will Allen, son of an Afro-American sharecropper and sometime basketball star, who is the founder and CEO of Growing Power in Milwaukee. Using worms to recycle waste from city restaurants, Growing Power now supplies them with fresh greens, goats cheese, eggs, and fish from aquaponic ponds. Compost piled against the sides of hoop houses (plastic tunnels) keeps up the temperature, enabling year-round production despite the harsh winter conditions of the American mid-west.

Food and the city offers practical lessons and inspiration to both would-be practitioners of urban agriculture and for policymakers and planners confronted by rapid urbanisation and the challenge of food supply to inner-city millions, who are now all too often unemployed and far removed from food producing rural areas. A book burgeoning with ideas and optimism.

Date published: July 2012

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