From Victory Gardens to
Urban Farms on Rooftops
It’s been spreading out like a garden variety weed, from New York to Chicago, Los Angeles to San Francisco. Fueled by growing demand for fresh produce, and funded by an affluent demographics, the phenomenon of urban farming is about to reach critical mass. And despite its new-found well-heeled origin, it does have the potential to improve everyone’s quality of life.
As small entrepreneurs aim at expanding its reach, though, it faces two formidable opponents: the big food corporations, that can still serve you inexpensive produce from half way around the world. And the powerful real estate market in U.S. cities, capable of crushing and ignoring even the crucial housing market shortages with its aim at the upper ends of the income bracket.
Our headline refers, of course, to efforts by the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Germany, to boost domestic production of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, to counterbalance food scarcities during the two world wars of the 20th century. By using private residences and public parks, victory gardens also provided a way for the common citizenry to remain active during the conflicts.
Sixty years after, though, one would be at loss to identify that patriotic push with the modern locavore movement, of which even the term that now defines it was completely unknown at the time. Today, the field may still be dominated by small, hands-on companies, but their level of sophistication and use of technology are completely new.
THE ROOTS OF URBAN FARMING
We hate to use the jargon organic to define the grow of the movement, from small, mostly informal community gardens throughout less than desirable areas of big U.S. cities, since the 1970s, to the current reality of transforming acres of rooftop space into hydroponic farms, catering to surrounding neighbors brought about by gentrification and real estate speculation.
Taking advantage of the exodus of big manufacturing companies from the cities, which started in the late 1960s, which left behind entire blocks of empty buildings, giant skeletons destined to the wrecking ball, a group of mostly young entrepreneurs envisioned a relatively cheap way to retrofit some of them with minimal conditions for growing produce on their rooftops.
At the same time, former office buildings, also abundant in the cities’ undeveloped neighborhoods, were being transformed into high-end residential condominiums, creating an immediate consumer market for the new farms. Despite the economic downturn that started in 2008, the main ideas behind such farms remain feasible because they were conceived in the cheap.
Now, as it transitions from small scale projects, catering mostly to their own surrounding areas, to trying to meet an increased demand from other areas of the city, the phenomenon is also experiencing growing pains. While a few companies seem ready to start operations, it’s difficult to predict how the food industry will react if it ever feels threatened by it.
WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
That’s because it is a given that the industry will flex its considerable muscles, with its billions of dollars available for advertising and its powerful lobbying within the centers of power in the U.S. and Europe. If it boils down to a matter of price, and consumers tend to choose lower costs over higher quality, the urban farm movement has a lot of ground to cover.
One would argue that, with the economy as depressed as it is, rampant unemployment, and a general suspicion that the great majority is being taken for a ride by the upper elites, the conditions would be ripe for a renewed awareness about the conditions food is being produced in this country. Unfortunately, one would be terribly mistaken.
For a growing slice of the U.S. population, for example, the biggest fight is to remain above the poverty line, not that this bush of beets has been organically grown just around the corner, so it may cost a bit more. Pressured by the current conditions, families most likely wouldn’t even consider that a choice; whatever is cheaper is what gets to be sold.
If, on the other hand, the urban farm movement veers, instead, towards the deeper pockets of young, upcoming executives, and the almost archetypical trust-fund NYU hipster, er… student, it may find itself trapped within the inner circles of a movable minority, which would further distance the movement from its origins, and may endanger its long term prospects.
A MAGNATE’S PLAYGROUND
But the biggest challenge that urban farms face is the raging real estate market that dominates pretty much any enterprise in the U.S.’s biggest cities. What urban farms gain for not specifically depending on location, may be eventually wasted if their particular business model proves to be untenable.
Will the obvious demand for better quality produce, and the need to support local producers, be sufficient to sustain the costs with rent, equipment, protection against the elements, labor, taxes, transportation? Feel free to throw in here any additional expenses you may imagine such an enterprise may involve.
Can they create a reliable network of distribution that’s flexible enough to withstand fluctuations in production and types of demand, and unwavering enough not to compromise its original, quasi-moral purpose of selling you a better tomato? Similar challenges doomed many a bright and virtuous initiative, with much less ambition than to plant and sell produce in the cities.
A VIOLENCE DETERRENT
There can be few doubts about a fundamental fact on urban farms, though: they can really be a tool for social integration and, some research show, even to prevent inner city criminality. As it provides a hands-on model of solidarity and working together towards a common goal, many community gardens have been the core of the rebirth and renewal of whole areas of social turmoil in U.S. cities.
A concrete example took place in Philadelphia, in 2000, according to a research conducted by University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Charles Brana. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society took over about 4,000 of the city’s over 50 thousand vacant lots, mowing lands, planting trees and gardens, and erecting fences that served as a deterrent to vandalism.
Within 10 years, the greening of those lots is credited to have helped reduce shooting in the area, in part because such lots had previously been hiding places for guns, but also because as people connected more with each other, they feel empowered to call the police more often, driving crime away from the areas that became the pride of the neighborhood.
As other examples were studied, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begun to look at such greening initiatives as tools for violence prevention.
LAWS & VERTICAL GREENHOUSES
For those who have seen how reluctant cities are to relinquishing control over vacant lots to independent groups, there are good news coming from San Francisco. The city just passed legislation allowing grassroots farming groups to replace barren concrete and forests of weeds on vacant land and rooftops with veggie gardens, chicken coops, and honeybee hives.
If you think that’s no big deal, since the groups will do the hard work of clearing up long abandoned space, with no guarantees of being able to continuing using the space, you have no idea how far they’ve come. In fact, for years, cities like New York and Chicago took pains at dismantling community gardens on vacant lots, even as they failed to build anything in there for years.
New York has several small and medium-sized companies, some already operating out of rooftops in Brooklyn, with plans to grow in the next couple of years. Projects in Los Angeles and Chicago are at various stages of development and, most important, of forming a reliable customer base. Farms in Montreal and other Canadian cities are even further down the production process.
As it’s been mentioned, technology plays a big part in the modern concept of urban farms. Apart from hydroponics, which if it’s not new, it’s starting to have a wider spectrum of applications in the production of food than ever before, there’s innovation coming up the pipeline.
Take a concept being developed by two separate companies in Sweden and France: vertical farming or greenhouse architecture. In the Swedish city of Linköping, a high-tech 17-story, processed-waste fueled, conical glass building, ‘with an internal “transportation helix”,’ will carry potted vegetables on rotating conveyors for maximum sun exposure.
In France, the still in the planning stages Urbanana will create a urban greenhouse specifically designed to store tropical fruits, at the heart of Paris. Its stunning visual depiction masks its stated educational purpose, as it aims at creating ‘a conversation around the relationship between tropical food and their metropolitan destinations.’
NICE BUT WILL IT ALL WORK?
From the apparent simple-mindedness of eating what we’d plant in the backyard garden, to an arresting concept of creating mega-greenhouses at the heart of big cities, it’s all a matter of combining a primeval need for clean, natural, addictive-free food with an affordable system that can safely compete at your local grocery store.
In such a sentence, there are some of the biggest rewards and the biggest challenges to any urban farm project, being a for-profit enterprise, or a community garden making ends meet in some long overlooked inner city area. Time will tell, of course, from which of these courses will come your next meal, if not tomorrow, then possibly next year.
The potential and text-book idealism of such a purpose can be itself daunting, as it may create one too many unfounded expectations. At the same time, mass production of food has long stopped being about making you healthy and providing you with the basic nutrients necessary for a productive life.
The current standards the industry has set are easily geared toward staggering profits, while issues such as food safety, humane conditions of preparation, and protection of natural resources took a back seat in the process. So, any changes that can effectively undermine the monopoly of food production in this and other countries are more than welcome.
It won’t be easy. Aside pharmaceutical companies, no other industry spends more in advertising and political lobbying. Thus it may take way more than a village. But it’s definitely a fight worth fighting. After all, few things are as basic a right of every individual as food and housing; not coincidentally, both are issues that may be challenged by the urban farm movement.