Sunday, October 28, 2007

URBAN FARMING: Community gardens and neighborhood agriculture

Urbanism is not just about city form. It also involves the understanding of our human choices, the healthy ecology of our urban and rural environments, and the creation of thriving communities -where sustainability and the production of prosperity and excessive renewable sources can be shared by all of us. Food production is inherently tied to the short and long-term economic, social, and environmental health of the cities where we live and, consequently, it is a matter of urbanism and design.

Unfortunately, our basic understanding of how our food is grown and processed, how far it travels, and what happens on its way to our dinning tables seems to be irreparably lost. In the middle of December, in New York or Houston, we may walk into any supermarket and buy avocados, ripe peaches, or cherries. It has happened for so long, that nobody questions their primordial base anymore. Avocados, peaches or cherries travel approximately 1,500 miles between their point of production and the typical American dining table. Psychologically, it seems to be that if we can buy them anywhere, they may also come from nowhere. But, in true mindfulness, those avocados, ripe peaches or cherries represent the entrepreneurial idea of a foreign agribusiness owner, wages from foreign workers who produced them, tons of chemicals to preserve and keep them intact, lots of packaging crates and boxes, and gallons of fossil fuels from the planes and trucks that delivered them; and most importantly, in this lengthy process, freshness and taste are usually sacrificed.

There are a lot of reasons to be grateful for our locally grown food: it is fresher, tastes better, more nutritional, cheaper, and has skipped all of the processing stages endangering our global environment. But, what can we do to reverse this trend? How can we participate in the production of local food?

Despite the fact that most urban farming is still an illegal activity in many American cities, the production of herbs, vegetables, soft fruits and flowers is slowly becoming the metropolitan panacea of this century. Urban farming is gaining widespread acceptance and it is being manifested in the form of residential backyard plots, herbal gardens in balconies and courtyards, greenhouses, green roofs, community gardens on vacant lots, industrial rooftops, mini-farms along Federal highways and transportation corridors, and locally-supported farms in the fringes of our cities.

The excess supply generated by local urban farmers is typically sent to nearby Produce Markets or Food Co-Ops where employers and customers have a say in the content of the shelves or where it comes from. Although it turns out to be a little bit more expensive, the money stays locally; everything tastes better, decreases the amount of fossil fuel emissions, results in a greater variety of products, and synchronizes itself to the local seasons.
Urban farming can also help to feed the poor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and under the American embargo, Cuba has developed an informal system of sustainable urban agriculture benefiting approximately 70% of its urban population and generating 50% of the country’s vegetable production. Havana’s vacant lots and collapsing buildings are slowly turning into community gardens and urban farms in response to the food crisis.Similar projects have been implemented in Bulgaria, China, Brazil, South Africa, Peru, etc.

In North America, the "Eating Local" movement is becoming a matter of fact. Farm-to-School programs, Farm-to-College or Farm-to-Hospital programs are healthy choices in places where food consciousness is not only essential but a matter of high priority; in Canada, the "100 Mile Diet" includes food found at no more than 100 miles from home; in Westchester County, New York, a local restaurant includes a working farm that supplies its own produce and meat, and a classroom where cooking and farming demonstrations give visitors a better sense of the food origin.

Urban farming can be further improved under the realization that it decreases long-term energy costs, reduces urban heat island effects, increases urban wildlife habitats, improves drainage, acts as an indicator of ecological diversity and health, increases community gatherings and gives a sense of place by enhancing the overall aesthetics of a region, saving our money, and connecting us back with nature.

If you eat, urban soil should be your business!

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