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Urban Farming grows up

In the last decade, farming the city blocks has gone from being a fringe movement practiced guerrilla-style by hardy and rebellious post-industrial pioneers to an increasingly widely accepted urban land-use and job creation strategy.

Until the recent growth in the popularity of urban farming, it’s unlikely that growing food on a vacant lot in the middle of an American city would be considered a serious urban planning proposal. But at a recent community meeting in Northeast Portland, City Commissioner Nick Fish was pushing for just that – an urban farm on the site of a former elementary school nearby. The food would feed into Portland Public Schools’ Farm to School program – supported by Ecotrust – which currently sources over 30% of its ingredients from local farms and food producers. It’s a clear sign that urban agriculture has grown up. In the last decade, farming the city blocks has gone from being a fringe movement practiced guerrilla-style by hardy and rebellious post-industrial pioneers to an increasingly widely accepted urban land-use and job creation strategy. In Rust Belt cities, full of unemployed residents and unused land, urban farms and gardens have taken off. The Reimagining Cleveland project provides public and philanthropic funding to community groups to reclaim vacant lots for community gardens, orchards, market gardens and pocket parks. In Detroit, training programs such as Urban Roots and Earthworks Agriculture Training (EAT) train new generations of urban farmers and community gardeners. But urban farming’s influence extends far beyond the Rust Belt. In Seattle, for example, it’s become an increasingly popular way to source local food, with a diversity of models that range from urban CSAs to neighborhood garden and orchards called P-Patches. They’re even doing it in the nation’s capital.

Trainees planting at Earthworks Urban Farm. Photo by Sam Beebe
Trainees planting at Earthworks Urban Farm. Photo by Sam Beebe

Why does urban agriculture make sense for policy makers? Let’s look at the northeast Portland proposal. It could increase the supply of fresh food for local public schools, where 85% of the schoolchildren in the community are on free or reduced price lunches. It could provide another food source for food banks and soup kitchens, and provide workforce training to aspiring local farmers and urban gardeners. The project has partnered with the Oregon State Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship (BUFA) program, and made scholarships available to local residents from the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods. The farm could also supply food to Portland Parks and Recreation’s Summer Free for All program, which offered over 99,000 free lunches to children in 2012. The proposed division of the site into separate parcels reflects the diverse group stakeholders interested in getting involved. Half of the garden plots, totaling three acres, will be managed by Oregon State (OSU) Extension and planned in coordination with Portland Public Schools. One acre will serve as a community learning garden, and the remaining two acres will be reserved for pilot projects led by different community groups. Though more top-down than Detroit’s lean and mean outfits such as Brother Nature Produce, this multi-stakeholder model promises greater stability and security than a guerrilla operation – but it also requires greater community deliberation (now underway) to ensure that the city incorporates all voices in the process. Not everyone is convinced that urban farming is the best use of land. Clarence Larkins Sr. lives across the street from the proposed Northeast Portland farm. The founder and CEO of Straight Path Inc., a local mentoring and employment training program, he sounds a note of pessimism about the depth and diversity of community members’ participation, particularly the neighborhood children’s attitude towards the project. “These are city kids – they won’t be interested in farming,” he predicts. Rather, he argues that a community center oriented towards families with children would provide a service that the entire neighborhood could use for its benefit. But with an increasing number of inner-city residents taking up farming (such as in Detroit and Cleveland), and growing evidence of multiple benefits at different scales, the Whitaker Farm Project has built up real momentum – as have numerous other urban farm projects across the country. As a viable urban land-use strategy, urban farming has arrived.