Urban Agriculture: We Need to Grow More Food in Our Cities

John Kassel

An urban garden -- precisely what we need more of. Photo courtesy of Tony Fischer Photography @ flickr.

It began with our tomatoes. As I’ve written before, my wife and I are avid gardeners and have grown tomatoes many times before but these – these tomatoes were proving difficult to grow. This was not due to the plants, but due to me and to the setting in which we were growing them: the rooftop of our apartment building in the city of Somerville, MA.

My wife and I had decided to grow tomatoes in containers on our roof for the same reasons many do: we wanted to continue our hobby after moving to the city, and we wanted fresh vegetables we had grown our selves. Much like catching a trout on a fly you yourself have tied, there is something immensely gratifying about this sort of self-reliance. The tomatoes just taste better.

But they did prove difficult. Growing tomatoes in plastic buckets on a black roof under the summer sun requires mastering the art of properly irrigating your plants. First we watered them too much. Then we watered them too little. I remember at one point standing over my plants, wondering at what I had done wrong, and looking enviously at the elaborate, automatic watering system my engineering neighbor had constructed and perfected for her tomatoes. Finally, we got it right.

Adapting to growing a garden on an urban roof, not a field in Vermont, proved to be a challenge. And I learned some lessons that help me to understand some of CLF’s work better.

We need to grow food in areas we don’t think of as farmland. As I hear more about urban agriculture growing in our cities, the more I am convinced that our cities are fertile ground for growing food. Cities are not only sites of consumption, but also of production, and are essential to a strong regional food system. Just as we support traditional New England farms, so too should we support community gardens, rooftop gardens, porch and patios plantings, and other urban horticulture. To eat in the city, we need to grow in the city.

As I look around, I see plenty of evidence that we’re on the way to making this happen.

Many of the staff at CLF are growing their own food: a few have plots in community gardens, one works for a CSA in Concord, MA, many have gardens, one raises goats, another a slew of barn animals, while plenty others have small porch or window plantings at their apartments and homes.

I know we’re not alone, either. Young people are turning to farming not just as avocation but as vocation. They’re tilling rural soil, certainly, but also planting new beds amongst our city streets. It’s a new generation, in more ways than one.

I also see more CSAs now than I ever noticed before. My wife and I have been members of several CSAs for a number of years, in Burlington, VT, and Boston, MA. Now, I see more access, in more areas, to the kinds of food provided by these CSAs than ever before.

We participate in food systems whether we choose to or not, by virtue of the fact that we all eat. And, as the old saying goes, you are what you eat. Phrased slightly differently, food is at the heart of many of our problems: our thirst for fossil fuels, our polluting farm infrastructure, economic inequity and the obesity epidemic. If we fix our food problem, we make it easier to fix some of these other problems as well.

In the current issue of Conservation Matters, there is an article about how CLF and CLF Ventures are working to improve our regional food system. As I said in my president’s letter, “sustainable agriculture, when applied to cities, makes them more resilient, economically vibrant and livable.”

Standing on my rooftop, viewing my tomatoes, this struck me as true: we need to grow more food in areas we don’t think of as farmland. We will be more vibrant as a region, stronger as communities, and healthier as individuals.

 

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