The Death and Life of Great American Agriculture

by Mari Pierce-Quinonez

As the obesity epidemic rages and the gap between local haute cuisine and SNAP* supported meals widens, many are turning to urban agriculture as a means to rectify some of the wrongs in our food system.  Advocates credit urban agriculture with reducing food miles, improving food deserts, promoting green jobs, and revitalizing vacant land. However, urban agriculture programs are expensive to operate and the overall contribution to the domestic food supply remains small.  If healthy, local foods are the ultimate goal, one might argue that funds devoted to urban agriculture programs are better spent elsewhere.  However, revered urban theorist Jane Jacobs would probably argue exactly the opposite: to fix the food system, agriculture must start in the cities.

Jane Jacobs is best known for her avid support of mixed-use urban neighborhoods, masterfully explicated in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She also published an almost equally important work entitled The Economy of Cities in 1968.  This book describes her thoughts on how new jobs are created and makes a bold hypothesis: the types of employment that we usually consider rural, including agriculture, originated in cities.  The first chapter is filled with anecdotes about agricultural development within cities and villages, and correctly supposes that, “to our descendents, it may seem almost incredible that the ‘country industry’ of slaughtering and packing meat for city consumers… was formerly city work – as strange as it seems to us that growing alfalfa was once city work.”

New kinds of employment have been invented and reinvented for decades.  Heavy industries and office work alike begin in cities because they provide an amazing assortment of ideas and the capital to turn those ideas in to employment.  Eventually jobs moves out to rural areas where land is cheaper and employees are willing to work for less money.  In some cities like Detroit and Cleveland, the mass exodus to the suburbs has contributed to the decline of the city-center, leaving vast tracts of vacant land.  Enter urban agriculture.  Urban agriculture is a new type of employment for these cities in decline, and has the potential to improve their economic fortunes and provide a substantial amount of fresh, local produce to city residents.

Although there is not currently enough produce coming from urban agriculture to get anywhere close to feeding the American population, there are many potential benefits in relocating agriculture to urban areas.   Cities are nexuses of information and ideas.  When faced with the space limitations imposed by a dense urban fabric, innovations abound to encourage technologically advanced high-yielding techniques.  Hydroponic rooftop gardens (nutrient solutions washed over plant roots without soil), aquaponics (hydroponics combined with aquaculture), window farms (crowd-sourced indoor growing project) and high-density vertical growing systems (stacked planters can grow 8 times more plants than traditional farmland) are all techniques that have been created as a response to cramped urban conditions.  Preliminary yield reports on these techniques are promising. Even more exciting, however, is that these techniques are geared towards nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and fish rather than energy-dense commodities.

As with other types of employment, urban agriculture will probably not stay urban forever.  Once the technology is optimized for yield and profit it will likely follow its forbears and move back to rural areas on the urban periphery.  If American agriculture adopts the technologies currently fomenting in cities en masse, the amount of fresh, local produce available on city shelves will dramatically increase. An array of fruits, vegetables and fish would be available at an affordable price, and America’s small farms will have new tools available to help them turn a profit.  Obesity crisis averted, regional economies enhanced, communities revitalized. Were she still alive today, Jane Jacobs would be proud.

* Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures.  She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com

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