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Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Breaking Through Concrete
    Book Description:

    People have always grown food in urban spaces—on windowsills and sidewalks, and in backyards and neighborhood parks—but today, urban farmers are leading an environmental and social movement that transforms our national food system. To explore this agricultural renaissance, brothers David and Michael Hanson and urban farmer Edwin Marty document twelve successful urban farm programs, from an alternative school for girls in Detroit, to a backyard food swap in New Orleans, to a restaurant supply garden on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Each beautifully illustrated essay offers practical advice for budding farmers, such as composting and keeping livestock in the city, decontaminating toxic soil, even changing zoning laws.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94971-3
    Subjects: Botany & Plant Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-ix)
    (pp. xi-xii)

    As a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, I acutely felt the tension between urban development and the fleeting remnants of a pastoral landscape. Living at the retreating edge of the Garden State’s former agrarian glory, I often wondered how Mother Earth could survive the onslaught of macadam, concrete, plastic, steel, and rubber. I would eventually find a kind of perverse solace in the hearty blades of grass and indefatigable dandelion shoots that muscled their way through the fissures in roadways and parking lots. They told me better than any science textbook could that no matter what abuse humankind...

    (pp. xiii-xv)
    (pp. 1-11)

    Walking the streets of Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood, I step carefully along the cracked sidewalks and hop through the kudzu creeping across vacant lots. Kudzu, brought to America from Asia to feed livestock, is now an invasive part of every overgrown landscape in the South. My eyes follow the vine’s homogenizing green layer of vegetation as it actively engulfs trees and abandoned buildings. By the time I walk back this way later in the afternoon, another tree and more breaks in the sidewalk will be covered, or so it seems on this hot late-summer day. I know Birmingham is not that...

    (pp. 13-20)

    Dennis Moore, fifty-four, helped Antoinette Crotty dig out the blackberry-laced hillside that helped establish the Interbay P-Patch in 1974. Back then, as young twenty-somethings, Moore and his friends were fairly typical Seattleites—community-minded individuals with a do-it-yourself spirit—and the P-Patch community gardens popping up around the city represented that sensibility. Thirty-six years later, the P-Patch program is a national model for community gardening and a catalyst for progressive city policies that recognize and support urban agriculture in Seattle.

    The P-Patch name derives from the first garden, begun in 1973 by a group of University of Washington students. They saw...

  7. HOW TO: Change Your City’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Codes
    (pp. 21-23)

    With our food traveling greater distances to reach urban centers, city legislators have seen little reason to protect the capacity for food production in our backyards. City laws regarding such production have changed for the worse over the last fifty years, making most farming, especially raising livestock, illegal. The justification has been that food production is dirty and unsafe. Most people enjoy the benefits of a nonlocal food economy, so this change met with little resistance. If you can get mango-infused salmon in Chicago in January, what’s the big deal?

    But city halls are beginning to notice the urban farm...

    (pp. 25-34)

    A field of Sonora wheat lends a constant sense of motion to a meadow above Central California’s Pacific coast. The chest-high stalks that edge up to Santa Cruz’s three-acre Homeless Garden Project (HGP) farm mirror those that have existed up and down the West Coast since the late eighteenth century, when Spanish missionaries arrived from Mexico. The heirloom grain makes an easy metaphor for HGP, which has established its own lineage through the sustainable farming world.

    The twenty-year-old urban farm project has an intern program that plays out like the minor leagues of the urban farm movement. Edwin Marty learned...

  9. HOW TO: Grow Good, Safe Food
    (pp. 35-37)

    There’s really only one way to know your food is safe: grow it yourself. The next best approach is to know who grows your food, to see it being grown, and to know the story of organic farming. The termorganicis becoming increasingly commodified and, surprisingly, more and more difficult to decipher. The urban farm offers a wonderful way to know your farmer and know where and how your food is being cultivated.

    It’s no coincidence that most of the urban farms prospering across America are using organic farming techniques. Whether they tend tiny community garden plots or acre-wide...

    (pp. 39-47)

    Buried in the suburbs of Santa Barbara, California, rows of avocados, peaches, plums, and citrus stretch toward the deep blue Southern California sky. Interplanted among the rows are vibrant seasonal and annual vegetables. Lacinato kale and Bright Lights Swiss chard poke out of rich, fertile soil. Chickens stroll the grounds looking for grubs and find hidden pockets in which to lay their speckled or blue eggs.

    Unlike most other urban farms in American, Fairview Gardens is unique not so much because of what it has become over the years as for what it has not become over the years. It...

  11. HOW TO: Plant Perennial Fruit Trees in the City
    (pp. 48-51)

    City horticulture departments are fond of planting non-fruit-bearing fruit trees. It’s a win-win situation: the trees provide the same beauty as a fruit-bearing tree—amazing flush of spring blossoms and shade in the summer—without all that pesky fruit litter to clean up in the fall. This is, of course, absolute heresy to the urban farmer. Why on earth would you intentionally plant something thatwouldn’tfeed people?

    A group of volunteers in Asheville, North Carolina, got inspired twelve years ago to turn an old landfill on parks and recreation land into an edible park. The George Washington Carver Edible Park...

    (pp. 53-62)

    It’s hard to miss the East Thirteenth Street Garden on a summer afternoon. The whole neighborhood around Yosemite and East Colfax streets seems to move faster and brighter and freer than most city blocks. Teenagers swerve through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, residents jaywalk across streets, and kids splash in the creek next to the sidewalk. Clothes hang to dry on the balconies of the blocky, plain apartment buildings that are surrounded by parking lots.

    Amid so much human movement and urbanity, there’s a patch of green bordered by a chain-link fence. While the vegetation softens the look relative to...

  13. HOW TO: Turn Your Waste into Black Gold
    (pp. 63-65)

    Compost is nature’s way of closing the ecological loop. In other words, it turns waste into food. Without this process, we’d be surrounded by piles of dead organic material. Instead, nature converts dead plants and animal waste into plant food through a chemical mineralization process we call composting. Farmers have been taking advantage of this for thousands of years to replenish nutrients in soils depleted from growing crops. Only recently has this age-old technique been abandoned, mainly because synthetic fertilizer offers a faster, easier, and, for now, cheaper way to replenish nutrients.

    Unfortunately, two significant downsides accompany the use of...

    (pp. 67-75)

    Seven women in ankle-length floral dresses bend at the waist in rows of kale, arugula, or kohlrabi. Their dark-chocolate hands effortlessly pull weeds and cut stems. The soft pink rising sun is already hot coming through the hazy white sky, making the distant Kansas City downtown look like a mirage. With the low-slung brick buildings of the Juniper Gardens public housing site on one side of the seven-acre farm, it’s hard to know which is more out of place, more of an illusion: the city, the verdant farm, the parched yards of the apartments, or the farmer women from Burundi,...

  15. HOW TO: Access Start-Up Capital for Urban Food Projects
    (pp. 76-77)

    Inner-city kids putting seeds in the ground and munching on deep green leaves of kale, vacant lots transformed into flower-filled hubs of community activity, food banks receiving thousands of pounds of fresh, local produce—the social and environmental benefits of urban farming are easy to see. The economic benefits, however, are much harder to understand.

    Creating a viable business is the essential next step for urban farming to expand and become a more pervasive part of our food system. In order to be sustainable, urban and peri-urban farms must move away from being viewed as charities and into a decidedly...

    (pp. 79-87)

    East New Orleans is lush and crumbling. Sometimes it feels like the built environment—the convenience stores, the sugar factories, the distant oil refineries, the houses, the brick apartments, the parking–lot pavement—is no different from the vegetation, all bloom and decay, the life cycle spinning in time–lapse. Strip malls cling like painter’s tape to the side of Chef Menteur Highway, and between the asphalt and behind it, the wetland jungle seems to be breathing its hot, wet air onto everything.

    This eastern stretch of the Big Easy lies between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, a lagoon inlet...

  17. HOW TO: Develop a Congregational Urban Farm
    (pp. 88-89)

    Father Luke Nguyen knows everyone growing food in Versailles. The entire neighborhood is like his parish, his minidiocese. He walks into backyard gardens and onto canal-bank plots like he walks down the aisle of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. The social-religious mix comes so naturally because the Vietnamese community of East New Orleans has been interwoven with the Catholic Church since before the refugees left their homeland following the Vietnam War. The Catholic Church’s strong New Orleans presence and availability of social services made the city a viable relocation option. So, on almost every initiative and activity, the church and...

    (pp. 91-98)

    Summers in Birmingham almost hum with heat. The stifling air shimmers off the pavement of downtown and few people venture outdoors. Those who do, try not to move much. But on the block between Twenty-fifth Street North and Seventh Avenue North, a group of foodies gathers basil and red peppers. They planted the seedlings months ago, and they’ll take the harvest directly to the kitchen to prepare a fresh pesto for homemade pizza. But their kitchen is not at one of the restaurants of Birmingham’s James Beard Award winner Frank Stitt or at the equally prestigious establishment of Chris Hastings....

  19. HOW TO: Engage the Community with Education Programs
    (pp. 99-101)

    There is little doubt that an urban garden project can have a positive impact on a community. Beautifying a vacant lot or increasing access to fresh, healthy food is a straightforward outcome that everyone can see. There is an assumption, however, that building an urban farm, community garden, or school garden will inherently yield these positive outcomes as well as other, more altruistic results, such as community empowerment. This assumption of inherent goodness has unfortunately prevented many well-intentioned projects from realistically matching the available resources with the changes originally envisioned by the organizers. The inherent-goodness attitude can also lead to...

    (pp. 103-112)

    It’s sunny and 94° F and the pavement steams after a thunderstorm rolled sideways through north Philly. Mary Seton Corboy wears a full-body white bee suit. She stands on the grassy roof of a small shed on a vacant city lot. Smoke puffs from the antique-looking box in her hand and the bees calm down. “We put these up here originally just for security,” she says. “Figured no one would bother the equipment with a bunch of bees around.”

    On one city block Corboy has created a small world with a split personality of sorts. There is Greensgrow, the farm,...

  21. HOW TO: Rehabilitate Contaminated Soils
    (pp. 113-115)

    If you grow salad greens in a backyard, you are getting the freshest possible produce at the best possible price. But how do you know if your soil has been contaminated with lead from paint chips? Or how do you know the soil isn’t laced with toxic residue from a heavy-metal industry that was on the land decades before your home or farm was built?

    Soil contamination is often the first obstacle encountered by urban farmers. Soil is the currency of the farm, and it’s developed and enhanced over years of growth, decomposition, and renewal. Mary Corboy and Tom Sereduk...

    (pp. 117-124)

    Eagle Street Rooftop Farm has its eye on Manhattan. Regardless of the fecundity of the kale or peppers or the clucking of the chickens inhabiting the six-thousand-square-foot roof, the visitor’s gaze can’t help but wander out, over the Hudson River, to an unimpeded view of the Manhattan skyline. But nowadays, it has become hard to tell whether the farm is looking at the city or the city is peering up at the farm.

    Portraits of Annie Novak, Eagle Street’s cofounder and director, and her farm have appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers, and on television, such as CNN, the...

  23. HOW TO: Convert Rooftops to Residential Gardens and Urban Farms
    (pp. 125-127)

    The green roof has been around for centuries, as evidenced by the old homes and barns in European towns and countryside. The modern version of the manufactured living roof evolved in Germany in the 1960s, and it has taken a few modern steps in its last half century of engineering. The steps are simple and green roofs will certainly continue to become more efficient and affordable as the young technology matures.

    Today, landmark living roofs sit atop the city hall buildings of Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and Toronto and on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Whitten Building in Washington, D.C. Governments...

    (pp. 129-136)

    Avram Rodgers, age six, says he’s a secret agent. He hustles to the rabbit pins in the back of a fenced-in, grassy area at the Catherine Ferguson Academy farm. A few ducks waddle in a little pool in the center of the enclosure. Goats chew grass in an enclosure thirty feet away, and a group of young women students build a small greenhouse fifty feet away.

    Avram points out an eviscerated rabbit in the thick grass and says that he must find its killer. The young bunny likely escaped its cage and a hawk or raccoon is the obvious suspect....

  25. HOW TO: Raise Urban Livestock
    (pp. 137-139)

    Instead of a dusty ball field, the Catherine Ferguson Academy has one horse, five goats, thirty chickens, ten rabbits, five ducks, and hundreds of thousands of bees on its school lot. The students move comfortably among the animals and they care for the livestock every day. More than likely, they had never seen a live chicken before they arrived at the school, much less built a hay barn, driven a tractor, or harnessed a horse.

    Although livestock in the city may seem odd today, it was not that unusual a century ago. Only in the last fifty years have farm...

    (pp. 141-148)

    Melvin gently cuts rainbow chard in an open-sided greenhouse. He looks enormous crouched in a row of delicate, brightly colored produce a day away from being sold at Chicago’s tony Green City farm market. His chest, shoulders, and tattooed arms bulge out of his work shirt like those of a heavyweight boxer. Melvin and a dozen other interns work at Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Weekday mornings from April through October they weed, water, harvest, and pack CSA and market shares on the farm, then move indoors to the farm’s new...

  27. HOW TO: Extend the Growing Season with Hoop Houses and Greenhouses
    (pp. 149-151)

    Going through the door to a greenhouse in Chicago in February is like stepping into a tropical paradise. The warm smell of soil and plants with a touch of humidity is in stark contrast to the frigid temperatures outside. Rows of seedlings stretch skyward, each promising a bounty of wonderful food. But growing edible plants in winter requires some help. The good news is that most people like to eat year-round, even when the ground is frozen solid. That means there’s a market waiting for urban farmers savvy enough to figure out how to keep their plants alive.

    The other...

    (pp. 153-161)

    From the beginning, Vicky and George Ranney Jr. believed in having a farm. So, in 1987, when they bought 677 acres of prairie farmland north of Chicago for a mixeduse development, they dedicated 100 acres to growing food. “This land was always farmland,” says Vicky, “so we considered what people would like to live next to. We realized that sooner or later there’d be a conflict between big agriculture and residential developments. People wouldn’t find it comfortable to live next to pesticides and other chemicals.”

    Their investment paid off. The development, known as Prairie Crossing, sold all of its homes...

  29. HOW TO: Start an Urban Farm
    (pp. 162-167)

    Tucked behind a short prairie hill, beyond the windmill that provides some power to Sandhill Organics farm (and disguises a cell tower), hides the Back Forty of Prairie Crossing. It’s actually fifty-five acres of certified organic soil where fruits, vegetables, and flowers aren’t the only crops. The acreage holds a new generation of farmer entrepreneurs who are also setting roots in the rich soil.

    The Liberty Prairie Foundation offers cheap leases of the development’s land to newcomers who want to start their own farm businesses. It’s a great scenario: available, fertile land, a sense of a safety net from the...

    (pp. 169-178)

    There are 20,000 acres of open land in Birmingham, 70,000 acres of open land in Philadelphia, and 100,000 vacant lots in Detroit. Yet farmland is being lost to urbanization at a staggering rate. Some 8 million acres of prime farmland has been covered with concrete in the last twenty years.

    Today in America, we are three generations removed from the land. Most children growing up in cities have grandparents who had no connection to agriculture. Our lineage to an agriculturally based society has been completely severed. The knowledge accumulated over countless generations of how to produce food and how to...

    (pp. 180-180)
    (pp. 181-182)
  33. Back Matter
    (pp. 183-184)