Farming the city: a book review

A book on urban farming leaves Tom Levitt feeling positive about the potential for food to shape our lives for the better

Urban farming has the capability to both inspire and divide. The large-scale indoor salad-growing businesses emerging in cities like New York and Chicago could potentially cut down the supply chain by thousands of miles, but at the same time growing vegetables on the colder east coast is likely to require more energy than in sunny California. And do we really want to eat food grown without soil? Likewise, small-scale rooftop and derelict land sites can be used for growing food, but are never likely to provide much more than a marginal amount of an urban population’s food needs.

However, what these kind of arguments ignore is what is really driving the widespread passion and excitement generated by urban farming, namely the multitude of positive socio-economic and environmental impacts that it offers.

The sudden appearance of a herb and vegetable garden in the middle of a concrete sprawl is like the arrival of colour in spring. Talk to the schoolchildren visiting Hackney City Farm, the volunteers working at Cultivate London, a project making use of derelict land in West London, or the squatters who created Kew Bridge Eco-Village (a story recently made into a new film Grasp the Nettle). All of them will talk of being re-connected to nature and our food system and experiencing something entirely different from the world of celebrities, ipads and shopping.

As more and more of the world’s population moves to an urban life, there is a desperate need to bring more nature and food production into the city. As Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City writes in the introduction to a new book Farming the City, “In order to flourish, we need the company of others; yet the closer we cluster together, the further removed we get from our sources of substance.”

Farming the City
is a welcome attempt to both inspire and document urban food projects and ideas that are continuing to develop. As well as unpicking the incredibly diverse academic research being done on urban food – from edible landscapes to food poverty – the book showcases 35 urban farming projects from around the world. The authors have also thrown in a few more practical chapters, for example one on how to lobby local politicians and governments and build a successful food project.

The diversity of the farm projects they profile, from a vertically stacked greenhouse aiming to produce 50% of Singapore’s green leafy vegetables, to the educational Common Good city farm in Washington DC, is a testament to the interest and inspiration urban farming is generating. It also, importantly, offers an alternative vision for our cities.

As millions of urban dwellers engage with local food networks, allotments and even experiment with growing produce themselves, the “leave it to Tesco” approach, as others have called it, is being ditched in favour of a new kind of vision for food. “What would happen if rather than let market forces shape our lives through food, we were to use food as a tool to shape the world in better ways”, asks Steel. The answer, according to the examples in this book, is a much more inspiring one.

Farming the City is published by Trancity*Valiz and available now