Urban foraging: a lost art?

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Urban for­ag­ing may con­jure images of wad­ing through poi­son ivy in Prospect Park and pick­ing out leafy greens and berries infused with city fumes. But, with apps like Wild Edi­bles with Wild­man Steve Brill, a con­densed guide for iPhone users on how and where to find the city’s 150 tasti­est edi­bles, it now may be eas­ier to nav­i­gate pesky bugs and uniden­ti­fi­able plants.

Wild­man” Steve Brill has long been con­sid­ered the lead­ing expert on for­ag­ing in New York City parks. For over thir­ty years, Brill has led for­ag­ing and ecol­o­gy expe­di­tions through­out the North­east. The self-described “go-to guy” on for­ag­ing has writ­ten three books on wild eat­ing, includ­ing The Wild Veg­an Cook­book, and has advised some of the city’s top chefs and the New York City Parks Depart­ment.

Though Brill is allowed to lead a lim­it­ed num­ber of for­ag­ing tours in the city’s parks, he has come under attack in recent years by con­ser­va­tion­ists and the Parks Depart­ment. For­ag­ing in New York City parks is no new prac­tice, but undoubt­ed­ly has attract­ed a stronger fol­low­ing in recent years as the push to eat local­ly has gained a wider fol­low­ing. In July 2011, the New York Times print­ed an arti­cle relat­ing the ongo­ing ten­sion between eager for­agers and New York City park offi­cials. On one end was a grow­ing cohort of urban for­agers that, per­haps moti­vat­ed by a less than boom­ing econ­o­my, took to the parks for food. On the oth­er end was the increas­ing­ly dis­grun­tled Parks Depart­ment that wor­ried about imbal­ance in the park’s ecosys­tem. Maria Her­nan­dez, direc­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture for the Cen­tral Park Con­ser­van­cy, lament­ed: “If peo­ple decide that they want to make their sal­ads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chip­munks.”

Urban con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gist and exec­u­tive direc­tor of NYC Wild­flow­er Week Mariel­lé Anzelone states that incor­po­rat­ing import­ed edi­bles into the city’s lim­it­ed green space presents a spe­cial prob­lem for bees. In a recent arti­cle in the New York Times, Anzelone argued that a “farm-filled land­scape would under­mine [bee’s] crit­i­cal eco­log­i­cal process.” Because wild­flow­ers and native plants provide a more fixed sup­ply of pol­len and nec­tar than import­ed fruit trees, Anzelone argues that a human-feed­ing land­scape with import­ed plants remains insen­si­tive to wild bees’ job in the process.

Anzelone is a pro­tec­tor of true native habi­tats, a sur­pris­ing amount of which con­tin­ue to exist intact in the five bor­oughs alongside all the impacts from eight mil­lion peo­ple and their sur­round­ing eco­log­i­cal inter­ests of dogs, urban gar­dens, Star­bucks, apart­ment build­ings and high­ways.

With orga­ni­za­tions such as FruiTrees New York push­ing to plant urban orchards across the Five Bor­oughs, Anzelone’s per­spec­tive might seem to over­look the pos­i­tive change that plant­i­ng urban orchards could bring the city, both in terms of food jus­tice and access to local food. Some argue that wild plants may in fact yield a high­er nutri­tion­al con­tent. How should pol­i­cy be set? May­be an expert pan­el, includ­ing long time advo­cates like Mariel­lé Anzelone and Steve Brill, as well as the Parks Depart­ment, and per­haps a his­tor­i­cal­ly mind­ed ecol­o­gist like Eric Sander­son, could help the city map a way for true nature and human land­scapes to flour­ish side-by-side. New York City has one of the ten best urban forests, a tremen­dous ben­e­fit to all kinds of life in the city.

Even since park offi­cials have begun to clamp down on for­ag­ing by issu­ing sum­mons to those who vio­late the offi­cial no-for­ag­ing pol­i­cy in the city’s parks, in no way does there seem to be a hard-line pol­i­cy towards for­ag­ing. Urban for­agers large­ly remain unno­ticed in the parks and “Wild­man” Steve Brill can still lead pri­vate tours. He even reports that some park offi­cials wave at him as he pass­es in the park. May­be the berry-seek­er should take that as a green light, then, to head out with a bucket–and may­be even an iPhone–to uncov­er the city’s tasti­est, and edi­ble, treats.

Pho­to cred­it: side​tour​.com