Deep-seeded roots: NYC’s urban farming history

Is urban farming just another hipster trend? Guest blogger Caity Flanagan reminds us of urban farming's deep-“seeded” roots in NYC and the US.

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This piece was written by Caity Flanagan and originally appeared on her blog, Mapping Sustainability. It appears here on City Atlas, as edited by Megan McRobert.

Recently, urban farming in major cities like NYC, LA, Detroit, Oakland and Philadelphia has caught the media’s attention. But is this just another hipster trend? No. In fact, from Detroit to NYC, urban farming has some seriously deep-“seeded” roots.

Urban farming has always existed in US city spaces. The recent resurgence of urban farming in Detroit harkens back to 1893, when then-mayor Haze S. Pingree encouraged residents to use vacant lots to grow food.  Over 400 acres of  “Pingree potatoes patches” helped to sustain communities and ease malnutrition, in part through the participation of farming monks (pictured right).

Urban farming as a way to meet people’s needs during economic crises has a history in NYC, as well. For example, the Bronx of the 1970’s was full of urban farms. As reported by Tom Philpott, when postwar urban manufacturing began to relocate, landlords with an excess of vacant properties would deliberately set fires so they could collect insurance payouts. But, like the phoenix from the ashes, urban gardens and community farms arise again and again in the wake of economic collapse and large-scale migration. Today, community members and organizations like Bronx Green-Up (pictured left) continue to work to ensure the longevity of community gardens, composting facilities, and converting vacant lots into usable green spaces. The Design Trust reports that NYC currently boasts more urban farms and community gardens than Starbucks locations.

But can we be hopeful about urban farms sticking around? Will the current movement weather economic cycles and increasing urbanization? I certainly hope so. Urban farms are agents of change that foster collective spaces and community bonds. Urban residents who participate in farming can be empowered through the process of growing their own food, learning valuable and marketable skill-sets and an added benefit of eating what they produce. For marginalized urban communities, green food infrastructures can address concerns of food security, access to resources, jobs, green spaces, and meaningful participation in the production of one’s city. We are far from a solution, but many urban farms offer models of how to ease our dependency on fuel, exploitative labor and chemical intensive, large scale farming.

Keep up the good work, NYC. This is just the change we need to “beet” the system.


Images: (Top) Etsy, (Bottom) Bronx Green-Up