Friday, June 13, 2008

AgroUrbanism Part II

This is a long overdue update on an earlier post I made on Urban Farming. In that post I introduced the concept of urban farming and discussed some (mostly conceptual) projects from architects, landscape architects, and urban designers that bring an interesting theoretical approach to the idea. This post takes a much more prosaic approach in response to one of the questions raised by a commentator: can urban farming work to bring food to areas that need it the most? The answer is of course: YES! And the good thing is that it is. Some of the best examples of urban farms in existence are in places like India and China: Mumbai, Bangkok, and Shenzhen to be exact.

In Mumbai, a certain Dr. Doshi has created an innovative array of farming techniques that allow productive gardens to be produced on small plots of lands, such as balconies and terraces. In fact, you could say these are some of the first urban farms in existence!! You can even start a farm on top of a retaining wall apparently. The results, according to Wikipedia, seem quite startling: a family can acquire self-sufficiency through his methods, producing 5kg of fruits and vegetables for 300 days/year in a 1200 sq ft. terrace.

Also, just today I read an article on Cuba’s urban farms in the International Herald Tribune. Since losing imports from the USSR in the early 90’s Cuba has been forced to gain agricultural self-sufficiency—no small feat for a country that is 80% urban! The results are quite astounding. Here are some quotes from the article:

On Miladis Bouza, early adopter of AgroUrbanism:

Neighbors are happy with cheap vegetables fresh from the field. Bouza never lacks for fresh produce, and she pulls in between 2,000 to 5,000 pesos (US$100-250) a month — many times the average government salary of 408 pesos (US$19).

On the economic and social benefits of AgroUrbanism:

Cuba's urban farming program has been a stunning, and surprising, success. The farms, many of them on tiny plots like Bouza's, now supply much of Cuba's vegetables. They also provide 350,000 jobs nationwide with relatively high pay and have transformed eating habits in a nation accustomed to a less-than-ideal diet of rice and beans and canned goods from Eastern Europe.

"It's a really interesting model looking at what's possible in a nation that's 80 percent urban," said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. "It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits."

And, in this article on AgroURBanism in Milwaukee, author Dave Steel describes two paradigms for urban farms that can be done in the US. First, a 10-acre farm that produces vegetables and other goods sold at low-cost to surrounding communities and also has programs to teach people how to farm. Second, a program to organize a series of smaller plots in an community unable to aggregate such a large area of available land, providing a much needed social and economic infrastructure to jumpstart small scale urban farms. Steel also brings up some additional arguments for urban farming, such as the disconnect between the farm and the city, etc, that are interesting to read.

What I find also fascinating about these articles is that it proves you do not necessarily need to use large-scale top down strategies in order to make urban farms work. Yes, the idea of vertical farms is interesting and I can not wait to see one in action. But the idea that someone can utilize the residual spaces of the city to empower themselves economically, socially, nutritionally, and at the same time help alleviate international food pressures is an amazingly powerful thing.

On a slightly related note:

I also came across this article today in the New York Times about marathon running shoes manufactured by Asics (Japanese shoe manufacturer) for the coming Olympics. Designed by master craftsmen Hitoshi Mimura the shoes feature soles made out of rice husks. Mimura has apparently been trying to find the best material for marathon shoe soles for years. According to the article “Mimura said he first experimented with river sand, plastics and even powdered iron in an attempt to improve traction in racing shoes.” But in the end he found rice to be lighter, cheaper, and have a better grip.

Now, normally I don’t find these stories to be all that interesting, but in his search for the perfect sole he may have inadvertently found a solution to some other global ailments (this is all conjecture on my part, of course). First, rice husk soles fits in perfectly with the cradle-to-cradle concept—no longer will the soles of our feet pollute the environment with pesky non-degradable rubber when it is rubbed off due to friction! As parts of our shoes fall off, they will immediately be absorbed back into the eco-system from which it began, and can become the food of small animals and insects (aahhh..what perfect harmony!)

Second, he may have solved the problem poised by the Boston Globe article I linked in the first AgroUrbanism post—the fact that Japan produces more rice than its nation’s expanded palate can handle. Let the extra rice go towards the fabrication of other goods—shoes, sake, etc. Of course, this may bring the UN down on them in a pretty major way.

1 comment:

roxsen said...

A complimentary solution to vertical farming is sub-acre farming. A sub-acre farming method now being practiced throughout the U.S. and Canada is called SPIN-Farming. SPIN stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive, and it makes it possible to earn significant income from growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN's farming techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn't any different from McDonalds. So by offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital.
So while vertical farming will still take some time to get off the ground, sub-are farming is already showing how agriculture can be integrated into the built environment in an economically viable manner. This is not subsistence farming a la Cuba. This is recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns, "right sizing" agriculture for an urbanized century and making local food production a viable business proposition once again.