This statement by Eve Mosher, a New York-based artist, referring to urban agriculture was the unifying theme of a panelist discussion at The New School’s Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery in New York last week. As a part of “Living Concrete/Carrot City,” a Ryerson University and New School collaborative series of discussions and exhibitions aimed at exploring the interaction between design, food systems and community, four sustainable pioneers shared their diverse experiences in activating seeds of creative urban agriculture. The panelists included:
- Laura Delind, anthropologist and co-founder of the Lansing Urban Farm Project
- Eve Mosher and Tattfoo Tan, two New York-based artists
- Domenic Vitello, a professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania
Using urban agriculture as a platform for community interaction, Mosher conducted a citywide project, leaving tags in various public locations that invited passersby to insert what they hoped to see on that land instead of a cement sidewalk or a gas station. She found a majority of the participants desired more green space. This desire is translating into action from urbanites throughout the U.S. As the mediator of this discussion, Jean Gardner, an author and professor at The New School, puts it: “We are thinking by doing.”
Panelist DeLind started a community garden in Urbandale, Mich., a town where 25 percent of inhabitants live at or below the poverty line and 25 percent of the land has been abandoned. The community garden offers residents both inexpensive local produce (a sliding-scale pricing system gives discounts to residents of the town and volunteers) and a platform for social interaction. Now, neighbors who didn’t know one another before the garden participate in throwing a neighborhood Halloween party as a way to show their appreciation for the garden’s effect on the community. Children in the community see the garden as a place to discover and explore.
Vitello stresses the important role that urban agriculture plays in providing communities with food security; a greener, more beautified environment; and community bonds and enrichment. He talks specifically of Camden, N.J., a town often listed as the poorest U.S. city. Places like The Camden Men’s Garden, a club for older male residents, offers an environment where they interact as they fish in the nearby creek and garden on their land.
When asked about whether the skills learned in a garden could influence the economic futures of the children participating in these programs, the panel answered with an indisputable yes.
DeLind recalls the enterprising nature sparked in some of the young participants of her project. Nine-year-old Nancy has become the resident entomologist, and a little boy started a service to help older patrons of the community garden’s farm stand carry groceries back to their vehicles.
Urban agriculture artists like Tan have also been sharing their experiences with school children. He volunteers his time teaching children the lessons he’s learned through the New York City Parks Department.
“Children are a blank canvas. It’s hard to change the social conscience of adults, but you’ll find that children will influence their parents—not the other way around,” Tan says.
His GREENade program, developing biodegradable grenades filled with wildflower seeds, aims to add patches of green in unused lots and unkempt land. At the schools that he visits, he shares a Sustainable Organic Stewardship (S.O.S.) pledge with students that they can volunteer to swear to. The S.O.S. pledge states those who swear to it will consume local, organic produce; reduce, reuse and recycle; compost; conserve energy; and walk, bike or take public transportation. By teaching young children these virtues at the start of their lives, Tan hopes to instill behaviors that will occur more naturally to them in the future.
These stories and others are part of a strong new wave of a national movement 25 years in the making, says DeLind. The recession and the gradual break down of the American community has left citizens hungry for solutions and interactions that improve quality of life and plant seeds for a healthier, greener, and happier tomorrow. As demonstrated through the panel, urban agriculture is becoming a welcomed answer to these calls for change.