Article first published in Urban Farm November/December 2011.
From children swiftly entering their teenage years to small towns hastily developing into cities, growth — and change — happens within a blink of an eye. But a quick growth spurt may not always be a good thing.
“In our hometown of Omaha, Neb., signs tell us how we are one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette write on their website, www.growingcitiesmovie.com. “Yet, there are other signs that say [our country is] one of the least healthy. One-third of our children will develop diabetes, nearly 9 percent of the population is unemployed and environmental disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, have become almost commonplace.”
Friends since childhood, Susman and Monbouquette began to contemplate the type of growing that would make America’s cities healthier places for its residents. Then an idea hit them: Why not capture America’s ever-expanding urban-farming movement on film?
“During college, I worked at an urban farm in Portland, Ore., called Zenger Farm, where I taught kids about sustainable agriculture and worked in the fields planting, harvesting and weeding,” Susman says. “It was through this experience that I was first introduced to urban farming and really got excited about its potential to improve cities across the country.
“I wanted to learn more about urban farming — to meet the amazing people behind the movement. Andrew was passionate about making movies that could have a positive impact on society. So we put our heads together and came up with the idea for Growing Cities.”
A feature-length documentary film set to be released in summer 2012, Growing Cities follows Monbouquette and Susman as they road trip across America to delve behind the scenes of urban farming.
“Urban agriculture has remarkable power on so many levels: It connects people to their food, strengthens communities, creates jobs, revitalizes blighted areas; the list goes on,” Susman says. “But what’s most exciting to me is that it allows us to reimagine what’s possible in cities. It challenges us to get beyond the urban/rural divide — to really think about how we can all be producers in a society driven by consumption.”
Monbouquette and Susman started investigating what Omaha had in terms of urban farms, but they didn’t find a whole lot other than community gardens. “That’s when we decided to hit the road to see what was going on in the rest of the country,” Susman says.
In early May, the filmmakers packed their bags and headed to their first major stop: Los Angeles, Calif. There for only three days, they were surprised to encounter numerous urban growers in Southern California’s bustling metropolis.
“We caught bees with the Backwards Beekeepers [a group of beekeepers] who rely on organic, treatment-free practices] and met with some amazing Mexican immigrants who grow for their families on about 10 acres [of land] in the middle of South Central, Los Angeles,” Susman reflects.
When Susman and Monbouquette stopped in Seattle, Wash., they experienced their most memorable moment: milking goats with the Goat Justice League.
“I’d never milked anything before, much less gotten milk shot into my mouth straight from the udder — you’ll have to wait for the movie for that one — so that was pretty fun,” Susman says. “Not to mention, we were just a few miles from downtown Seattle in a residential neighborhood, which was strange to think about.”
Since then, the pair has visited more than 20 cities and met farmers, community organizers and children who are all involved with the movement. They’ve even picked berries on a rooftop farm seven stories off the ground — at the Brooklyn Grange in Queens, N.Y. — while enjoying a view of the Manhattan skyline.
“One of the most important things we’ve learned is how remarkably diverse the urban-agriculture movement is,” Susman reflects. “People from all over the country with myriad backgrounds are all growing food for a lot of different reasons. There is not one face of the urban farming movement, and what it is can’t be summed up in one sentence. That’s part of the magic; that’s why it will be so powerful to put all these faces and stories into one film.
“Once Growing Cities is completed, we’ll be doing a promotional and educational tour across the country to spread the message as widely as possible. And hey, once all that’s done, we may just start an urban farm of our own back in Omaha!”
To learn more about Susman and Monbouquette’s journey across America, visit the Growing Cities website.