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Tales of the Self-Sufficient City
Sarah Rich, 31 Jan 07
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Somewhere at the intersection of New Urbanism, DIY culture, and the resurgence of gardening for self-sustenance, an active and growing community of artist-maker-activists is redefining urban survivalism. While their work addresses our tenuous food security and the threats of catastrophic climate change, it's not a fear-driven movement. Rather, the best of these "new survivalists" are embracing radical self-sufficiency because it fuels their creativity, arms them with a sense of personal empowerment, and strengthens their communities.

Tale 1:

These are part of what motivates Amy Franceschini and what comprises the "win scenario" for her newest project, Victory Gardens 2007+, in which ubiquitous, small-scale urban agriculture paves the way towards "less CO2 emissions, neighborhood organizing, seasonal growing, urban planning, seed saving, art action and independence from corporate food systems."

Franceschini, the ceaselessly inspired art activist who founded Futurefarmers and Free Soil, will unveil Victory Gardens 2007+ this Saturday, January 27, as part of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But Victory Gardens is not just an exhibition, it's an actual proposal for the city of San Francisco to provide local residents with the tools and skills to begin utilizing yards and vacant productive spaces for growing food. The program would present subsidies from the Parks and Recreation Department to home gardeners over the course of a 2-year pilot period, "to create and support a citywide network of urban farmers by (1) growing, distributing and supporting starter kits for home gardeners and (2) educating through lessons, exhibitions and web sites."

The project takes its name from 20th century wartime efforts to address food shortages by encouraging people to plant gardens on public and private land. These were also known as "Food gardens for defense." This second wave adoption of wartime survival strategies appears elsewhere, too. During WWII, car-sharing and carpooling became tantamount to being a responsible citizen. Slogans like "Carry More to Win the War" communicated the need to save resources in order to alleviate gas, steel and rubber shortages.

In addition to indirectly aiding the war effort these gardens were also considered a civil "morale booster" — in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown. These gardens produced up to 41 percent of all the vegetable produce that was consumed in the nation.
--City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura Lawson

Victory Gardens 2007+ would offer a home delivery service (by tricycle) to bring starter kits right to home gardeners' doors, complete with instructions for building a raised bed, installing drip irrigation and saving seeds. Franceschini is also establishing a seed bank for the city to preserve the biodiversity of native edible plants of the SF region.

The VG2007+ exhibition will run through the third week of April at the SFMOMA. Those of you in the Bay should definitely go see it, and if you aren't already sprouting fava beans between the cracks in your sidewalks, contact the good people at Victory Gardens and get yourself some seeds.

Tale 2:

One of the great projects of this nature which we've talked about before is Edible Estates, the nationwide call to gardening action of LA-based architect/designer/gardener Fritz Haeg. Archinect has an excellent new interview with Haeg, exploring his motivation for Edible Estates, his feelings on its impact so far, and his current and forthcoming projects. Like Franceschini, Haeg believes in the power of small, local, individual action to incite widespread change, as perfectly exemplified in his one-family-at-a-time approach to replacing the American lawn with food rich gardens.

Do you have a theory of small scale revolution?
I'm not interested in big monuments. I'm interested in singular gestures that become models --- small gestures in response to common issues that can be instituted by anyone in the world. And in that way, my projects on the surface seem quite modest and benevolent until you think of the implications if they were replicated. That potential has become most clear to me with Edible Estates. You can't imagine anything less threatening than a small vegetable garden in front of someone's house. It's the most modest, basic, primitive human gesture: planting your own food. I like the idea of creating the edible landscape in the front lawn and then saying, "What? What's the big deal?" To be totally unprepared for any kind of controversy. "What do you mean? We're just making our own food!" As people start to analyze why the garden's unsettling to them, they start to understand the absurdity of any argument against it.
Did you intend to address food security or to demonstrate the possibilities of urban agriculture through Edible Estates?
Yes, I think it's really interesting what happens when you graft agriculture onto a city. The more you keep people in touch with the byproducts of their daily lives, the more you see it's connected.
We used to have cities that sucked resources from a 20 mile radius around them - so you ended up with a poor working class ring around a city where all the trash went and where you got all the raw materials. So there was this pocket of prosperity within a bubble of blight, really - and now we don't see that anymore because it's global. All the resources we're sucking and all the shit we're putting out is happening at a global scale, so you don't get that immediate relationship, even in terms of agriculture.

Tale 3:

A perennial favorite amongst blog readers everywhere, the vertical farm concept has tremendous implications for food production in rapidly densifying cities. By building up, layer upon layer of "hothouse" style gardens can be cultivated inside of skyscrapers, providing nourishment for urban populations. This, of course, is a more intensive variation on rooftop farming, which doesn't occupy the interior of a building, just makes use of the neglected space overhead. Similar concepts have been proposed at a small scale in residential circumstances, though most are less about productivity and more about taking a design risk, turning the ordinarily horizontal garden on its ear [literally], and taking greenery vertical. On yesterday's episode of The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, one of the leading researchers in vertical farming, Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, spoke about the benefits, challenges and progress in thinking through this future-conscious approach to growing food. You can listen and download the show here.

Tale 4:

Back in LA again, less than two hundred feet from the 210 freeway in Pasadena, an "urban homesteader" is proving that city living doesn't have to mean shackling oneself to complex supply chains of food, energy, and transportation. The .2-acre yard behind Jules Dervaes's Los Angeles bungalow produces 3 tons of produce per year, sustaining not only himself and his three children, but also providing fresh, organic ingredients for local chefs. Last week's LA Times featured two articles about Dervaes: one a history of his path to the urban farm lifestyle (which was partially incited by the discovery in 2000 of "Starlink" GMO corn in Taco Bell's tortillas), and one a short how-to for Angelenos aspiring to grow a little something, if only the makings of a simple Caprese salad. Dervaes' story is much more back-to-the-land than the others here, and it's a story of incredibly hard work, day in and day out. He has a hand-cranked clothes washer and a bike-powered blender, as well as a little family of farm animals. It might not be a model we'll all replicate any time soon, but it certainly is a remarkable tale of juxtaposition and the far extreme of self-sufficiency one can achieve with enough dedication.

Tale 5

Four tales in and we are still on U.S. soil, but the urban farming movement is, of course, global. Many of its immediate benefits, as we have discussed before, are incredibly relevant in developing world cities, where new urban residents come from an agricultural context, and find themselves in food-scarce situations where the best solution is to plant one's own source.

A beautiful photo essay from the BBC shows us how urban gardening is taking root in Caracas, Venezuela. The 1.2-acre Bolivar Garden in the heart of Caracas models itself after similar garden projects in Cuba. Six farmers work the plot and live nearby. They use organic techniques and make use of vermiculture to enrich the soil. It's a year-round operation, the yield from which can be purchased from a stall on the edge of the farm at below-market prices. The goal of the Bolivar farm is not only to provide fresh, nutritious food at low prices, but like Dervaes' produce profusion, to serve as a model for locals who might try growing a few things themselves.

Tale 6:

And since we're talking about survival, it's worth pointing out this article on Biointensive Mini-Farming. It's not brand new (the article was first printed in 1995), but was recently highlighted by the Organic Consumers Association as a practical guide to doing more with less on your small-scale urban (or rural) farm. This brings the whole round-up here full-circle and points to the fact that where proposed solutions finally converge with the troubled realities they aim to address, people start to adopt them. Now that crowded cities and climate change are forcing us to consider survival in emergency situations, old ideas have new relevance.

Biointensive mini-farms require much less area to produce the same yield of crops, so the nutrients contained in one person's wastes can be applied in a more concentrated way. This enables the nutrients to be fully effective, and high yields can result.
Because of this higher productivity, Biointensive practices could allow one-half to three-quarters of the world to be left in wild for the preservation of plant and animal diversity.
It has been said that Biointensive practices might make it possible to grow food for all the people in the US in just the area now used for lawns. This possibility could mean thriving agriculturally self-reliant cities with 'green belts' to produce all their food.

Twelve years later, this "victory" scenario appears more viable than ever.


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"Film and Discussion
"The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil"
*Monday, February 5, 2007 @ 7.30pm*
*Coolidge Corner Cinema, Brookline, MA*
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost most of its access to oil, fertilizers and pesticides. Learn how Cuba’s response to this crisis has led it to the forefront of the movement for sustainable and organic agricultural practices.
Did you know that 50% of the vegetables eaten in the city of Havana, Cuba are organically grown within the city limits?
Admission: $5

Speakers: Elizabeth Morrow, Sajed Kamal"

Sajed has been doing grassroots solar all around the world for the last twenty years and more.

Burlington, Vermont grows about 10% of its produce within the city limits and has been working on a local agriculture infrastructure for a decade or two now.

Thirty years ago, Santa Cruz, CA started a program of planting food-producing trees, vines, bushes, and other perennials on public lands, the Fruition Program. Massachusetts adopted the program and funded it for a few years on a state-wide basis. I wonder if any of those plantings are still fruitful.

Posted by: gmoke on 31 Jan 07

Thanks for the post - lead to a few happy hours surfing the net following different links - all to do with food growing. Cheers. :)

Posted by: Christopher on 1 Feb 07

Berkeley,CA has a new business in its midst called "All Edibles" which is a landscaping service that transforms plots into mini-urban farms with edible plants. It's a really good service for a good price done by people with great hearts.

Posted by: sactown on 1 Feb 07

I love this idea I am in the process of converting my 1/4 acre home's lot into an edible estate. I've got alot of work to do this Spring! I also wanted to share something else related to cities and design with everyone.
The Florida Chapter ASLA's Committee on a Sustainable Environment is organizing a charette in association with's "How Shall We Grow?" initiative and the UCF's Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies. The charette will take place during Landscape Architecture Appreciation Month in Orlando, FL. Please visit our website for more information and to share your ideas for our region.


Gil Lopez, Associate ASLA

Posted by: Gil Lopez on 9 Feb 07



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