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Urban Foraging and Guerrilla Gardening
Erica Barnett, 19 Oct 07
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One trend that has really caught my interest lately (to the chagrin of certain hygiene-obsessed boyfriends) is urban foraging. No, I'm not talking about the Freegans. (Call me elitist, but—although I love the idea of reducing waste—I hate the idea of Dumpster-diving; if you're not similarly inclined, you can find out more about that movement here). I'm talking about foraging for free fruits, vegetables, and other "wild food" around the city.

A whole bunch of web guides to these free food locations have sprung up in cities around the US—particularly in Portland, Ore., where the Urban Edibles web site ("A community database of wild food sources in Portland, OR") includes a frequently updated Google map with dozens of detailed location descriptions (for example: "Pear Tree @ N Albina and Failing: Good sized, yellow pear tree on the NW corner. Small italian plum is next to it.") Among Urban Edibles' ethical guidelines:

  • Don't take more than you need. "A tree full of ripe black cherries can be really exciting but how many will you use before they go bad?"
  • Ask permission before you pick. "We do not condone unsanctioned harvesting practices or trespassing."
  • Pick in a balanced and selective manner. "The last thing we want is to damage the sources from which we harvest!"
  • Watch out for pesticides and other contaminants. "Paint chips, pesticides, motor oil spills and even car wash runoff can affect the quality of the sources you pick from."

The idea of urban harvesting is appealing on several levels. It saves money (free food!), it reduces waste (all that fruit isn't rotting on the ground) and it builds community (both by forcing interaction between strangers, and within the group of Urban Edibles participants themselves).

Although urban foraging has really taken off in Portland, similar movements are starting to sprout in numerous US cities, including Seattle, WA, Santa Fe, NM, and Los Angeles, CA. A long list of resources about urban wild foods is available here.

An unrelated but similar trend that I've seen cropping up more around my hometown, Seattle, is guerrilla gardening: The practice of taking over public spaces and turning them into urban gardens. The guerrilla gardening movement has caught the imagination of activists around the world, and includes groups inBerlin (German-language only), New York, Vancouver, British Columbia, Toronto, and Paris (French-language only). Guerrilla gardening is work-intensive, and generally works best on a small scale, where a few dedicated volunteers share planting, watering, and maintenance duties.

A third and related activity is "seed bombing"--tossing compressed clods of soil and live vegetation or seeds (often known as "seed balls") to restore and beautify neglected public property, often with a combination of vegetables and wildflowers. A great step-by-step guide to making seed balls is available here. Although both guerrilla gardening and seed-bombing are generally illicit (it's called "guerrilla" gardening for a reason) it's hard to argue with a movement that takes ugly, neglected public spaces and turns them into something both productive and beautiful.

Image credit: flickr/urbanwild

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