This is the first installment in Grist’s Feeding the City series, which we’ll be running over the course of the next several weeks. (Learn more.)

Growing Power headquartersThe main building of the groundbreaking urban farm Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis.Photo: OrganicNation via Flickr

Comic strip on urban farmingGrist’s new comic series, My Intentional Life, features food-growing hipsters.“Few things scream ‘Hipster’ like an apartment garden.” Thus spake the New York City music magazine Death + Taxes, and it’s easy to see why. In trendy neighborhoods from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to San Francisco’s Mission district, urban youth are nurturing vegetables in window sills, fire escapes, and roofs. Down on the street, they tend flourishing garden plots, often including chickens and bees. Even Grist has launched a comic strip (left) devoted to the exploits of urban-hipster homesteaders.

But growing food in the city isn’t just the province of privileged youth — in fact, the recent craze for urban agriculture started in decidedly unhip neighborhoods. Nor is it anything new. As I’ll show in this rambling-garden-walk of an essay, urban agriculture likely dates to the birth of cities. And its revival might just be the key to sustainable cities of the future.

Gardens sprout where factories once thrived

Like jazz, soul, and hip-hop, the recent revival of city agriculture started in economically marginal areas before taking hipsters by storm. Unfashionable neighborhoods hit hard by post-war suburbanization and the collapse of U.S. manufacturing together proved to be fertile ground for the garden renaissance.

Across the country, the postwar urban manufacturing base began to melt away in the 1970s, as factories fled to the union-hostile South, and later to Mexico and Asia. Meanwhile, the highway system and new development drew millions of white families to the leafy lawns of the exurban periphery.

Bruned out Bronx buildingAfter a wave of arson in the 1970s, this building was the last left standing in the block of East 173rd through 174th Street in the South Bronx.Photo: Mel Rosenthal of Duke University LibrariesAs a result of high unemployment and plunging occupancy rates, inner-city rents fell, and many landlords suddenly owed more in property taxes than they were making in rent. Too often, the “solution” was eviction, arson, and a fast-and-dirty insurance settlement. A 1977 Time article documented the phenomenon:

In ghetto areas like the South Bronx and [Chicago’s] Humboldt Park, landlords often see arson as a way of profitably liquidating otherwise unprofitable assets. The usual strategy: drive out tenants by cutting off the heat or water; make sure the fire insurance is paid up; call in a torch. In effect, says [then-New York City Deputy Chief Fire Marshal John] Barracato, the landlord or businessman “literally sells his building back to the insurance company because there is nobody else who will buy it.” Barracato’s office is currently investigating a case in which a Brooklyn building insured for $200,000 went up in flames six minutes before its insurance policy expired.

In addition to New York City and Chicago, Time identified Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco as major sites of the arson plague. It was from its ashes that the modern-day community-garden movement sprung. In hollowed-out neighborhoods, residents got busy cleaning up newly vacant lots, hauling out debris, and bringing in topsoil and seeds. As Laura J. Lawson shows in her 2005 book City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, fresh food was only one of the goods that neighborhoods harvested from gardens. “Gardening,” she writes, “became a venue for community organizing intended to counter inflation, environmental troubles, and urban decline.”

Celebrated as innovators, the market gardeners of today’s Milwaukee, Detroit, and Baltimore are actually restoring age-old traditions. It is the gardenless city — metropolises like Las Vegas or Phoenix that import the bulk of their food from outside their boundaries — that is novel and experimental.

By the 1990s, urban farming was beginning to take root. In 1993, a former professional basketball player and corporate marketer named Will Allen purchased a tract of land on the economically troubled North Side of Milwaukee, Wis. Allen hoped to use the space to open a market that would sell vegetables he grew on his farm outside Milwaukee. But then, working with unemployed youth from the city’s largest housing project, nearby Westlawn Homes, Allen soon began growing food right in Milwaukee.

Eventually, that effort would morph into Growing Power, now the nation’s most celebrated urban-farming project, and the reason Allen won a Macarthur “genius grant.” Similar initiatives cropped up in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn (East New York Farm and Added Value), Boston (the Food Project), and Oakland (City Slicker Farms).

Breaking down the false urban-rural divide

Post-industrial inner-city neighborhoods may have sprouted the current urban-ag craze, but the act of growing food amid dense settlements dates to the very origin of cities. In her classic book The Economy of Cities, urban theorist Jane Jacobs argues convincingly that agriculture likely began in dense tool-making and trading settlements that evolved into cities.