French community gardenA modern-day community garden in Parc de Bercy, Paris, employs centuries-old intensive growing techniques.Photo: Cara Ruppert via FlickrThe French-intensive method hinges on a principle identified by Jane Jacobs, one that modern-day city residents (and planners) should take to heart: that cities are fantastic reservoirs of waste resources waiting to be “mined.”

Like all cities of its time, 19th-century Paris bristled with horses, the main transportation vehicle of the age. And where there are lots of horses, there are vast piles of horseshit. The city’s market gardeners turned that fetid problem into a precious resource by composting it for food production.

“This recycling of the ‘transportation wastes’ of the day was so successful and so extensive that the soil increased in fertility from year to year despite the high level of production,” Coleman writes. He adds that Paris’s market gardeners supplied the entire metropolis with vegetables for most of the year — and even had excess to export to England.

Of arugula, compost, and the city of the future

What I’m driving at is this: urban agriculture seems new and exotic, but it has actually been the norm since the dawn of farming 10,000 years ago. 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.

And that experiment was engendered by the force that has transformed our food system over the past 100 years: the rise of chemical-intensive, industrial-scale agriculture. The easy fertility provided by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (an innovation engineered by the decidedly urban German chemical conglomerate BASF in the runup to World War I) made the kind of nutrient recycling performed by Paris’s urban farmers seem obsolete and backwards. Meanwhile, the rise of fossil fuel-powered transportation banished the horse from cities, taking away a key source of nutrients.

The industrial-ag revolution led to regional specialization and stunning concentration. Most fruit and vegetables we consume now come from a few areas of California and Mexico; grain is grown almost exclusively in the Midwest; dairy farming happens mainly in California and Wisconsin. These wares are shipped across the continent in petroleum-burning trucks. After World War II — during which town and city gardens provided some 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the United States — city residents no longer needed to garden for their sustenance. Food production became a “low value,” marginal urban enterprise, and planners banished it from their schemes. Supermarkets, stocked year-round with produce from around the world and a wealth of processed food, more than filled the void.

Fueled by fossil energy, cities could afford to banish agriculture completely to the hinterlands. For the first time in history, a clean urban/rural divide opened.

But c
onditions are changing rapidly; the great experiment of the city as pure food consumer may yet prove a failure. In low-income areas of cities nationwide, supermarkets have pulled out, leaving residents with the slim, low-quality, pricey offerings of corner stores. The easy availability of fossil fuels, on which the food security of cities has relied for decades, is petering out, and the consequences of burning them are building up.

Meanwhile, titanic amounts of the food that enters cities each year leaves as garbage entombed in plastic and headed to the landfill — a massive waste of a resource that could be composted into rich soil amendments, as Paris’ 19th-century farmers did with horse manure.

According to the EPA, fully one-quarter of the food bought in America ends up in the waste stream — 32 million tons per year. Of that, less than 3 percent gets composted. (An upcoming slideshow in the Feeding the Cities series will show you some easy ways to do so, even if you live in a studio apartment.) The rest ends up in landfills, where it slowly rots, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that wasted food in landfills accounts for a fifth of U.S. methane emissions: the second largest human-related source of methane in the United States.

Imagine the positive ripples that would occur if city governments endeavored to compost that waste as a city service, and distributed the products to urban gardeners.

Will Allen on a compost pileMilwaukee “genius” farmer Will Allen atop one of Growing Power’s immense — and immensely profitable — compost piles.Photo: Growing PowerIn this regard, policy has fallen behind grassroots action on the ground. Milwaukee’s Growing Power has turned the urban waste stream into a powerful engine for growing food. Most urban agriculture operations today are net importers of soil fertility — they bring in topsoil and compost from outside to amend poor urban soils. Growing Power has become a net exporter. In 2008, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a profile of founder Will Allen, Growing Power converted 6 million pounds of spoiled food into 300,000 pounds of compost. The organization used a quarter of it to grow enough food to feed 10,000 Milwaukee residents — and sold the rest to city gardeners.

Growing Power represents a throwback, both to African-American farming traditions of Allen’s youth and to the urban-farming techniques of 19th-century France, which Allen cites as an inspiration. It also represents the vanguard of a new “New Urbanist” movement that sees food production as a vital engine of city development, as Daniel Nairn wrote about here a few weeks ago, and will describe in more detail in a forthcoming essay for this series.

As the ravages of fossil fuel use and abuse pile up, the urban/rural rift that opened up a century ago may need to close.

It’s important not to overstate the case here. Today’s dense cities could not exist without highly productive rural areas providing the bulk of food. Not even the most committed Brooklyn market gardener dreams of supplying the metropolis with flour from wheat grown on French-intensive plots. Growing grain in the city makes no sense, and no one wants to see cows grazing on Central Park’s Great Lawn. Any realistic vision of “green cities” sees them as consumption hubs within larger regional foodsheds.  

But cities need not, and indeed likely cannot, continue as pure consumers of food and producers of waste. Intensive production of perishable vegetables, fertilized by composted food waste, can bring fresh produce to food deserts, provide jobs as well as opportunities for community organizing, and also shrink a city’s ecological footprint.

Urban gardening may “scream ‘Hipster”’ — but it may also bloom into a way forward for those who want to build sustainable cities of the future.