Urban agriculture is so last century (But needed for the future)

12 Jun

Within the last 10 years there has been a significant increase in urban farming and its public image. Already critics have claimed that this new green fad has little to offer and will subside soon enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Urban agriculture has an important role to play in the future by reaching back to its deep historical roots.

Farms and cities have always been connected. It was the invention of agriculture that allowed for the creation of permanent settlements. Original towns were just collections of farmers. As large cities developed, agriculture was still there. Without good preservation methods, farming still had to be done close to the centers of people, and so it often happened right in the city. Jennifer Cockrall-King in “Food and the City” describes the urban agriculture of 19th century Paris. Within the city limits 8,500 market farmers grew enough vegetables for the entire city of 1 million people.

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This surplus was not produced without much ingenuity. These farmers utilized the aspects of the city around them to increase their yields. The large stone and brick buildings absorbed heat throughout the day and radiated heat at night, lessening the impacts of late spring freezes and autumn frosts.

The real boon, and something lost today in our modern world, was the fertilizers. With thousands of horses in the city, these farmers had easy access to rich manure. As the manure breaks down it releases heat, allowing year-round production of vegetables and greens. Quite impressive for the 19th century! Paris could feed itself 150 years ago, but not now with the dominance of the automobile. And so we are back at the beginning, discovering how to once again feed our cities without reaching across the globe.

What parts of our cityscape could we use to recreate and improve the French Intensive Agriculture system from the 1850’s?

Though we no longer have large amounts of horse manure for compost we have plenty of other sources. What do people in the city love? Coffee and beer of course! With new small breweries opening up every year, there is more spent grain sitting around. This is one industrial waste that could be put to good use. Because of the uniform size of the grain it makes for great compost. Every time a brewery finishes a batch of beer the hundreds or thousands of pounds of grain (depending on how much you drink) could be helping grow all the food served in their taproom. All that carbon needs a nitrogen source to balance it out. Now to the coffee shops.

   Drink up, it’s for a good cause!

Coffee grounds, like spent grain, are of uniform size so the worms are very happy. All the coffee grounds from all of the coffee shops and cafes could be put to good work making compost to grow the lettuce and tomatoes for all of those sandwiches that go along with the coffee.

But this compost would be boring if it just had two ingredients, so we go the restaurants, grocery stores, and lakes. All the food you left on your plate and all the rotten tomatoes at the Mississippi Market coop could join the pile. For those of you who have seen the lake-lawn mower in action you know its impressive yields. Something must be done with all of the cut milfoil. Maybe it too could be added to the pile. This compost will be just as good as the stuff from the horses 150 years ago.

Cities have inputs and cities have wastes. I think it’s time to stop thinking that all our food should be shipped in from Chile and our wastes washed down the Mississippi. We can take of all of it right here, in this city in this century.


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