Public Produce and Civic Agriculture

13 Jul

Here in Minnesota and across the Midwest mulberries are ripening, as are cherries, strawberries. The mulberries are staining the sidewalks all over the Cities. It’s a good time to talk about a different angle on urban food production. It’s whats called civic agriculture or public produce.

Thousands of people in the Metro area grow a little (or a lot) of food in their yards. Many blogs and books have been focused just on this subject. There have  been national news stories of families getting in trouble for planting in their front yards. This is all signalling a shift in culture towards more interesting use for all that grass. Edible Estates is a great book by artist and landscaper Fritz Haeg chronicling his journey of transforming others’ front lawns. Exciting, but not what I want to talk about today.

Edible Estates. This is the transformation of a front lawn into a feast.

This blog has already talked about commercial urban farming. An abandoned industrial area turned green. One acre here and one acre there. These farms are working towards commercial viability. Exciting, but also not what I want to talk about today. That’s for the other posts.

Today I want to talk about food in public. I want to talk about those mulberries staining the sidewalk.

The Twin Cities has an incredible amount of green space. Minneapolis has one of the most extensive and best park systems in the country. Every street in St. Paul is lined with beautiful trees. What if it produced food? Food produced in the parks and along streets is less likely going to be annuals like tomatoes or kale. They take more individual care and attention. The city and park board are in charge of many of the trees in the metro area. Fruit and nut trees and fruit bushes are particularly well suited for support by the city and park board. These trees already must be maintained and watered, so little additional labor would need to be added. With a little extra attention we would get a bountiful harvest.

What could we actually do? Along the Greenway, hundreds of new trees have been planted. Many of them crab apple. Those instead could be apple trees. At Kix field along the Greenway, a small apple orchard has been planted and each year they are picked clean. Last week the serviceberry trees were fruiting and every berry within reach was taken. In certain spots this high demand will keep fruit from falling and rotting on the ground. Orchards of cherries along the river in downtown or near the U would certainly get picked clean. Berries and other food bearing bushes make nice borders. At many parks and gardens managed by the MPRB perennial herbs like thyme could replace other edging plants. These permanent high value trees and plants could be dispersed throughout the cities without much additional labor, yet they would create such additional value.

The Beacon Food Forest is a fascinating example of public edible landscaping. It is a 7 acre piece of parkland in the middle of Seattle that is slated for the landscaping you see in the map below. There will be acres of fruit trees from apples to Asian pears. There will also be a berry patch with plants and a place to can the fruit. Rounding it out is lots of space for community gardens. This extensive park will be a place for the whole community to come together and see the benefits of shared space and shared work. Couldn’t we do this in Minneapolis or St. Paul? The suburbs have even more land available to make this a reality.


Civic agriculture is more than just the plants. It will also be about building the connections among people and between people and the land. One way to build community in through the public produce, the other through the processing of the food. Imagine a cider festival every fall. The park has a public apple cider press and everyone comes with their apples and makes cider together. Certainly a pie baking contest will follow. Imagine the community has a honey extractor and everyone can process their honey together. We can then compare the honey from the Powederhorn with honey from the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. It”s a great addition to the feud of the two cities. This is how people create community. As Gary Paul Nablan puts it we are “restorying the landscape”. So to create the next chapter in the Twin Cities, we just need to plant a tree.


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