Cities – Food Free Zones? The Creation of the Urban Food Desert

Have you ever wondered why our modern cities are intentionally designed to be food-free?

All living things normally live in close proximity to their food sources, it’s a biological fact and a common-sense survival strategy. We often take our surroundings for granted as we go about our busy lives, but if we stop for a moment and critically examine the state of our modern cities, we soon realise a disturbingly unnatural state of affairs – there is nothing edible growing in public spaces! This is rather worrying. What type of society in its right mind would want to compromise food security by intentionally removing all food growing activities from public spaces, and what would possess them to do such a thing? Why would anyone want to create food desert – an area where food is scarce and hard to obtain?

Questioning cultural perspectives

Before anyone chimes in with “that’s how it is everywhere…” I’d like to shut down that ethnocentric false notion before we begin. No, it’s primarily Anglo-centric westernised countries that have omitted growing edibles in public spaces, and that also have a particular cultural fetish for non-productive ornamental gardens in those location. Anyone who’s travelled or even just spoken to people from other countries knows otherwise. That’s not how it is elsewhere! Speaking firsthand to elderly first-generation southern European migrants in Australia, I hear them openly question the absence of productive trees in public spaces. They come from cultures that celebrate food, that grow food in public spaces, and in their minds a separation of people from food is an artificial way to live, and they’re right!

The first step in solving a problem is actually acknowledging that there is a problem. When we let go of narrow ethnocentric perspectives of what is normal in terms of food growing in public spaces, we come to realise that the status quo can be questioned, which opens up the possibility of changing things for the better.

If we want to understand why our cities have become food deserts we first need to investigate the history of the phenomenon to identify the root causes and reasons. Then we need to question these reasons to test their validity, and if they’re not sound, then we need to do something about it.

So let us now begin by asking those difficult questions – How did our public spaces become food deserts? Where did this idea of growing only ornamentals in public spaces originate? Who or what is keeping things this way?

The Creation of the Urban Food Desert 01

Irrational fads, disastrous consequences

In 17th century England we first saw the deliberate growing of trimmed grass by the wealthy aristocracy as a show of affluence. These lawns were cut by hand, by servants using scythes, sickles and shears. Intentionally wasting valuable land and peasant labour on manicured lawns instead of food production which returned an income was the crassest display of opulence possible. It was tantamount to telling the world “I’m so wealthy I can waste land and lose money, and it doesn’t bother me in the least!”

Unfortunately the vanity didn’t stop there. Taking the display of wealth to the next level, the aristocracy sought out particular people to ‘design landscapes’ as they called it back then to turn once productive land into art. This movement gave birth to the English and French formal gardens with their immaculately pruned hedges and pristinely laid out ornamental plants. Such gardens were by design very labour and resource intensive, keeping true to the spirit of wastefulness that began it all.

Fast forward now to the Industrial Revolution which occurred around 1760-1820. It was a time that marked the end of feudalism and the peasant class, and the birth of the working class. From this point in time onwards, the symbols of aristocracy came within the reach of the common people, and as expected, they too wanted that lawn and ornamental garden in the front of their houses just like the aristocrats of the past. Not surprisingly, public spaces were also designed similarly, reflecting the values of the time. In a way this symbolism was proclaiming “we are no longer peasants”, but in reality these symbols were hollow and meaningless. As John Lennon in his song “Working Class Hero” put it so bluntly “And you think you’re so clever and you’re classless and free, But you’re still f***ing peasants as far as I can see…”, but I digress as that’s a whole other matter.

It didn’t stop there though, bad decisions are often perpetuated. The following generations copied what the previous ones did, without even knowing or asking why. Eventually, through simple unquestioned tradition, the lawn and ornamental garden became ubiquitous throughout private properties and public spaces.

Fashion feeds on the tyranny of enforced conformity. In the past, anyone who grew food in their front yard was looked upon with disdain. Such was the experience of the first generation Australian migrants from the 1950s onwards who came from food growing cultures. It was common for them to use all the space they had in their gardens, including their front yards, for growing food, especially varieties of food plants which were not available in Australia at the time. They bore the brunt of the racism to have the freedom to eat more than just pumpkins and potatoes if you get my drift.

Truth be told, nothing has really changed, if we barely scratch the surface, we find the same attitudes still prevail. Growing food in public view is a two century old unspoken cultural taboo that is still in full force today. The true reasons lie much deeper. Buried deep within the western world’s psyche is the notion that food growing is what poor people do, a notion which is inherently repulsive because it bring up a society’s collective memories of the peasantry of past, and perhaps an uneasy feeling that the modern ‘worker’ is not really that different. How far reaching and entrenched are these attitudes? Ever tried growing food in public spaces? The reaction from ‘authorities’ is less than supportive, often quite hostile, hence the phenomenon of guerrilla gardening! Who would have ever thought that growing edible plants in public space would need to become a covert operation?

Perpetuating the status quo

If there is such a growing public interest in food security, food sovereignty, healthy eating, and even a whole ‘food movement’, why aren’t attitudes in government changing to reflect the wishes of the people? What’s propping up the status quo? Let us follow our trail of breadcrumbs for clues as to who or what is keeping edible plants and trees out of public spaces – where do they lead? Who determines what gets planted in public spaces? Local governments do. More precisely, landscape architects working for local governments. Bingo, we’ve found the culprits, sitting behind their computer screens playing with their design software, with smoking guns in hand!

So what exactly is a landscape architect? Are they horticulturists or arborists? No, their skill is not with plants and trees. Are they agriculturists? No, their skill is not in growing food. Are they artists? No, but many fancy themselves as such. In realty they’re probably something akin to an urban planner with misplaced artistic aspirations and very little to no plant design skills. Sure, some have additional training in soft landscaping and understand plants, but they’re exceptions to the norm.

The term ‘landscape architecture’ was coined in 1828, but the discipline became more prominent in the 20th century. By definition, landscape architecture is the professional skill of composing man-made structures, including buildings and paving, with the natural landscape and with designs for landform, water and planting. What work do they do? They are tasked with making urban spaces more functional and aesthetically pleasing.

So why in the world don’t they use edible trees? I had the same question myself so I did the most obvious thing – I approached a cross-section of their profession and asked them!

Their answers truly surprised me. In short, the reasons why landscape architects don’t use edible plants and trees in public spaces is because they have not done so in the past, they lack the skill because they’re not taught about edible landscapes in school (in fact they are taught very little about plants!), they’re actively discouraged from exploring edible landscapes by their teachers as they see fallen fruit as a public liability problem, and they simply don’t have time at work to learn how to do it because they’re very busy.

I can already hear the howls of protest in the distance, so I’ll share the details of my findings to satisfy any doubts.

Unreasonable reasons

Even though landscape architects use trees in their design, they are taught almost nothing about trees. Typically the ‘trees’ they interact with are nothing more than round shapes on their computers that they drag and position on a grid in their CAD programs. The focus is purely ‘high-level conceptual’. Students are actually dissuaded from getting ‘caught up in the horticulture’ – as one degree qualified horticulturist studying postgraduate landscape architecture who I worked with found out. Perhaps that’s reasonable, they’re heavily invested in hard landscaping, as they’re tasked with designing areas with playground equipment, fountains, paths, seating, barbecues, shelters and more, it’s very broad, so there isn’t much scope to learn a lot about soft landscaping which is all about designing with trees and plants, which is a whole profession in itself. Here in Australia landscape architects only study a single short unit on plants and trees at a general conceptual level, yet all graduates are expected to design with trees and plants in the workplace. That is problematic. In what other profession would that ever be allowed happen?

I also found out that landscape architects often work to tight deadlines, so they don’t have time to get creative and research new and different tree species, let alone edibles. It’s easier and more expedient to just use the ‘tried and trusted’ ornamental species that their predecessors have always used as they try to clear the pile of jobs from their in-trays. This is also probably explains why most public space plantings tend to look so uninspiring, clichéd and repetitive.

Compounding the problem is the matter of dogma in their education system. Those teaching the courses tell their students as a matter of fact that fruit trees are not to be used because of the issue of fruit fall which can be a public hazard and which is also unsightly in public spaces. Frankly, this is pure nonsense as there is no evidence for this. It’s also kind of rich coming from a profession who don’t maintain trees and spend most of their time behind a computer screen!

Those who interact with trees know reality is rather different. All publicly accessible fruit trees in my experience are methodically picked clean by people passing by, especially by children who will even eat unripe fruit as they cherish the opportunity to forage. Let’s be realistic, fruit is not cheap and is not wasted. There are even organised community groups of ‘fruit squads’ here that map all the locations of fruit trees overhanging fences and laneways and then go and pick the fruit when it’s ripe. They also pick fruit for homeowners who can’t pick their own fruit and give them a portion in return. The harvest, often in thousands of kilos, is usually donated to food charities to feed the hungry. Not to mention that all the humans have to compete with the birds and animals too. So much for falling fruit…

Their background also has a lot to do with it too. The discipline of landscape architecture grew out of the ornamental French and English formal garden movements, which were all about converting once productive food-growing land into ‘art’. Just like their predecessors who ‘designed landscapes’ for the early aristocracy, the way landscape architects design focuses more on hard landscaping (paths, structures, etc) and less on soft landscaping (designing with plants), frankly the latter is often only an afterthought. Of the soft landscaping that is done, it is ornamental only, using ‘form over function’ design, where the aesthetics takes precedence over functionality. Seeing that this is where their school of design originates from, it’s not surprising that they design food deserts and that the very profession of landscape architecture is actually an anathema to the very concept of urban agriculture and hostile to the idea of growing food in public spaces.

Of course the landscape architecture profession has their own rationalisations for not using edibles which would be centred around the issues of management (who looks after it all, they tend to use contractors to build and maintain what they design), liability (the mythical danger of the falling fruit ‘demon’) and aesthetics (the have an issue with ‘untidy’ produce gardens), all of which are debatable topics in themselves.

Don’t just hear it from me, hear it from them too. In the landscape architecture website Land8 article entitled “Why Landscape Architects Stopped Specifying Edible Plants (And Why They Have Started Again)” we see these sentiments reflected from the profession itself. “In many ways, environments designed by landscape architects are the antithesis of the utilitarian landscapes designed and managed by farmers.”…“In the 150 years that landscape architecture has been formally recognized as a profession, there has existed a gulf of separation between our discipline and agriculture. Even though plants, soil, and people are fundamental to each field, the former focuses on aesthetics and the structural functions of human settlements (drainage, access and circulation, integration with the built environment, etc.), while the latter is centered on the process of cultivating edible species for consumption.” (1)

For the sake of comparison, Permaculture design is essentially ecological design or ecological engineering, where ‘function directs form’. It favours functionality, energy-efficiency and sustainability over mere aesthetics. It is no coincidence that Permaculture is often used to design food growing areas in public spaces.

Bearing responsibility

A critique isn’t complete without touching on some solutions. We can better understand the problem if we can grasp the concept of reasonable expectations. If you hire a person whose speciality is building dog kennels, they’ll do what they know and build you a dog kennel, what else would you expect! If you hire landscape architects, they will produce what they’re trained to do, what their profession specialises in. Do local governments realistically think these people can deliver urban agriculture solutions that will address the issue of food security when they are imminently unqualified in this area? That frankly would be delusional, a bit like trying to use a hammer for every carpentry task because you only have a person with only a hammer, rather than bringing in a person with a saw when cutting wood is what’s required!

tool box

The responsibility for the phenomenon of urban food deserts ultimately falls on local government for placing landscape architects, who have only minimal training in ornamental gardening and are in general hostile to urban agriculture, in a position of influence and authority over the design of public spaces, presumably in full knowledge of their skill set and what they can and can’t do.

Local government policies and by-laws also enforce the food desert model. This is either through prohibitive restrictions that stifle any meaningful community efforts at food security or draconian regulations that make food growing in public spaces illegal outright.

If local governments want to do something about food security, they can stop being part of the problem and being part of the solution. The clear and obvious solution from the community perspective is for local governments and their teams of landscape architects to simple get out of the way.

Sure local governments will cite a litany of issues which hold them back, but these are internal problems, problems they are they are responsible for and paid to address. They can’t antagonise the urban agriculture community and expect them to bear the responsibility for a solution as well. That would be totally unreasonable. With authority goes responsibility, and the solutions for local governments are there for those who are willing to look, challenge their conservative internal culture and take action. The first logical place to search for solutions is other local governments in other countries that do have food growing in public spaces. If they can do it, why can’t our local governments? How are they different? What are they doing?

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, there are no edible trees and plants in public spaces in modern cities because landscape architects working for local government (in western and predominately English-speaking countries) are persisting with outdated design fashions from two centuries ago that are inherently hostile to food production, and which have well and truly outlived their usefulness. Times have moved on, but landscape architects are busy living in their insular worlds perpetuating and enforcing the ‘urban food desert’ model in the name of art and aesthetic design while being blissfully ignorant of the very real issue of urban food security. It’s no surprise that many other professions question the relevance of landscape architects.

There aren’t any sound technical reasons for not planting edibles in public space, as edibles are currently planted in semi-public community gardens by individuals and community groups, in public spaces by guerrilla gardening groups, in schools by teachers and students for educational purposes and in public spaces in many other countries by their local governments.

Growing food is a basic human right, and it makes sense to have distributed food systems that grow food in cities, peri-urban and rural areas to build the most resilient systems possible in the light of future food security issues.

It’s rather quaint that our modern societies consider themselves affluent and prosperous, yet we design cities that are literal food deserts, area where food is scarce and hard to obtain. I guess people only notice the problem when the commercial production-transport-retail supply chains are disrupted and the supermarket shelves become empty. Perpetuating acts of decadence in the knowledge of impending crisis is truly the height of irresponsibility and foolishness. Only time will tell how history will judge us.


1. Land8 article Why Landscape Architects Stopped Specifying Edible Plants (And Why They Have Started Again) by Brian Barth July 3, 2014



2 thoughts on “Cities – Food Free Zones? The Creation of the Urban Food Desert

  1. There is no world-wide ‘one size fits all’ solution to the dilemma of putting food plants into landscapes. However, I would suggest we move away from the term ‘Urban Agriculture’ and suggest we use the term ‘Food Gardening’ because currently the term Agriculture is too firmly rooted in vast mono-cultures and toxic chemicals. In contrast, there have been Gardens in cities for centuries and the French have been at it for almost 200 years, to the point that ‘French Intensive Gardening’ became the common term for the technique of creating urban market gardens. Add the snob-value of anything artsy and French to Architecture can surely pique the interest of the average Landscape designer. What it comes to is educating the curious, in terms they can understand, instead of bashing the ignorant. There is plenty of room for improvement in modern city-scapes.

    It would be in the best interest of any Designer to take a look at the Old World to see how they fed themselves before the days of refrigeration. As it is in the best interest of any rational human to ask if simple changes like adding some fruit trees can enhance their neighborhoods.

    There are thousands of food gardens, small, mini and micro in every city in the world. The challenge is to get photos of them posted somewhere Landscape Designers can see them and be inspired. It’s a BIG challenge. So a little finesse goes a long way to getting people to change. Inspire them, make them curious and praise even the simplest steps forward.

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