Urban Agriculture and Food Sovereignty
Urban agriculture (UA) in public spaces may have been the unloved child that mainstream western society abandoned in the 17th century in favour of ornamental gardening, but fortunately it hasn’t been abandoned by everyone. Many people in the community, in defiance of irrational design fads imposed from above by local authorities, have continued to grow food close to where they live.
More than just growing food, UA is powerful transformative. Disused pieces of land and vacant lots have been magically transformed into amazing growing spaces, bringing new life to many communities, especially underprivileged ones. These UA initiatives in public spaces have delivered many benefits: reconnecting people, rebuilding communities, encouraging self-reliance, teaching valuable skills, and even providing community-based employment through the sale of surplus community grown food.
If we look at the current forms of agriculture that are in place in first world western countries, we see that particular groups dominate each sphere. Here in Australia for example, peri-urban agriculture (at the city fringes) is mainly the realm of smaller family-owned market gardeners, while rural agriculture (in remote areas) is populated by larger privately owned family farms who increasingly have to compete with corporate agribusiness to stay in operation in this contested space. Urban agriculture (in the cities) has always been the exclusive domain of the grassroots community, but as community needs and ideas about public land use challenge the status quo, we’re beginning to see unwelcome intrusions into the UA sphere.
If you’re interested in seeing communities keep control of their own UA initiatives, then you’ll be interested to know what’s brewing behind the scenes amongst those who oppose community driven UA in public spaces. In this article, we’ll look at what’s looming on the horizon for UA, and what UA practitioners can do about it.
Unsustainability leads to inevitable change
Before we delve into the future of UA, we need a quick refresher about the past and present, some necessary background information on the topic. In my previous article Cities – Food Free Zones? The Creation of the Urban Food Desert we looked at the reason why we have the phenomenon of urban food deserts, vast urban areas where nothing edible is grown.
We explored the history and saw how the landscape architecture profession in local government who only have the most minimal and rudimentary of training in horticulture, and only in the area of ornamental aesthetic gardening, dictate what is grown in public space. We looked at the historical record of how the landscape architecture profession rose from and perpetuated an irrational and unsustainable gardening fad that originated in 17th century Europe, whose sole purpose was for aristocrats to waste valuable land and flaunt their wealth by intentionally not growing food! Now, pardon the pun, but the landscape is changing!
Urban agriculture and food security have become catalysts for change in the area of public land use, challenging the status quo and causing concerns for authorities (as most change usually does). Food shortages and food security are very real issues globally, and urban food security even more so, since the majority of the population in Australia and many other countries live in the cities.
Governments are well aware of the future food shortage issues. What is the Australian federal government saying about food security?
“We are now facing a complex array of intersecting challenges which threaten the stability of our food production… such as:
– Vulnerability to climate change and climate variability.
– Slowing productivity growth in primary industries observed over the last decade.
– Increasing land degradation and soil fertility decline coupled with loss of productive land in peri-urban regions due to urban encroachment.
– Increasing reliance on imports of food and food production inputs (such as fertilisers) and the susceptibility of these supplies to pressures outside our control.
– A finely tuned and ‘just in time’ food transport and distribution system that presents risks of rapid spread of contaminated food and is vulnerable to events such as pandemics.
– Poor nutritional intake leading to an increasing burden of diet-related diseases in the population.
– Conflict in our region and elsewhere. (1)”
So, while the Australian federal government is acknowledging concerns about food security, our local government landscape architects are busying themselves creating ‘art’ in public spaces instead, and getting quite territorial when anyone asks to use it for more important functional purposes such as UA.
The concerns of the federal government are also being reflected in the minds of the general public. What we’re seeing is a gradual shift in values, in opinion of what is appropriate use of public space in respect to a sustainable future and community needs. Quite obviously, the way that public space has been used previously has not addressed food security, and as expected, change is on the cards.
Obstacles to working collaboratively
In an era where sustainability is fast becoming the next big thing, the landscape architecture profession is ill-equipped to respond, as all they really know is an unsustainable style of ornamental soft landscaping, and many (if not most) professional horticulturists would say they even manage to do that quite badly.
They’re way behind the game, they’ve just started talking about ‘ecological design’ recently, which is over three decades after the discipline of permaculture, which deals with ecological design, came into being. Looking at the discussions in that industry, it’s quite puzzling to see that they intend to reinvent the wheel, and one can only be concerned about the likely ineptitude of their endeavour considering their complete lack of training in ecological matters.
It’s not just the lack of technical skills that’s problematic. In terms of access to public land for urban agriculture, landscape architects see public space as their exclusive ‘play toy’ which exist primarily for them be artistically creative. Ironically, they see plant design in public spaces as their own too, despite their questionable competence in the area. Seeing themselves as ‘experts’ they have contempt for public attempts to encroach on what they see as their own private territory in public space.
The idea that landscape architects are some kind of ‘exalted expert’ and ‘enlightened artist’ is widespread in the profession, and the resulting arrogance is toxic. As a consequence, they look down upon the general public and have a disdain for the technically competent ‘uncultured professionals’ they have to work with (who are technically skilled in areas in which they are complete dilettantes). This adversarial and territorial mindset creates cultural and psychological barriers to landscape architects working collaboratively with the community, and with other professionals such as ecologists, horticulturists and agriculturists.
There are a few notable instances of industry heavyweights collaborating with professionals from other disciplines, but they’re exceptions and not the norm. The landscape architecture profession’s culture and mindset creates an environment of competition rather than collaboration, which clearly obstructs the progress of positive community initiatives – in fact, it often prevents them getting off the ground, which, by no coincidence, is often the intention.
Whether their cultural issues are a product of an over-inflated sense of importance, or a fear of being shown up as mere generalists with little practical technical skill, the result is the same. It really is a case of an insular profession not keeping up with the times and perpetuating outdated traditions, while paying only lip service to the concepts of sustainability and ecology as part of the usual token ‘greenwashing’ going on in many design professions.
The response to the rise of urban agriculture
As the public opinion on the utilisation of public land is shifting, interest in urban agriculture is growing, and some segments of the landscape architecture profession are seeing the writing on the wall. This is imposing change on the landscape architecture profession, as unwelcome as it may be for them.
Being an insular profession without any external feedback and internal self-review processes, the landscape architecture profession is in danger of becoming irrelevant through loss of connection to the real world, a lack of communication with people in it, and corresponding lack of awareness of real world concerns such as food security. These criticisms have often been levelled at them, sometimes even by their own.
Looking at the discussions within landscape architecture representative organisations shows us a clear picture of the schism that is emerging. Some want to continue creating ‘art’ and block any attempts to allow food into public spaces while others want to ‘move with the times’ and buy into the UA phenomenon.
On one side we have those resisting change, raising irrational objections to subject matter they have no Idea about and are not qualified to comment on (as evidenced in my previous article “The Problem with Urban Agriculture? – A Fact Based Rebuttal to a Landscape Architecture’s Misconceptions”), while at the other end are those self-interested opportunists who couldn’t care less about food security, the environment, sustainability or human welfare and are simply looking to position themselves professionally to keep their work relevant in times of change despite the lack of skill, knowledge or qualifications in the area of UA.
Having worked in various government departments in the past, I know from firsthand experience the amount of internal politics that goes on. I’ve seen the vast energy expended by individuals to protect their positions, which is often disproportionately greater than the actual energy that goes into the work they’re paid to do. Why would landscape architects working for local government be any different from the rest of the public servants?
Humans have a long history of putting their selfish personal interests above the common good. If that wasn’t the case, why do we as a society celebrate the rarer selfless acts of heroism and altruism when they do happen?
Part of the problem or part of the solution?
Trying to solve a problem with the same mindset that created that problem in the first place is doomed to failure. The landscape architects are the ones that have created the food desert problem (and continue to), and the grassroots community urban agriculture movement have retaliated to reverse a dangerous trend, and now some landscape architects want ‘in’ to UA!
This is problematic because bringing in ‘more of the same’ can’t be at all helpful. Seriously, what use do we have for designers who only know ornamental aesthetic design with no horticulture skills and who know absolutely nothing about growing food, whose real specialty is spending exorbitant amounts of money on superfluous hard landscaping, yet insist on being included – but not in any lowly position mind you. They want inclusion to UA, but only from a position of superiority as ‘experts’, looking down on the urban agriculture grassroots community!
Just because local governments are naïve enough to entrust landscape architects with the soft landscaping (plant design) of public spaces doesn’t give landscape architects a free pass to do work that everyone else knows they have no skill to carry out in the community sphere. Plant design is a job which most landscape architects are imminently unqualified to do, being the proper role of people professionally skilled in and specializing in the matter such as horticulturists and landscape designers.
I feel like I need to put this into some perspective. Every man and his dog think there’s nothing to horticulture because anyone can do gardening as a hobby. This is a bit like confusing home first aid like bandaging a minor cut with being a fully fledged medical practitioner. The fact that people can earn a doctorate in horticulture seems to be wasted on some people. Landscapers, who are just outdoor-based builders, think they can do good garden design for this reason, and regrettably, so do landscape architects.
Move aside, the ‘experts’ are coming to take control!
Would you believe me if I told you that the landscape architecture profession believes they should be in charge of UA in public space (presumably because they’re in charge of public spaces in their mind), and, wait for it… that they should actually be teaching us how to do UA! Well, suspend your disbelief and read on to see what strange ideas are being entertained.
How do such very questionable ideas and unfounded assumptions arise in the landscape architecture world? Primarily though the delusion that ‘anyone can garden therefore anyone can do sound functional urban agriculture design’. When this false assumption is coupled with a naïve arrogance, it creates a recipe for disaster.
It is amusing to read about how landscape architects see themselves becoming involved in urban agriculture, now that some are acknowledging its importance. Here is an extract from an article Urban Agriculture Isn’t New:
“American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Professor Laura Lawson, ASLA, Rutgers University said many cities are now revising local codes to allow for urban agriculture.”… “At the local level, community organizations often take the lead, given most urban farms are non-profit. Lawson argued that in these local instances, there is often a divide between the landscape architects (experts) and community organizations (grassroots). Landscape architects have been ambivalent about urban farms in the past. During WW II, many were concerned about these pop-up gardens ruining their landscape designs.” (2)
Well, fancy that confession, while the community was galvanising and supporting the war effort through building ‘victory farms’ in public space (as well as their own yards) to feed the people, our precious landscape architects were worried about their designs being messed up. This is the mindset we’re dealing with. For a fast perspective readjustment, I would have recommended they sent these clowns to the front lines to see what they could make of the aesthetics of bomb craters, trenches, mud, barbed wire and dismembered corpses.
It’s also telling how landscape architects see themselves as experts, the utterance about the “…divide between the landscape architects (experts) and community organizations (grassroots)” clearly shows their assumptions about their superior position in the grand scheme of things. How can being an ‘expert’ in one area instantly entitle them to assume a position of expertise and authority in an area they have no training in? The reasoning is bizarre. Oh, that’s right, anyone can do horticulture without even trying, there’s no need for formal education, they just create horticulture degrees and postgraduate qualifications including doctorates to make people feel good about themselves (intentional sarcasm here) … Deluded somewhat?
Time for a reality check here. The proper ‘position’ for landscape architects if they chose to contribute to the urban agriculture movement (and they would be welcome to) would be no different to any other person off the street with the same level food growing knowledge and expertise. Sorry, but no special privileges are handed out if you don’t have real-world UA skills to contribute. To say there’s an irrational and inflated sense of entitlement in the landscape architecture profession is somewhat of an understatement.
The disconnection from reality doesn’t end there. We once again see how much more this insular profession is out of touch with reality when they reveal their unquestioned assumptions further. Not only do they see themselves as being put into positions of authority in a field they have no formal training in, they’re so blind and naïve to think they can be educators and teachers! Here is a further extract from the same article, which is indeed worth reading.
“In a later conversation, questions were raised about the role landscape architects should actually play in urban agriculture. One attendee implied that a systems-scale approach may be the most appropriate perspective for landscape architects. Lawson said that may end up being the right role, but ‘many landscape architects don’t teach gardening and perhaps need to or they will become unrealistic about what it entails.’ Still, urban agriculture is expected to present ‘aesthetic’ challenges for landscape architects. Can these designers make the spaces for the messy growing process and the equipment of a working farm seem more functional, beautiful, and integrated into communities? Lawson thinks that more landscape architects need to go to community groups to ‘learn their issues.’ ” (2)
So there you have it, my earlier claims stand vindicated. Landscape architects are arrogant enough to think they can actually teach gardening and perhaps should!
Let’s get real, their profession entails sitting behind a computer screen most of the time dragging shapes around and then having meetings. The majority of them only study a single short general overview subject on plants. What gall to think that they can even design gardens, which they’re not even trained to do. Most of them would be incapable of building a real garden, they’re accustomed to taking a hands-off approach using contractors to do construction, and yet they imagine they are actually going to teach the public to garden for food growing?
Wait a second, can someone remind me what horticulture teachers do? Most countries have strict regulations to ensure quality control of education providers. I must have been mistaken in my thinking to imagine that we’d entrust the upskilling of the population to address a critical issue such as food security to people who actually knew something about growing food. Oh, the height or arrogance, how out of touch can people be! At least the good professor in the quoted article alludes to the latter in her remarks at the end of the quoted passage that they in fact “need to go to community groups to learn their issues”.
Food gardens, landscape architecture style?
Once again, in the above quoted passage, the out-of-touch concerns about the primary ‘aesthetic challenges’ of ‘messy’ food production systems are voiced. Landscape architects are always complaining about the very major problem (in their minds) of food growing systems looking messy, a problem of such significance and importance in the grand scheme of things that they would almost have you believe that it threatens the very fabric of modern civilisation. Forget about primary human needs such as food, we can’t have messiness! What type of perspective is that you may ask? To understand the landscape architect mindset, we need to look at how the gardens they design are built and maintained.
Landscape architects don’t seem to be able to grasp the concept of functional design because they’re not trained to do that. They ‘design’ gardens (and I use that term liberally) by dragging shapes on a computer screen, and then pay very expensive and disinterested private contractors to build and maintain the gardens that they as designers never see and monitor the progress of, thus eliminating the critical feedback loop to see if their garden designs actually work or not, effectively preventing the progression of one’s design skill. No cycle of design-review-revise-redesign here. Once a garden is built it becomes ‘the contractor’s problem’.
The world of aesthetic design works very differently to functional design. Rather than placing plants where they are best suited ecologically in relation to other plants and design elements, they’re placed where the designer thinks they’ll look nicest. The vegies would be planted very tidy rows, borders and mass plantings with contrasting or complimentary colours, shapes and textures and heights much like the design principles of interior decorating, with little regard for the fact that the design elements are actually living organisms.
You may be questioning how sound and sustainable such subjective aesthetic design would be. Would the plants die or perform sub-optimally, be eaten by pest or ravaged by disease, and look terrible after a while? No problem for the aesthetic designer, just drench the whole damn lot in chemicals, problem solved, that’s how they maintain the look! Chemical fertiliser to force the growth of small plants for ‘instant effect’, systemic pesticides such as the controversial neonicotinoids which make the plants poisonous from root to leaf and kill bees to keep them looking pretty and pest free, agricultural grade herbicide to keep the un-mulched bare soil weed-free to provide a nice dark background as a contrast to the beautiful foliage colours and patterns. You get the idea.
Poisoning the environment and people to compensate for ecologically unsound bad design that is based on subjective aesthetics is a key strategy used in mainstream ornamental gardening and it also has its pride of place in the landscape architect’s understanding of how to grow plants.
Mind you, a landscape architect would spend 95% of their budget on fancy paving, edging, and hard landscaping construction, treating the plants as an afterthought anyway, but that’s another matter.
Where the real skill in urban agriculture resides
Landscape architecture’s ignorance of UA is demonstrated by their statements, as shown above and in many articles on the topic. They actually don’t know anything more about UA than the next man on the street. How can I say that? Well, they operate on the misconception that UA equates only with large allotment urban farms, basically a small-scale farm, cut-and-pasted from a rural area into an urban one. The traditional farming model is but one of many options, and probably the least ideal model for urban agriculture, but that is another topic in itself. Most of their ignorant objections to urban agriculture are based on rural farming issues which aren’t relevant at all in urban food growing.
The UA skills issue really is a major one. Heck, I’ll be blunt, as a professional horticulturist and urban agriculture specialist, the horticulture industry and affiliated industries in which I work roll their eyes at the mere mention of landscape architects, as their lack of skill and training in plant design is universally known and legendary. I’m talking about ornamental, aesthetic plant design, what landscape architects believe they to know how to do. Even most horticulturists are not trained in edible horticulture or UA, but they have a good background in plant cultivation which is helpful in understanding UA, and they know what they don’t know and have no problem admitting it.
So, who knows the most about urban agriculture? The academics hate the truth, but the largest repository of urban agriculture knowledge is with the leaders of the UA grassroots community movement who are actually already out there successfully doing what the academics and naysayers are saying can’t be done – growing food as part of the community in public spaces. A famous quote comes to mind on this subject:
“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
– George Bernard Shaw
If we look at successful urban agriculture projects in the US, where they’re even earning money from their work, it’s usually in cases where the community has reclaimed vacant land and their leaders have trained other volunteers to grow food. Community land access advocates 596 Acres (http://596acres.org) recognise this fact, commenting on their advisory committee:
“Our programming is developed by an advisory committee that is made up of local project leaders that have emerged from sites that have organized using our tools (approximately 50%), members of partner organizations and the paid and volunteer team members who actually carry out the day-to-day work of the project.” (3)
What the UA movement needs to progress is less landscape architects, and less interference and obstruction from local government. Considering that the urban agriculture movement is actually growing and thriving in the absence of contributions (interference) from the landscape architecture profession thus far is very telling.
Rather than acknowledging and working with the real leaders of the grassroots UA movement who are already out there doing the work, local governments, sadly captive to the biases and advice of their own internal landscape architects, are being led to believe that these successful community volunteers should be displaced by paid landscape architects. How’s that for working ethically?
A way forward
A wise man over 2,000 years ago, made a comment about assessing the nature and character of people by their outputs, what they produce or bring into the world, as opposed to what they say or would have others believe about them. The statement “You will know them by their fruit. Grapes aren’t gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles, are they?” rings true here.
We often talk about the importance of evidence-based statements in our pro-science, pro-reason culture, so what evidence is there that a profession which sprang from the vain desire to waste valuable food growing land to grow aristocrat’s fancy aesthetic gardens, which is inherently opposed to UA and which is responsible for the phenomenon of modern urban food deserts is suddenly going to make a positive contribution to the urban agriculture movement?
To get some perspective of the machinations of the landscape architecture profession, we need to factor in several issues.
The first is their vested interests in keeping a profession based on dubious historical goals relevant in an era where sustainability and community needs become more prominent.
The second is the lack of skill or training that the said profession has in making a meaningful contribution to UA even if their intentions were pure.
The third is the sense of entitlement to positions of leadership, authority and as teachers in a field this profession is eminently unqualified in.
The fourth is the motivation, this profession’s interest is financial and monetary, and the gullible local government departments are always lining up to hand over taxpayer’s money for a slickly packaged product which is mostly hot air that promises to make them look good and lets them tick off their KPIs for a fee. By comparison, the community grassroots interest is mostly voluntary and the motivations are driven by the needs of the greater good.
To any reasoning mind, it should be blatantly clear that landscape architecture’s intrusions into the UA movement is a problem in the making, considering their institutionalised adversarial stance to UA. Community driven UA is making significant achievements and growing despite the obstacles presented by its biggest opposition. The biggest contribution that landscape architecture could make to UA is to step out of the way and let it happen without their interference.
Reclaiming the right to grow food
Food sovereignty according to the US Food Sovereignty Alliance “is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”(4) That’s the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems, not the landscape architecture profession, who is looking to assume an authoritarian ‘we know what’s best for you’ position and undermine the food sovereignty efforts that the community is working towards.
UA has always belonged to the people, and the most proactive thing communities can do to keep things that way is to take action, engaging in UA activities in public spaces with or without permission and also engaging in UA projects everywhere else to build momentum.
It also important to keep in mind that the public is not disempowered when dealing with local governments and their landscape architects. Community projects don’t happen without volunteers, and local government sorely knows this fact. They need community buy-in and ownership (acceptance of responsibility), otherwise the projects look like they’ve been imposed from the top-down in an uncollaborative fashion, and as a result publicly rejected, which doesn’t achieve the intended effect that local government is looking for because the public is effectively disengaged.
Ultimately, members of the public have the choice of not engaging in, and consciously opting out of, any projects where local government seeks to position landscape architects in charge of a project, or even bring them in.
More of the same?
Let’s face it, there’s something wrong with the status quo in respect to UA in public spaces in the western world. We can choose to ignore it or we can do something about it, but the issue of food security will not disappear if we ignore it, it’s our choice, it’s our future.
If we’re serious about implementing long-term sustainable solutions, we shouldn’t compromise our goals to accommodate the selfish, short-term interests of those who want to jump on board simply to save their jobs, who have no interest whatsoever in what we’re trying to do.
More will go wrong if the people who are part of the problem try to reposition themselves to become part of the solution to the very problem they themselves created, while the rest of their profession continues to perpetuate the problem! Do we get why this is problematic?
If you’re not convinced yet that what the landscape architecture profession is proposing is absurd, I can only leave you with one thought to ponder.
“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
– Albert Einstein
We need to ask ourselves, what is going to change to create a different outcome?
1. PMSEIC (2010). Australia and Food Security in a Changing World. The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, Canberra, Australia.
2. American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) The Dirt blog article Urban Agriculture Isn’t New, 05/09/2012 by Jared Green
3. 596 Acres – About Us, Our Team
4. US Food Sovereignty Alliance website – Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007.