This past Thursday Concordia University hosted a talk by Scott Kellogg, an American author and advocate for sustainable urban development, as part of a two day conference examining the university’s role in promoting the sustainable food movement in the city.
Before the talk began, some of Concordia’s (and rival McGill’s) urban food initiatives were highlighted: from growing crops on McGill’s downtown campus, Concordia’s initiative to start a farm on its Loyola campus and Concordia’s downtown rooftop greenhouse to the efforts of The People’s Potato, the Co-op le frigo-vert and the Midnight Kitchen to provide good and affordable food to students. Obviously food is important; but given the massive, and often negative, ecological and social consequences of the industrial food production system, food is also an important tool for concerned citizens to address environmental problems and economic disparities both local and global.
Unfortunately, I think, food production is considered by city-dwellers as an activity that occurs out-there: on the vast stretches of the prairies, or some sub-tropical plantation. Scott Kellogg, whose talk was given to a large and enthusiastic audience, emphasized the potential that the urban environment presents to those interested in growing food while acknowledging the challenges. There are plenty of rooftops and vertical building surfaces that are unused that can be made into productive growing areas, in addition to unused lots that could be converted to urban agriculture or, at least, to green spaces.
Indeed, Kellogg suggests applying urban agricultural and horticultural ideas to reclaiming unused space and the bioremediation of contaminated areas. Kellogg provided some instructive examples of the latter, such as the use of compost tea to help decontaminate the soil in post-Katrina New Orleans and the use of mushrooms to cleanse soil of certain types of toxins.
Importantly, I think Kellogg’s talk is of relevance to everyone living in the city regardless of their personal interest in growing food. Urban agriculture, as with most types of agriculture except the industrial model, is an excellent community building tool. People bond over food, whether eating it or growing it. Urban agriculture also provides an excellent method to partially close a city’s ecological loop. Growing food in the city or in its immediate surroundings helps reduce the energy and material input an urban area requires; large amounts of a city’s waste can be diverted to composting schemes, whether in the home or at the municipal level.
The practice of urban agriculture can have other advantages. One example discussed is how the conversion of impervious surfaces to porous ones (such as ripping up an unused parking lot and planting a garden) can reduce stress on a city’s sewage system during heavy rain events while, potentially, converting a sterile space into an inviting and attractive one.
An interesting question that was discussed during the talk is the use of animals in the city, particularly micro-livestock. There are plenty of animals that are appropriate to urban areas, and can safely be raised there. Chickens, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, small goats, bees and even fish raised in aquaculture can all be raised in the city as long as basic animal protections are enforced – a backyard with three chickens running around is different than one with thirty, after all. Of course, animals might be kept for other reasons than food. In addition to making fun pets. goats can be used as lawn mowers as is the case in particularly steep hillsides in Philadelphia and solar farms in Denmark where typical lawn mowers are impractical.
Something not discussed as such in the talk is the type of city urban agriculture can create. Because of the nature of the enterprise, urban agriculture is most conducive to ‘micro-action,’ that is people composting their own food wastes, keeping a couple of chickens, maintaining a beehive, keeping window box gardens and the like, either on their own or as part of small collectives. There is a certain punk-y, DIY, community-minded ethic that is often integral to what urban agriculture advocates promote. Certainly a bit of this attitude needs to be present to begin with, but urban agriculture, or other community-oriented initiatives, can help create a kind of dynamism that benefits everyone in the city regardless of whether you’re interested in growing your own tomatoes.
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