Will urban farming save our cities? Perspectives from Detroit and Brussels

Will urban farming save our cities? Perspectives from Detroit and Brussels

by Remi Guillem & Carlo Epifanio

Recent whistleblowers of global warming have found their scapegoat. Urban areas have been pointed out as accounting for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions while representing slightly 2% of the Earth’s surface. Large cities, as giant Gargantuas, swallow 78% of the energy produced globally (UN-Habitat; 2019). 

Filling the metaphor, these ogres rely on greedy centralized metabolisms, the French Marchés d’Intérêt Nationaux or American periurban wholesales outlets, that have been adopted globally to cope with sanitary risks and provide scale economies. This production and distribution of food have been highly criticized for pollution costs and food waste that do not match contemporary ecological requirements to contrast climate change. Claims for a bio-transition toward more local, inclusive, and organic food systems in urban settings have emerged globally after years of ‘hypercapitalism’. (Galtung; 2012). 

A food system, rather than a simple chain of components (production – distribution – consumption – recycling), can be defined as a ‘socio-ecological system’ meaning ‘a coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner (Ericksen; 2008). Stated boldly, feeding megacities is not only a matter of spatial optimization but a project accounting for specific geographical-environmental features and social contexts. And new advocates of urban agriculture promise they can do so by creating  ‘circular metabolisms’ to envisage the before mentioned food transition (Barles; 2012). 

Bringing food production in cities would foster a circular use of land while cutting negative externalities such as food distribution distances while directly including communities and consumers in food production, distribution and waste. According to Marc Dufrêne, specialist of ecosystem services at the University of Liège, ‘urban farming ticks the three pillars of sustainable development: it contributes to production, it boosts social integration and it improves the environment and health’. However, this more inclusive scheme is put under strong economic pressure by private actors. In this article, we discuss this idyllic representation based on our researches conducted in Detroit, United States, and Brussels, Belgium wondering to what extent urban farming is relevant for food and social city metabolism nowadays.

Besides presenting the positive, perverse effects and limitations of large-scale urban farming projects in these two cities, we share our understandings pertaining to this promising phenomenon based on our field-work conducted between January and June 2019. 

A tale of two cities: positive, perverse effects of urban farming on the Brussels and Detroit ground

 Maps of Urban Agriculture sites in Brussels as of 2019. (Bruxelles Environnement 2019)  

Urban agriculture in Brussels is a living part of a new cross-cutting green vision. The Belgian capital’s administration learned from its terrain, notably from NGOs like urban agriculture ‘Les Début des Haricots’ that from the first year 2000s promote ecology and local food production and consumption. In January 2016 the local authorities inaugurated the ambitious GoodFood strategy to support and network whoever wants to promote, produce, learn or distribute food produced locally or waste treated ecologically. The strategy aims at increasing the local production of food to 30% of fruits and vegetables by 2035 and reduce food waste production of 30% by 2020. Agronomists’ expertise from Gembloux University jointly with the consulting cabinet Group One contributed to the creation of some of the existing 300 urban gardening sites. They also contributed to the birth of many of the 30 urban agriculture new companies in the last 3 years.

This new green vision bridges the institutional fragmentation among stakeholders due to the technical and economic complexity of managing urban agriculture projects. Within the metropolitan authority, horizontal coordination of economic, urbanism and environmental bodies was necessary to organize funds, legal permits, and technical standards to support and implement new projects.

La pousse qui pousse. Site founded by début des Haricots in the courtyard of social housing units in Saint Gilles, Brussels. Source:
https://dot-to-dot.be/la-pousse-qui-pousse-pepiniere-durable-saint-gilloise/

The brand-new urban farming scene has challenged centralized supply chains not only at a practical level: a new culture of innovation is evidenced by many projects: BIGH’s 2,000m2 farm, on the roof of Anderlecht’s slaughterhouse, produces vegetables and fishery through aquaponics while few meters underneath, Champignon de Bruxelles grows Japanese mushrooms on spent brewery grains in the 750m2 Caves de Cureghem, close by the Little Food crickets’ producer. Similarly, Urbi Leaf grows sprouts with LEDs in a cellar under Ateliers des Tanneurs in the city center. Closing the circle, the rising scene of bio and zero waste supermarkets, part of the GoodFood network, is selling products coming from these businesses shaping the new ecological geography of the Bruxelles middle class’ lifestyle. 

By contrast, Detroit saw urban agriculture blossoming in rather different urban settings: years of deindustrialization and depopulation have left a third of the city abandoned (40 sqm/103.6km2). Since the 1990s, remaining inhabitants, as well as local non-profits, have found in urban farming a solution to fight against food insecurity and poverty: more than 1,600 gardens were identified within city limits in 2018. The reason why urban farming assumed massive dimensions relies on urban farming’s capacity to solve food security issues for the most deprived populations. A great number of nonprofits, local foundations, and engaged residents believe in it. As evidenced by a recent study on the impact of people’s participation in urban farming programs on their diets: individuals participating to the Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program in 2018 learned sustainable and healthy ways to feed themselves while participating in gardening activities. This active form of culinary education admittedly reduced their food bill significantly by self-production (Beaver et al; 2019).

Keep Growing Detroit Farm; Source: Keep Growing Detroit
http://detroitagriculture.net/the-farm/

Parallelly, Detroit’s urban farming development surprisingly helped to recreate ‘communities’ by bringing together different social groups and generations. The North Cass Community Garden, developed by Midtown Detroit Inc. has recreated public spaces around private gardens. There barbecues and neighbors’ parties take place supported by residents and nonprofit organizations. In spite of the perceived success of the project, reproduction of race, gender, and class discriminations are not always prevented: white and African American residents do not necessarily agree on how and when to use shared spaces, forcing the nonprofit to hire a gardener/supervisor rather than leaving the garden self-managed. 

Urban conflicts, right for land and market pressure

“It’s a strong but fragile movement,” says Christophe Mercier, co-author of the recent new guide to Brussels’ urban gardens. The common problem of lack of and competition for space gives great responsibility to the local authorities in charge of preserving public space. Many producers benefit from low rents and public support expressed in freedom to use space and easy regulation. Food production is still an economy of scale based on land. And before being profitable, producers need to overcome the fix costs of launching their businesses. Besides, whether the green land preservation vision put in place in the last decade will change towards land consumption, given the economic pressure, only certain urban farmers would afford and find the favor of privates and land developers. This would be the case of Peas&Love, whose business is to rent parcels to clients who for 9€ can harvest their parcel on the roof of private buildings like malls and sports clubs. Potential private and public common space thus becomes a fast track to gentrification. And professional farming would risk becoming ecology for rich clients who can afford it. 

A similar contrast between accessible urban farming and profit-makers occurs in Detroit. Initiatives such as MUFI, for instance, propose free food to inhabitants while neighboring farms attempt to make a living from vegetable sales. This conflict is expressed by the enthusiasm generated by urban farm projects that have in some cases been rejected by the inhabitants themselves. Due to its national media coverage, urban farming development in Detroit brought new populations (mostly white) to the city, buying land and developing their own farms, not necessarily taking into account inhabitants claims. This ‘colonial’ appropriation, as depicted by local African-American activists, becomes even more problematic when connected to real estate issues. The Hantz Farm, for instance, is a 180 acres farm developed by John Hantz (a US national bank owner) in which trees are planted in order to reevaluate land prices in a deprived neighborhood. Such real estate operations lead to local contestations because both residents and local nonprofit organizations depict such purchases as ‘land grabs’. 

Overall, urban farming projects in Detroit, either considered as grassroots-born or privately held by large companies, generate social tensions in a city already exposed to structural racism and social relegation. Even though land availability is not yet a problem, urban agriculture exacerbates existing social conflicts while solving some food concerns in Detroit. These perverse effects are in fact dependent on some inherent limitations of urban farms capacities to sustain food production within urban settings. 

Interestingly, limitations to urban agriculture developments in Brussels and Detroit are very similar: issues of economic scalability, of financial stability and technical inequations, are found in both cities. Indeed, despite the vitality of the sector, urban agriculture’s relevance in terms of volumes of production remains limited in both cities, especially when compared to conventional agriculture. To mention some relevant number, in Detroit for instance, around 193 US tons of vegetables came from urban farms and gardens in 2018, while corn production represented 5,950,000 US tons the same year in Michigan, to keep in mind orders of magnitude. 

Economic constraints and the amount of production matter. As of now, urban farming businesses rely greatly on public or philanthropic subsidies to get started and sometimes to remain economically viable. If urban agriculture remains a second-hand choice for urban food supply, omens of technological progress may favor its development for the years to come. Moreover, urban planners show nowadays great interests in ‘productive landscapes’ urban farms alike: they are presented as showcases of urban common properties and creative green uses of city land, two necessary features for our future cities. 

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