In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Local Food.
Riddle me this: of all the conversations you’ve engaged in lately around local food and urban farming, how many of them had to do with the farmland surrounding your city? I had to ask myself this recently while reading about Detroit’s ambitious Future City Plan—the urban rehab program that involves slicing off large swaths of the city’s former periphery and converting them back into park and farmland. The answer to my own question, I was surprised to realize, was “surprisingly few.” For all our talk about urban farming these days, we seem to give surprisingly little attention to this most essential and basic facet of urban agriculture.
This is a bigger deal than we might think. The same day I asked myself this question, I spoke with a colleague at an urbanism soiree who lamented the lack of conversation and recognition around the slow but steady loss of agricultural land around Vancouver. Though not labeled such, Vancouver has what is probably one of North America’s strongest urban-growth boundaries in the form of what is called the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR)—a collection of land plots throughout the province, many in the valley surrounding the city, in which agriculture is recognized and regulated as the primary use. But even so, private and federal development is constantly threatening the ALR by slowly chipping away at it, hectare by hectare. Why, my colleague said, in a city so concerned with converting empty lots into temporary gardens and putting raised beds on rooftops for the sake of producing local food on a small scale, isn’t anyone paying attention to land that will really serve the masses?
Almost every city in the world faces this problem, and it is almost never talked about. The United States alone, where suburban sprawl has consumed enormous tracts of previously agricultural land, lost more than 4 million acres of agricultural land (an area nearly the size of Massachusetts) to development between 2002 and 2007. In the past 25 years, every state in the nation has lost farmland. And when you consider that the vast majority of food (91 percent of veggies, 78 percent of fruit, 67 percent of dairy, and 54 percent of eggs) is actually produced on the urban fringe—as opposed to either within city limits, or in entirely rural areas—it becomes clear that fringe farmland does not always get the attention it deserves.
The past several years have seen an amazing rise in public interest in local food, particularly in urban settings, and it’s nothing but encouraging. Urban farming has become a sexy cause to get behind: city governments get street cred for pumping rooftop garden programs, private developers look good for temporarily offering up their land for raised beds, and city dwellers feel cool biking their veggies home from the community garden plot. All of this has great value: there’s no question that urban farming is an amazing addition to agriculture, community space, and the greening of cities. But for all our drooling over images of straw-hatted New Yorkers pulling carrots from rooftop gardens 30 stories up, I hope we also don’t forget to show a little love to the land that feeds most of us.