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‘The Myth of Complex Municipal Systems’ – excerpt from “Street Farm” by Michael Ableman

Sole Food’s first spring harvest, cut and come again greens. Click on image for larger file.

Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia – one of the worst urban slums in North America

By Michael Ableman
Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier
Chelsea Green, 2016


High-level alignment and support does not always trickle down into complex bureaucratic municipal systems that were established to regulate conventional infrastructure such as the construction of a garage or a school, the remodeling of a kitchen, or the building of bridges and roads.

In fact, from the earliest days on our Astoria farm and especially as we began to expand to other sites, it became clear that our needs were entirely foreign to the existing system, totally different from anything that had ever been done in the city. Building inspectors, for example, did not differentiate between a bricks-and-mortar building designed to house auto parts, and a tunnel house used for extending the growing season, which is merely a sheet of 6-mil plastic stretched over a steel frame. And this was just the start. We soon discovered that there simply were no municipal codes that addressed greenhouses, or composting, or multi-acre parking lots full of food.

This should, but does not, surprise us. After all, much of agriculture originated in and around what are now large cities. The Sumerians in 5000 BCE established sophisticated irrigated agriculture in and around some of the world’s earliest cities in what is now southern Iraq. In Mexico City the Aztecs created Chinampas along the canals, floating food gardens that provided a significant amount of food to that city. And in the fifteenth century the intensive agriculture in Machu Picchu in Peru provided almost complete food self sufficiency.

And even as farms have been pushed to the outskirts in modern times, separated from cities by suburbs, certain urban areas have accommodated agricultural enterprises with great success. For example, Paris during the nineteenth century converted the “waste” from its predominantly horse-drawn transportation system into thriving French Intensive farms. Some estimates suggest that these highly productive urban farms, which used systems that many organic farmers unknowingly replicate today, made up close to one-sixth of the entire city of Paris.

Most contemporary feedlots and slaughterhouses are located in rural areas, but in the Midwest of the United States in the late 1800s, feedlots and slaughterhouses were common in cities such as Chicago. Animals ready for slaughter were brought into urban stockyards for processing, and thousands of urban people were employed in that work. And long before the mega dairies of today, massive dairy operations existed in New York City into the mid-nineteen hundreds, feeding cows on the spent mash from the multiple distilleries and breweries that operated there at that time.

More recently, when Cuba’s reliance on Soviet food, seeds, and fertilizers ended almost overnight, it developed one of the best models of urban agriculture in the world in and around Havana. Like the Jews who developed extensive food production in the ghettos of Europe in the 1930s, or those who have no other place to grow food than on the garbage dumps in eastern Kolkata, India, these efforts are all about survival. The urban farms I saw in Cuba incorporated some of the most innovative systems I have seen anywhere in the world— mycorrhizal root dips, magnetized water systems, and a level of food crop diversity and productivity that was astounding. But these innovations and creations evolved out of the simple fact that people were hungry and they needed to eat.

Today, most municipalities have some experience with community gardens, and many have even put language on the books to address such land use. Production farming, however, is not so common. With Sole Food, we’ve always worked under the assumption that to make urban agriculture truly “agricultural,” we would have to grow serious volumes of food on acres of land and create the jobs to do that. There was little precedent for that scale and none of the required infrastructure.

Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” (Chelsea Green, 2016) by Michael Ableman

Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia one of the worst urban slums in North America?who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970’s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.

See Michael’s books here.