Friday, 27 February 2015

Urban agriculture - the latest green indulgence

Jane Jacobs argued in The Economy of Cities that agriculture was a consequence of urbanism not, as is commonly held, the reverse. Jacobs' argument was that settled communities developed in places where there was plenty of food and people in those cities began cultivating gardens and experimenting with growing rather than gathering food.

The problem is that, so far as archaeological investigation allows, this is not the case:

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs conjectured that the world's first cities preceded the origins of agriculture, a proposition that was most recently revived by Peter Taylor in the pages of this journal. Jacobs' idea was out of line with extant archaeological findings when first advanced decades ago, and it remains firmly contradicted by a much fuller corpus of data today. After a review of how and why Jacobs formulated her ‘cities first’ model, we review current archaeological knowledge from the Near East, China and Mesoamerica to document the temporal precedence of agriculture before urbanism in each of these regions. Contrary to the opinions of Jacobs and Taylor, archaeological data are in fact sufficiently robust to reconstruct patterns of diet, settlement and social organization in the past, and to assign dates to the relevant sites. 

This isn't to say that urban living isn't an important driver of invention and innovation but rather to observe that, however appealing, the idea that the countryside is sclerotic and trapped in an unchanging stasis wholly misrepresents agriculture and agricultural innovation. This doesn't stop urban designers, wrapped in green ideas, wanting to recreate that mythical urban agriculture. In one respect this represents the dream of having and eating the urban cake - we want the things that a large city offers in terms of variety, culture and opportunity as well as the bucolic charms of the countryside.

A team led by Perkins+Will and the LA River Corp just released the results of its Urban Agriculture Study for the area, which borders the LA River and gritty neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, and Glassell Park. Funded by State Proposition 84, the study zeroes in on agriculture projects that can both attract green developers and serve local needs. Pilot projects are set to start this spring, and some related infrastructure has already begun. Other members of the team include community outreach partner GDML, urban agriculture expert Jesse Dubois, and financing consultants PFAL.

The proposals are financed through a bond intended for "safe drinking water, water quality and supply, flood control, waterway and natural resource protection, water pollution and contamination control, state and local park improvements, public access to natural resources, and water conservation efforts", and represent the usual smoke and mirrors associated with multi-agency urban environmentalism. At the heart of the project's rationale is the idea that the current model of agriculture less than environmentally optimal especially given the geographical distance between production and consumption.

However, the carbon footprint of food is overwhelmingly in its production rather than in its distribution - and this is why, in environmental terms, urban agriculture is a bad idea. This LA scheme illustrates the problem with its proposed production model:

Because the neighborhood has few greenfields, and could potentially have ground and air contamination, the plan suggests largely “controlled agriculture,” with internally regulated techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, and greenhouses.

So rather than grow the food in a more-or-less natural environment, we opt instead for the use of high-cost, high-carbon 'controlled agriculture', for a world of high specification, architect-designed greenhouses rather than dull old fields with crops growing in them.

The proposers of the scheme also recognise that urban agriculture - other than for particular high margin markets - makes little or no economic sense either. They don't quite put it this way but that's what they're saying:

The study also suggests developing alternative financing methods, and in order to begin implementation, the team is now talking to non-profit partners like EnrichLA, which builds gardens in green spaces in local schools; Goodwill, which has a large training center in the area; Homeboy Industries, which runs a training and education program for at-risk youth; and arts group Metabolic Studio. The team is also meeting with local schools, food processing centers (like LA Prep), and government entities such as the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.

Nowhere in this is there any of that old-fashioned financing and this is because those old sort of investors (the ones without big charitable trust funds or taxpayers' cash in their piggy banks) look at urban agriculture and conclude that it simply isn't viable. We're getting a lot of very expensive infrastructure intended to grow food that right now is available cheaply and readily in the local supermarket having been grown in fields elsewhere in the world. More to the point those investors will look at the land being taken for this inefficient and expensive agriculture and ask questions like "wouldn't it be better to build houses with gardens?"

Indeed it's this question of land values - made worse in California by their very limiting planning system - that makes that urban agriculture uneconomic. Here's Pierre Desrochers describing the end of Parisian urban agriculture:

Urban agriculture in Paris and elsewhere quickly faded away at the turn of the twentieth century. The development of new technologies such as the railroad, refrigeration and improved fertilizers made it possible to grow food much more cheaply where nature provided more sunshine, heat, water and better soils. The movers and shakers in more profitable industries that benefitted from an urban location were willing and able to pay more for land while urban agricultural workers moved in ever-increasing numbers into more lucrative manufacturing operations. These realities haven’t changed. Urban farming simply does not create enough return on investment from scarce capital relative to other activities in cities.

Urban agriculture - whether grand schemes such as this one in California or local schemes such as Incredible Edible in Todmorden - is an indulgence rather than some form of environmental salvation let alone a viable economic proposition. And don't get me wrong here, if communities want to invest in these things - to collectivise the vegetable patch so to speak - that's great. Surrounding ourselves with living and growing things helps make the urban environment more pleasing - indeed there's nothing new about urban greenery:

According to accounts, the gardens were built to cheer up Nebuchadnezzar's homesick wife, Amyitis. Amyitis, daughter of the king of the Medes, was married to Nebuchadnezzar to create an alliance between the two nations. The land she came from, though, was green, rugged and mountainous, and she found the flat, sun-baked terrain of Mesopotamia depressing. The king decided to relieve her depression by recreating her homeland through the building of an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens. 

The world is improved by parks, gardens and we get joy from planting and growing but the prosaic industry of growing, producing and distributing the food needed to feed the world's billions isn't about that joy or pleasure but rather about hard economics facts. And one of those hard economic facts is that cities aren't the place for growing our food.


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