Slow Food in the Fast Lane

Urban agriculture itself is not news, but the reviving interest in edible urban ecosystems is exciting, as it has the potential to change the way we relate to food, Nature and society. Community gardens, urban permaculture, edible landscapes, forest gardens, market gardens – label it however you like, it all boils down to people growing and harvesting their own food, instead of buying it from a ‘middle man’…which should come naturally to all of us!

Although many urban agriculture systems were developed to profit from the produce (e.g. through farmer’s markets or barter systems), there is increasing interest in more ‘passive’ urban food production – incorporating permanent food plants into urban planning schemes, and allowing the local community to reap the benefits at their leisure.

One example is the Beacon Hill Food Forest, currently in planning in Seattle. It encompasses a 7 acre plot of reclaimed land in the middle of the city that will become a self-sustaining woodland ecosystem of ‘public food’ – edible trees, shrubs, herbs and annuals – which will be maintained and used by the community. The project is the first of this scale in the United States, and has inspired other cities to focus on their own sustainable future.

Growing food in urban areas was happening before we made a label for it – Cuba has been doing it for years! If you walk the streets of most European, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern towns, you won’t travel far before you come across a tree laden with food of some kind. Civilisation developed long before supermarkets, ‘food products’ and shipping containers were invented. Hence, keeping food plants nearby was absolutely necessary for survival.

Sadly, as populations and housing densities increase, less and less people have access to a private garden, and even less can be involved in a community market garden – for them, food just comes from the supermarket. This dwindling connection with nature and ‘where food comes from’ has ultimately affected our understanding of our own health needs, and the environment we live in.

Here in Australia, edible plants are more noticeable in older towns and suburbs (which raises interesting questions about society’s changing values!). Where I live, most houses built before about 1980 have at least one edible tree in the garden – lemon, orange, olive, almond, apple, apricot, plum, pear, quince. Sometimes whole streets in these neighbourhoods are even lined with edible trees, instead of the standard shady ‘street trees’.

Luckily, some local councils now encourage residents to plant fruit trees on nature strips, and more and more towns and cities are picking up on the link between growing edible plants and securing healthy futures for local communities. The University of Melbourne’s School of Land and Environment, with a history of research into urban gardening, is running a number of symposia events this year on urban landscapes – the first is this week:Edible Landscapes: Challenges and Opportunities for Growing Food in Cities”.

And, as always, there is more to the story than just food. Establishing diverse, dynamic plant communities within urban environments will in turn support more beneficial insect and wildlife communities…which will have a multitude of benefits for the whole ecosystem – cleaner air, healthier soil, less ‘pests’, happier people! The more of these ecosystems we can fit into an urban area, the greater ecological and emotional connectivity that town will have with the natural environment beyond the urban perimeter.

We still have time to turn away from the pessimism of global food crises and impending shortages. It will be a crisis if we continue to leave our food production in the hands of globalised agriculture, where more and more land is needed to concentrate intensive production in fewer areas, and more and more transport infrastructure is needed to ship the produce around the world to increasingly hungry mouths. This system will mean we lose more than just the forests that are being cleared to grow the food – we will also lose our health and our vital connection with the natural world.

The onus is on governments and regulators – a town that has a healthy attitude to local food production will grow healthy communities, healthy economies, and most importantly, healthy ecosystems. People in urban areas are at the most risk of becoming disconnected from Nature, which ultimately affects their collective awareness and appreciation of global environmental issues, and their acceptance of environmental policies. Creating permanent local urban ecosystems, where we can combine recreation with growing and harvesting food, is an excellent way to reduce this disconnection, and ensure multiple benefits for the community and the environment.

The Mediterranean garden at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens - most of the herbs and shrubs are edible, and the scent on a sunny day is intoxicating!
The Mediterranean garden at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens – most of the herbs and shrubs are edible, and the scent on a sunny day is intoxicating!

© Manu Saunders 2013

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