Edible Cities of the Future

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Issue 285
July/August 2014
Energy of Nations

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Edible Cities of the Future

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Cover: Illustration by Michael Morgenstern www.mmorgenstern.com

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After reading about urban permaculture in action, Tom Levitt feels inspired to do a bit of guerrilla gardening himself. Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier, with contributions from Jonathan Bates. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 9781603583992 Edible Cities: Urban Permaculture for Gardens, Yards, Balconies, Rooftops and Beyond by Judith Anger, Immo Fiebrig and Martin Schnyder. Permanent Publications, 2013. ISBN: 9781856231374

Summer berries © paradiselotblog.wordpress.com

Summer berries © paradiselotblog.wordpress.com

While some of us may dream of an idyllic rural life, we are moving towards an ever more urban existence. As of 2010, a larger proportion of the world’s population was living in urban than in rural areas. By 2030, six out of every ten people in the world will live in a city.

In the UK, more than one in eight of the entire population live in London.

Our increasingly urbanised society has led to fears of disconnect from the natural world and agriculture. However, the rise of urban farming challenges those assumptions, with people willingly deciding to bring a bit more of Nature and food production into our towns and cities.

Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, two friends who cultivated a tiny tenth of an acre of depleted land in Massachusetts, are just one example of this growing urban rebellion. Their story, retold in a new book, Paradise Lot, is a heart-warming tale of their aspirations of creating a “backyard foraging paradise”. Not everything went smoothly, but with roughly 200 perennial or self-sourcing species on their tiny plot, they can look back on their eight years of hard work with pride.

Both had worked as permaculturists but longed to take on a longer-term edible garden project in a socially less-privileged urban area – in effect, showcasing backyard farming to people who might otherwise not have seen or believed in it. After finding a plot in the city of Holyoke roughly equivalent in size to the average American garden, they were ready to go.

It was slow going at first as they planned, designed and built up the space. But after patiently working through the “sleep” and “creep” phases, by year three they had hit “leap” and “reap” and were ready to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Their biggest challenge seems, as for most gardeners, to have been weeds and pests. As committed ‘no toxic spray’ growers, Eric and Jonathan relied on other animals and insects to help control their pests – although they do admit to using a little bit of hot pepper sauce mixed with dish soap in the first two years.

The greatest test of what they called their “Zen” pest-control programme was during an outbreak of spider mites in 2010, but before they had time to worry, a handy ladybird predator emerged to gobble up the problem. They did lose some crops, but if they had sprayed, suggests Eric, they would have almost certainly killed the predators too and disrupted the balance that was protecting their garden.

Although he admits that their type of backyard farming would never be sufficient to feed an entire city, Eric believes it can make a significant impact. “My fantasy is that in decades or centuries to come, almost every interaction with one’s garden could be a form of harvest, guiding succession gently to an ever more productive future,” he writes.

If Eric and Jonathan’s story inspires you, then Edible Cities provides a useful companion book of examples of urban permaculture in action. It is a rallying cry for turning our managed and largely concrete urban landscape into one left to Nature.

Why look at a grey, concrete façade on an apartment block when you can clothe it in wild flowers and herbs? The city of Vienna did just that with an old housing development, installing a 720m2 green covering using 16,000 individual plants, which now provide food for local pollinators – butterflies and bees – reduce winter heat loss by 50%, and protect against summer overheating.

Although the majority of the book’s case studies are from Vienna and central Europe, the authors do find space to profile the UK town of Todmorden and its ambition to become self-sufficient in food by 2018. The guerrilla gardening tactics employed by a team of enthusiastic volunteers there have raised awareness of the possibilities. Six local schools have even introduced food growing into their curriculum.

The book also provides a helpful introduction to permaculture, a straightforward guide to soil, plants and what to grow. And for those more politically minded it explains the ideals of guerrilla gardening, first coined in the 1970s by a group of artists and activists in New York.

Tom Levitt is a food and farming journalist. He writes at www.tomtree.co.uk and you can follow him on twitter @tom_levitt

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