A Feature Review of
Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival.
David Hanson / Edwin Marty
The City of Saint Louis, where I live and garden, owns roughly one third of the property in Saint Louis. Eight thousand properties are abandoned, and 11,000 lots sit empty. As people moved out of the city and into the ‘burbs, hundreds of properties fell vacant, taxes weren’t paid, neighborhoods were blighted; now the city faces budget shortfalls, in part because a third of the land in the city goes untaxed. St. Louis is just one example among many: Birmingham has 20,000 acres of open land, Philadelphia 70,000, and Detroit 100,000 empty lots. This translated into thousands of acres of ragweed and Johnson grass which these cities have to pay to mow.
Breaking Through Concrete offers an alternative to the apocalyptic urban landscape of post-industrial American cities like St. Louis. The book profiles twelve urban farms from across the country which have re-purposed urban plots to provide healthy, clean food to their communities. The book joins a growing collection of literature (such as Urban Farm Handbook, Farm City, Your Farm in the City, and The Urban Homestead, all published since 2010) and documentaries (such as Urban Roots, 2011) on urban farming, indicating a shift in the way city-folks are regarding their land.
Marty attributes the explosion of urban farming (or at least interest in urban farming) to three factors: a) health, b) economy, and c) security (8). Many Americans, but especially urban-dwellers, live in food desserts, areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. In St. Louis, for instance, life-expectancy in the poorer North Side is 14 years below the national average; this is largely due to conditions related to poor nutrition. Urban farms offer fresh local produce, often chemical-free. Moreover, the majority of American municipalities suffered greatly housing bubble burst; whole communities were vacated and unemployment rates skyrocketed. Urban farming promises bread with modest start-up costs. Finally, in the wake of food-borne disease outbreaks and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, cities which outsource food production have begun to recognize the vulnerability of their food systems. Some cities are looking to small-scale farms to diversify and secure their food economy.
The term “urban farm” denotes a wide variety of endeavors, from for-profit to non-profit organizations, from public to private community gardens, from educational school gardens to edifying congregational gardens. According to Marty, the only theme that binds these projects together is their intention. He defines an urban farm as “an intentional effort by an individual or a community to grow its capacity for self-sufficiency and well-being through the cultivation of plants and/or animals” (5).
In using intention to characterize these diverse operations, Marty points to the dominant theme of his book – people. What sets this book apart from the plethora of how-to guides is the focus on people and their contexts. Before writing the book, Marty and Hanson drove from coast to coast visiting the farms and the farmers interviewed. The result is a collection of lush photographs and colorful profiles of a wide range of urban agriculturalists. Annie Novak has a half-acre farm on a Brooklyn roof overlooking nearby Manhattan; Father Luke Nguyen helps his predominantly Vietnamese parish grow traditional crops outside of New Orleans; Paul Glowaski manages homeless patrons at the rehabilative Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. Often, the hero of the story is not a single individual, but a whole community, such as the Somalian, Bhutanese, and Mexican immigrant communities which cultivate Denver’s Urban Gardens. Marty and Hanson have worked hard to show that urban farming is not the exclusive domain of educated white millennials.
Each farm profile is accompanied with a dossier including basic facts such as when the farm was established, its size, and its mission, as well as practical information such as the zone, funding source, and market. As you read each story, it’s difficult not to be inspired. Evidently, the authors foresaw this, and at the end of each profile is a brief “how-to” section. These include basic things like starting a compost pile and raising chickens, to more sophisticated steps such as changing zoning laws, rehabilitating contaminated soil, and accessing start-up capital. The individual narratives combined with the nitty-gritty details in Breaking Through Concrete build a momentum in the reader which practically propels her into a vacant lot. Happy farming.