At our inaugural “pruning of our pear grove” at Genessee Orchard this past Sunday, volunteer extraordinaire Steve Getlein gave me an important book with the unfortunate title of CPULS (Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes). Despite its design and ponderousness prose, it nonetheless has great things to teach us.
It tells us for example that urban orchards create spaces that make room for welcome, beneficial neighborhood activities that thus prevent and displace undesirable neighborhood activities, such as crime, drugs and vandalism. (p. 57)
It tells us that in Europe in the early 18th century, parcels of public land were given to the poor “to compensate the landless rural poor for the enclosure of common land by the wealthy landowners.” Before the enclosures, unlanded folk could forage, hunt and graze their sheep on open spaces, which, though owned by barons, etc, were considered part of the commons and thus available to all who used them responsibly. With the closing off of access to these formerly common lands, the peasants were deprived of a significant source of food, natural resources and hence a certain amount of common wealth.
In response, in the late 19th century, urban allotments of land were, by law, given to the poor to enable them to grow their own food in and around cities (p. 99)
The back to the land movement of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s envisioned “garden cities,” semi-urban places that grew food, enhancing and circling city centers. No less a personage than Frank Lloyd Wright weighed in on the value of urban ag in his book called The Living City. In an ideal city, “architecture and acreage”, that is buildings and agriculture, grey and green infrastructure, hard and soft surfaces would together form the perfect landscape.
So today, we are changing the nature of cities with the (re)creation of orchards and gardens and urban farms. But what if, in addition to all this, the city allotted green spaces specifically to those on food stamp programs? What if in neighborhood vacant lots, at local libraries, alleyways, edges of sidewalks and unused parking lots, just steps from where people lived, we dug up the land and created garden plots? And what if along with those plots the city trained and appointed gardening posses to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood bringing knowledge and experience to the garden sites, and the gardeners, themselves? And what if local churches and civic organizations and schools offered cooking and canning and preserving classes so that the abundance of food in season could be captured year round?
We are almost there. We already have hundreds of community gardens and an equal number of personal gardening plots that individuals rent on public land from the city annually. We have CGRN (the Community Gardens Resource Network), Baltimore GreenSpace, the city’s Sustainability Office, the Food Policy Office and the Adopt a Lot program. We have all the pieces but we haven’t quite put them all together this way yet.
This effort would be pegged to directly respond to the needs of the hungry, reaching out to and engaging them. It would offer them not only food for today but skills for feeding themselves tomorrow. As we wrote about in an earlier blog, urban gardening food activist Ron Finley accurately and poignantly says that growing food is like printing your own money. Perhaps over time, then, with the early successes of this program, some of the food stamp money could be weaned from purchasing food to providing the hungry with land and skills that can help them feed themselves over a lifetime. This would blend what is often called Food Justice, and a right to food, (which is access to food) with Food Sovereignty, being in control of your food. And perhaps too it could give participants the ability to become urban farmers, creating cottage industries that supply corner stores with fresh fruits and vegetables and help build a stable economic base in their neighborhood.
Who knows where this century’s “return to the land” movement is heading. But we are happy to be a part of it.