It’s probably too early to know if urban agriculture is a passing fad or the next chapter in the movement to restore the connection between the city and its sources of food and drink. The connection was severed after World War II as “progress” put a higher premium on convenience than on taste and variety, and urban “victory gardens” lost their necessity and official backing.
What urban agriculture posits is the cityscape as a commons—and an active citizenry prepared to cultivate it. This wonderful word, cultivation, is much missing now in the metropolis. The cityscape has become an odd place, full of settings that seem alive until you actually experience them. If we accept that everything outside of buildings is potentially “cityscape,” a frightening amount of it seems to belong to no one. Between a public sector that approaches that cityscape as something to be minimally and mechanically maintained, and a citizenry that often sees its obligations as almost non-existent, we are left with a patchwork of private sponsorship.
Without a citizenry willing to cultivate, you can’t even sustain a victory garden. The difference between what was installed in San Francisco’s Civic Center and the allotment gardens at Fort Mason, for example, is an active community keeping it in good shape. Interestingly, the latter are administered by the National Park Service, which charges a nominal annual rent for a 5-by-20-foot plot and administers a long waiting list. There’s a degree of turnover, but slow enough that newcomers can benefit from old-timers, that the community can share some of its costs, and that there’s a tradition that encourages diversity, but also demands a level of participation.
When Shunryu Suzuki, propagator of Soto Zen in northern California, arrived here, he may have been thinking of “Instructions for the Cook,” an essay by Eihei Dogen, the 13th-century founder of Soto Zen, one of the three sects of Japanese Buddhism. He notes that being the cook at a monastery is a shortcut to enlightenment if you take the work seriously. Even hanging out with the cook can be helpful, he notes, telling of his encounter with an old man, a cook, gathering firewood in the hot noon sun. “Shouldn’t someone else do that for you?” he asked. The old man glanced over. “Other people aren’t me,” he said.
Suzuki proposed an ethic of self-sufficiency for his community in which raising vegetables and preparing food had a central place. There is something in that gesture that is directly relevant—the medicine we all need—to cure the barrenness of most cityscapes. Urban agriculture has similar motives: learn to cultivate here, and you may cultivate there—and there. Rooted in cooperation, cultivation is also innately personal, an expression of who we are.
The University of California at San Francisco recently commissioned Topher Delaney and Seam Studio to design, install, and maintain a small garden around a building that it owns in the city’s eastern neighborhoods, across from a public park. The garden fits between the building and the street, triangulated so what’s planted there can really be seen and experienced as you walk along. The raised beds are protected by metal barriers from dogs and debris. Written on them are the plants’ Latin names.
This is a medicinal garden, a source of remedies for people whose cultures still use them. They come and take leaves and cuttings. It’s likely that other gardens will be planted in the neighborhood, now that people see that it can be done. The medicinal garden is tended by a real person, Oscar Fuentes, who made the metal barriers and planted everything that grows there. In an area where the streets are often bare of vegetation, the medicinal garden is thriving. It makes the park seem untended by contrast.
It is untended. Like other public settings, the amount of human involvement in its cultivation has steadily diminished. What if, on the other hand, it was run jointly with the community? What if neighbors had actual plots that they could garden on their own? What if the streets became an extension of the park, with the city’s encouragement for people to garden there, too? What if the public realm was restored as a commons, in other words, rather than as the no man’s land it has become, controlled by cities that can no longer afford to cultivate it, as they briefly did? The commons is not a private realm, but it exists for the community that shares and cultivates it.
As long as the cityscape is someone else’s problem, it will be full of dead zones. As long as the public sector and its employees assert a monopoly over it, preventing its cultivation, it will stay as uninviting as it is—or get worse. It doesn’t have to be this way. If local designers, gardeners, and artisans in the private sector are enlisted in its cultivation, as UCSF did with its medicinal garden, their imagination, knowledge, and best practices can be an inspiration for others—a crucial step in reclaiming the cityscape as a commons and involving citizens in its cultivation.
Cultivation is work. You don’t put lettuce on the table without planting it, watering it, warding off the pests, and harvesting it at the right time. Urban agriculture is really a metaphor for any and all efforts to reengage the community in cultivating the cityscape, at every level that makes sense. Cultivation requires small-scale, fine-grained, locally-sustainable approaches—it’s more work, but it’s the only way to revive the cityscape as a commons—urbane, alive, uniquely ours.
A version of this article appeared in AN 08_10.28.2009_CA.