By Wayne Roberts

When Socrates, Plato and the gang had their dialogues about the inner essence of beauty, truth and justice, while hanging out at the farmers market in downtown ancient Athens, they had no idea of the problems they would create for urban agriculture 2500 years later.

Unfortunately, urban agriculture is still all Greek to many city planners.

That’s because the ancient Greeks established the pattern of what I call singular thinking for all manner of food policies — including such commonly used expressions as food policy, food strategy, food culture, local food, sustainable food, alternative food, and urban agriculture. Not much pluralism or plurals here!!

We betray the Greek origin of western styles of thinking every time we use the singular to discuss potential options with regard to the abundance of foods and food choices that urban lives and modern technologies provide (please note my use of the plural).

The ancient Greek philosophers, despite many wonderful ideas they developed, were hung up with locating the one and only essence of things — an abstraction that was independent of the ups and downs of momentary appearance.

They didn’t like messy realities because they were too messy, and left that world to slaves and women.

To this day, many of us are still straitjacketed by this narrow mindset. One way the tradition lives on is the low standing of growing and preparing food, as distinct from the well-paid work and prestige that goes to people who speculate on the financial abstractions of food.

Almost as harmful, though much less direct, is the way food policy gets treated by city authorities.

To wit, the way cities agonize over a policy (note the singular) for urban agriculture (note the singular), rather than a suite of policies (note the plural) to help as many who are interested, for whatever reasons (note the plural), be they love or money, to eat foods (note the plural) they have been grown or raised or foraged in varieties (note the plural) of spaces (note the plural) — from front yards, to back yards, to green roofs, to green walls, to balconies, to windowsills, to allotment gardens, to community gardens, to beehives, to butterfly gardens, to teaching and therapeutic gardens, to edible landscaping, to soil-based, hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouses, to vacant lots, to public orchards, to community composting centers, to grey water recycling for lawns and gardens, to formally-sited farms and meadows.


There are so many opportunities, so many points on the urban agricultures spectrum, that we can’t even say urban agriculture is what it is.

Urban agricultures are what they are, and governments should embrace them all.

Though, of course, public authorities need to practice their usual due diligence in terms of personal and public safety, but the emphasis of policy should not be on toleration or permission, but management and stewardship of the health, environmental, community and economic yields of urban ag.

Janine de la Salle’s wake-up call

This is in marked contrast to the present mode of civic management over urban agriculture, which Vancouver-based city food planning expert Janine de la Salle, writing in the book, Cities of Farmers, compares to the way authorities manage sleep: “it is necessary, but not meant to be regulated or managed in any meaningful way.”

That nice little dig (there are many ways to dig in support of urban agricultures) brings me to the business at hand in this newsletter, a review of three fairly new resources (two books, one assortment of essays) on urban agriculture — each of which sheds a distinctive light on the growing possibilities of urban food production.


The best to begin with is the collection edited by Julie Dawson and Alfonso Morales, called Cities of Farmers: Urban Agricultural Practices and Processes. It sets the stage.

The two editors come from the state university in Madison, Wisconsin, where the late city planning authority, Jerry Kaufman, spread his protective wings around a new generation of urbanists who now teach and practice city food planning around the world. Before Kaufman, the conventional wisdom of city planners was that food was produced in rural areas and consumed in cities; cities should stick with making things that provided the “highest worth” of expensive city land. This anthology, which breaks totally from convention, is a worthy basket from the harvest Kaufman seeded. (To be transparent, I am as indebted to encouragement from Kaufman as any of his students.)

Jerry Kaufman, godfather of city food planning

To be more transparent, I got to see this book before it was published, so I could write a back cover blurb drawing attention to its “down to earth quality” that can help city planners, health promoters, community developers and “all who love what a garden does for a day outdoors, a yard or parkette, a great meal, and quality time with others.”

The breakthrough of the book, in my view, is that it doesn’t ask the ancient and unanswerable philosophical question about “what is urban agriculture.” Instead, it asks the more pointed and fruitful question: what do urban agriculture projects do.

The book’s answers (note the plural) form the most comprehensive overview yet of how the “multi-functionality” of both agriculture and food can generate the many benefits that urban agricultures bestow on cities.

Producing food may well be the least accomplishment of urban agriculture, though that extra food can really make a difference for people on low income. But the crop itself is only one contribution on a long list that includes enhanced public safety, community vitality and cohesion, neighborhood place-making, skill development, food literacy, garbage reduction (through composting) and green infrastructure.

down to earth look at urban ag

As Erin Silva and Anne Pfeiffer argue in their chapter on agroecology in cities, the sheer range of benefits bestowed by urban agricultures dwarfs the efficiency of any one particular contribution — be it food production or the development of community food literacy. This knocks the economic analysts for a loop because the premise of this book is that the whole is greater than the part, and the efficiency comes out of the whole, not any one part. “Though food production remains a central focus for many operations,” they write, “ it is often a means to achieve other social benefits rather than the singular goal.”

As I used to put it during my working days at the city of Toronto, the success of all forms of food activities, including urban agricultures, rest on the economies of scope, not the economies of scale.

Therein lies the key to measuring true productivity, and when we understand that breakthrough method of measuring progress in food matters, we will come to see the potential of a totally different method of managing and rewarding food activities.


Though I like all the essays in the book, the one that knocks my socks off is by Nevin Cohen and Katinka Wijsman. It highlights the central role of food practices in a way that points to new ways of promoting food activities that go far beyond the boundaries of urban agricultures. (Are you becoming more comfortable with all the plurals?)

Nevin Cohen, co-author, practices looking like a gardener

This essay is fundamental to anybody who want to make the journey from food policy to implementation of new food practices.

I never had a policy of brushing or flossing my teeth after a meal. But sometime before I remember, I learned the practice of brushing my teeth (though I learned the wrong practice that was standard in my day, of scrubbing up and down, and side to side, not gently brushing up or down from the gums to prevent gum damage). Too late, unfortunately, to save my gums from bigtime dental work, I also learned the practice of flossing, to the point that flossing is no longer a policy decision I make, but a practice I follow automatically. That is the kind of change we need to foster in the food system, Cohen and Wijsman argue. Policy is the servant of practice, not the other way around.

Their essay reviews how New Yorkers went from policy advocacy to practices that implemented community gardens. They have not only normalized community gardens on the most expensive real estate in the world, they have incorporated forms of urban agricultures into the basic infrastructures of a city — from green roofs and walls to green paths and street greenings that manage stormwater.

The gardening pilgrims’ progress in New York City has been as much about advancing practices as policies, Cohen and Widjsman argue. Practices need to become the lens of people who seek meaningful changes in food or any systems.

We have come full circle from Plato and the ancient Greeks, who saw theory as the exemplar of purity, not defiled by the shadows in the caves that people lived in. This is why we now need to refer to people who get the new paradigm of meaningful change as “communities of practice.”

Developing such communities is the way we build vehicles for food system transformation, just as people who practice yoga or medicine or meditation work their changes.

When you have finished this book, you will be mentally ready for the latest practices from one of the master practitioners of organic food production.


Michael Ableman is one of the preeminent growers, photographers, speakers, writers and entrepreneurs produced by the global organic movement. He was able to bring all these mature skills and practices to the most delicate, fragile and responsible project of a lifetime — cultivating the skills and practices of 25 employees from Vancouver’s notoriously drug-ridden Downtown East End to the point where they tended five acres on four beautiful and productive food gardens. Urban agricultures don’t get much grittier than this. Ableman’s book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, tells the story.

Street Farm can’t help but move you

There was no utopian vision — it takes a practiced hand to know to steer clear of that — but Ableman and his crew “wanted the world to know that people from this neighborhood, those who were viewed as low-life losers, could create something beautiful and productive; that they could eat from it, feed others, and get a paycheck from its abundance; and that it could sustain itself for more than a few days or weeks or months or years.”

If urban agricultures can accomplish something akin to that, city gardens can produce something every bit as essential as food. This is what people-centered food policy is about.

Devoted organic grower and foodie that he is, Ableman digs the people-centeredness of this urban agriculture project. Employing and enabling the neighborhood farm workers is the mission of the street farm, he writes, citing the Japanese farm philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka who insisted the “ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation of human beings.” He came to regard his fellow workers as “farmily.”That does put urban agricultures in context, and explains why land-use policy for urban agriculture deserves to be classified as among the “highest uses” of urban land.

Ableman also understands that urban agriculture is not just rural agriculture in a city. It sometimes has to be adapted in stark ways. He came to understand, for example, that a paved parking lot was an ideal foundation on which to build, and that the best way to grow was in some 5000 wood and plastic bins, which could be moved when a lease or a welcome run out.

Harvesting the abundance from former bleakness

He also understands the centrality of partnerships and of champions on city staff to his success; they are the city farmer’s environment, as important and immediate as nature is to the rural farmer. At one point, he even argues that the crisis of global industrial agriculture is, above all, “a crisis of participation” — which distances people from their food as much as the 5000 mile trip that Asian rice takes to a plate on the eastern seaboard of the Americas.


Ableman’s understanding of the centrality of engaging the human side of food production (should we call it human-centered food policy?) is the segway to the third body of work considered in this newsletter on urban agricultures — the work of Chiara Tornaghi at Coventry University in England.

As I read her articles, Tornaghi is so bold as to put the needs of this deeply-rooted human spirit on par with deeply human physical needs for food, and thereby to classify citizen access to urban food production as essential. Only such a deep understanding of the need to engage with and participate in food production could account for her proposal that access to food production opportunities be classified as part of a citizen’s inborn and inherent “right to the city.”

gardening activist Chiara Tornaghi and her assistant

Tornaghi’s work is accessible in a variety of places — including one article on how to set up an urban ag project, and one piece on the critical geography of urban ag, and one study on urban ag and the politics of empowerment, and one report on gardening activism, as well as a publication on European urban agriculture.

She’s pretty much out there, with phrases such as “insurgent urbanism” and “politics of engagement, capability and empowerment,” along with references to the commons, metabolism and other clues that Tarnaghi has spent as much time in obscure sections of libraries, as in gardens.

At the very least, she is refreshing. People concerned about the runaway rates of mental ill-health among young people cannot ignore what she has to say about addressing human needs to work directly in nature — and thereby counterbalance the highly built, urbanized, synthetic, abstracted, impersonal, mediated and corporate-controlled environment of dense cities.

In my view, this mental health and well-being perspective is the most urgent and compelling reason for city planners and managers to listen up on the subject of urban agriculture.

I don’t want to gild the lily of what she has to say. There are calls to action from earlier times that call for direct action, by which was meant “take power into your own hands, and come to a demonstration calling on someone else to do something.” By contrast, Tornaghi’s is a call to meet with your neighbors, find a place to stand, dig in, and get your hands in the dirt. It deals with justice not just as a distributive matter — how to divvy up the harvest so the one per cent don’t get almost all of it and the poor get little — but a capability matter: the right of people to develop their capacities and not have to settle for a consuming life that renders us spectators of our own lives.


You shouldn’t have to leave the city to get in touch with your deeper self.

This is a call to go beyond the civic benefits that urban agriculture provides to a city to the human benefits food production bestows on that undomesticated “gardener” and “forager” part of our being, brain, mind and soul. If that is not well, then life in cities cannot be good.

Although there is huge wisdom in the clichéd phrase about “we are what we eat,” we now need to recognize that we are just as much what we forage and grow and make. We are also what we grow and produce. We evolved to eat in certain ways, and we also evolved to feed ourselves. The two are inseparable. The two were severed by industrial agriculture, which turned most eaters into consumers. Now we need to heal that breach.

Urban agriculture is the ultimate offering that food makes to people in cities — not what has long been considered the punishment of hard labor, meted out to humans as penalty for their sins, but what is really food’s greatest gift — the opportunity to engage and participate in the labor as well as the joys of meaningful work.

(Wayne Roberts also produces a free newsletter on food and cities. It links readers to all his publications, and provides other timely information from the field. To sign up, go to


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