Farming the city: who is it for?

Detroit has lost over 60% of its population since 1950. A 2010 estimate put the amount of vacant publicly-owned land (specifically, vacant lots formerly used for housing) at 4,800 acres – or around 3,200 football pitches of empty space. In areas of high levels of vacancy, the depopulation is clearly visible on Google Earth.

Detroit has in for many years been a spectacle for global media attention from narratives of decay, violence and decline; and in the past decade stories of hope have appeared alongside this, looking at community regeneration, urban farming, and the growth of art and culture in the city’s most deprived areas. The importance of narratives of hope coming out of stories of urban agriculture in Detroit should not be downplayed. There are now over 1400 urban farms in the city. Projects such as The Michigan Urban Farming initiative demonstrate that real benefits can be made in communities by engaging people in urban agriculture and providing a source of fresh and nutritious food in areas where fruit and vegetables are inaccessible geographically or financially.

Many articles, videos and blogs have already told the stories of these initiatives and I would recommend seeking them out. There are some truly inspiring stories out there.

bd3e63_c7313a4d1d2b42b9b073edc47bf2cc4a(Source: Michigan Urban Farming Initiative)

However, all is not rosy. Telling a tale of communities coming back from dereliction and growing vegetables leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth, and for those of us far from its location, provides some easy lunchtime reading and we can go back to work happy that people are growing vegetables in Detroit. It’s not the end of the story.

Continue reading Farming the city: who is it for?

Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

‘Freshly clicked’. The advertisement on the back of the Tesco delivery truck promised efficiency, convenience and fresh produce delivered to right outside my door. Sounds great, right? Online shopping has saved people time for years now, bar the occasional “Oh no, I tried to order 1kg of apples but I accidentally just ordered 1 apple instead” (true story).

The play on the common phrase ‘freshly picked’ shows just how far we have come from a tangible relationship with the harvest we consume. Food can be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day with contact between farmer and consumer non-existent. It is not surprising, then, in a situation where the food we eat is so divorced from any knowledge of the soil in which it was grown, that the food system has grown ever more international and complex.

Knowledge of the impact of food miles on greenhouse gas emissions, and an understanding that consuming local food encourages local farmers which in turn builds resilience against any coming shocks to the international food system, is certainly increasing. The rise in interest in, and success of, local food shops, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and veg box schemes demonstrates this – albeit confined primarily to a particular social demographic. However, progress remains limited: in 2015, the UK imported £9.1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit, and only exported £1 billion worth. That’s a pretty large trade deficit.

Supermarkets continue to dominate the grocery sector in the UK, which means cheap and unseasonal produce remains the name of the game. Consumers have become used to food availability that simply is not possible without huge levels of international imports to get around the fact that the UK climate does not produce all the food all year round. Eating seasonally is inconvenient for us, now, and not just a necessary way of life as it used to be.

Continue reading Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

How Should My Garden Grow?

How can you most effectively reduce your carbon footprint through your choice of what food you grow yourself?

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Growing your own food is often, and justifiably, talked about as an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding the environmental impact of food miles and out-of-season veg from the supermarket. In the UK, between 20 and 30 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – from pesticide use to refrigeration and transportation.

Over half the world’s population now reside in urban areas, and urban food production is becoming increasingly popular as a way to mitigate climate change, improve food quality and reduce personal carbon footprints.

The variety of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown by allotment holders, community farms and the like are endless – just take a wander around the town of Todmorden for example, where peppers grow outside the police station in homage to the Beatles, and the hospital boasts an apothecary garden with herbal remedies galore.

However, for those just starting to venture into the world of grow-your-own, especially those doing so from a concern to reduce their impact on our planet’s delicate climate, choosing what to grow can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you, like the vast majority of us that live in urban areas, suffer from limited growing space. What on earth should you choose – what is the most effective way to grow food and save the planet?

Continue reading How Should My Garden Grow?

See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

Image licensed under Creative Commons, used with permission

Yosemite, 1869. John Muir, father of the modern conservation movement, writes with rapture of what he sees:

…the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered  bryanthus, the mountain’s own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe by a thousand miracles, seeming always finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes…

John Muir is credited by many as having begun the movement towards environmental conservation of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Following his rapturous writings on Yosemite, in 1872 the area became the world’s first dedicated National Park. Many others have since followed globally, conservation stemming from a similar belief that places of “outstanding natural beauty”, biodiversity and spiritual value should be protected from the rampaging progression of industrial capitalism, saved by legal designation from becoming another high-rise or industrial estate. Muir’s environmentalism has influenced conservation and environmental ethics for centuries now, elevating values beyond profit and production, and cementing ideas of wild and wilderness in the psyche of modern-day Western civilisation.

Continue reading See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

trail tales: there and (almost immediately) back again

It’s alright to “fail”.

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“I don’t think I can go on any further.”

We had paused to catch breath on a wooden bridge swung high over a gully. Ancient limestone cliffs dropped away beneath us and far below, the river swirled past on its path from summit to sea, carving and smoothing the rock that flanked it. We were half a day into our four-day hike.

Continue reading trail tales: there and (almost immediately) back again

trail tales: silver peaks and the jubilee hut

Each step is a thousand subconscious decisions when you’re in the hills.

You weigh up the stability or otherwise of the ground before you, consider the position of your feet, your pace, your fatigue, the odd muscular twinges that you hope won’t turn into
anything more serious. You check whether the ground is wet or whether there are tree roots poking out or other trip hazards. You assess the gradient of the terrain. And then you place your foot. Half a breath later, or maybe a whole breath if it’s steep, you do the same thing again. And on it goes, until you reach your destination.

Continue reading trail tales: silver peaks and the jubilee hut

the bush is not dying – it is being killed

In a dark alcove of the Te Papa national museum in Wellington, a lament plays on. Across
the walls of this semi-hidden corner runs a list of unfamiliar names: huia; moa; kairuku. As you sound out the words in your head, the lament music builds and fills the alcove. This is the tribute to the extinct animals of New Zealand – and the list goes on.

Continue reading the bush is not dying – it is being killed