Book Review: Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival, David Hanson and Edwin Marty

Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm RevivalDavid Hanson and Edwin Marty

Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival
David Hanson and Edwin Marty

University of California Press  has a page for Breaking Through Concrete 

ISBN 978-0-520-27054-1 hardcover, 200 pages. Published January 2012 $29.95

I am not an urban farmer. I hadn’t thought much about the whole movement. This book opened my eyes to the many types of urban farm, the different problems and concerns they address, and the various creative ways they do that. The myriad benefits provided by urban farms include:

  • Food for low- or no-income people, food sovereignty for the neighborhood,
  • An increased supply of more local produce, especially in food deserts,
  • Meaningful work, especially for those less likely to find employment,
  • Physical exercise for people, especially young people,
  • Interesting things for people to see and do,
  • Education about organic and sustainable farming, introduction to a vision of a more sustainable food system,
  • Human connections, via work and dialogue,
  • A way to welcome and integrate people of different cultures, and differing abilities,
  • Green space – “lungs” for the city,
  • Places of beauty, solace and respite from the cityscape,
  • Revitalization of abandoned city lots,
  • Projects that can start small, with few resources, and yet make big changes in people’s lives.

This book came about after a cross-country road trip in 2010 by the authors and photographer, to celebrate the American urban farm movement. As well as descriptions of the 12 farms they visited, there are sections giving very practical dos and don’ts related to an issue addressed by each particular farm. This is a well-structured book with beautiful photos and inspiring stories.

Edwin Marty, who started an urban farm in Alabama with a partner in 2001, 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.” The authors distinguish three types:

  1. Urban Farms, for profit or non-profit, growing produce, flowers, herbs, and/or animals, within a city. Usually they have a paid staff.
  2. Community Gardens, where individuals or small groups grow plants and/or animals for their own consumption or to donate to the needy. They may be on public or private property.
  3. School Gardens, where the main focus is educational and a small amount of food is provided for students; and I would add another:
  4. SPIN (Small-Plot Intensive Farming) and SIFT (Small-Scale Intensive Farm Training program) created to help communities increase their food security by producing their own healthy food. SPIN focuses on helping individuals earn a living by farming a collection of urban backyards. SIFT, with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), is developing a working, sustainably managed, demonstration farm on five acres at Butte, Montana, (far from urban). Both (and their unbranded cousins) teach how to commercially produce high-value, nutrient-rich food on small parcels of land.

The main part of the book describes each farm in turn, gives its vital statistics and is followed by a multi-page “How-To” section on a related theme. Here’s the journey:

  • P-Patch Neighborhood Gardens in Seattle, WA, 73 gardens covering 23 acres. Started in 1973. Beds are allocated to individuals who pay a nominal fee, agree to some basic rules and share a few responsibilities for site maintenance.  People grow food for themselves, or donate to those in need. There are no paid workers. The follow-up is How to Change Your City’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Codes. Seattle is the poster-child for urban agriculture.
  • The Homeless Garden Project, Santa Cruz, CA, focuses on job creation, training, therapeutic horticulture, organic vegetables and heirloom wheat. Watching the triple bottom line of ecological, social and financial success, the farm manager, interns and 14 employees provide for a weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture Farm) for 25 households and 5 social programs. They balance growing and selling quality organic produce with their mission to provide training and a therapeutic environment for their workers, who come with serious mental and physical health troubles and homelessness. Two-thirds of the trainees become more stable as a result of their time there. This chapter is followed by How to Grow Good Safe Food, which explains USDA Organic Certification, Naturally Grown, and organic philosophy and practices.
  • Fairview Gardens, Santa Barbara, CA, produces vegetables and chickens, and provides temporary housing for the farm workers. High-price real estate developed around them, so they are dealing with workers who cannot afford housing in the neighborhood. How To Plant Perennial Fruit Trees in the City is a natural follow-on, as Fairview includes fruit trees.
  • Juniper Gardens, Kansas City, KS and MO is a project of New Roots for Refugees, which acts as an incubator project for 14 women farmers from Burundi, Somalia, Bhutan and Sudan. Training, tools and seeds are provided the first year, with the goal of having the farmers able to move on and start their own farms after three years. There are also community plots for local people to grow their own food. How To Access Start-Up Capital for Urban Farms logically fits here.
  • Versailles Community, New Orleans, LA is a parish with land alongside the canals growing traditional Vietnamese produce. After extensive damage in Hurricane Katrina, the people are replacing their unregulated homes and gardens with a purpose-built sustainable village for 6000 Vietnamese Americans. Much of the work is done by “retired” elders. The How-To section is on Developing a Congregational Urban Farm.
  • Jones Valley Urban Farm, Birmingham, AL, the first urban farm of Edwin Marty, expanded beyond its original abandoned city block in 2007 with funding for a paid educational director and a separate children’s garden, so that efficient production could co-exist with plenty of education. This is followed by How to Engage the City with Education Programs. Some of my favorite quotes come from this chapter: “The assumption of inherent goodness [of urban farms] has unfortunately perverted many well-intentioned projects from realistically matching the available resources with the changes originally envisioned.” In other words, a vision is not enough, you have to do appropriate things to make it work. “The inherent goodness attitude can also lead to a lack of accountability for a project’s outcomes and can, subsequently, be a challenge to an urban farm’s long term sustainability.” It is important to engage the community, listen to their concerns, express the farms’ objectives and clearly show how it will help the neighborhood.
  • Greensgrow Farms, Philadelphia, PA, on a remediated former steel plant and brownfield site, has three income-sources (direct sales from the farm, a CSA, and a nursery) and a paid staff. Any profit goes to the parent organization, the non-profit Philadelphia Project. “The farm grows vegetables and the nonprofit grows ideas.” In 1897, Philadelphia founded a Vacant Lot Cultivation Association to help people garden unused spaces. The City has allowed lots of unfettered food production by whoever wanted to do it, until relatively recently. Newer forms of urban gardening have needed a more commercial approach, as real estate prices have risen.  How to Rehabilitate Contaminated Soils is the practical lesson from this farm.
  • Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Brooklyn, NY has a view of the Manhatten skyline. The director runs the farm with one intern, a few apprentices and volunteers. It’s as much about education as about supplying their CSA, market and high-end restaurants. Film crews are often there, on the warehouse roof among the plants and chickens. How to Convert Rooftops to Residential Gardens and Urban Farms follows naturally.
  • Catherine Ferguson Academy, Detroit, MI, a school for teenage mothers, includes an urban produce and livestock farm, teaching students and their children self-confidence as well as practical farming skills, growing vegetables, feeding chickens, milking goats, growing 10 acres of hay on vacant city lots. How to Raise Urban Livestock is the practical section.
  • Wood Street Urban Farm and Growing Home, Chicago, IL, is a paying job training farm, helping those thrown out-of-work by the real-estate market crash, who became incarcerated as a result of decisions made among limited options. How to Extend the Growing Season with Hoophouses and Greenhouses is the topic Wood Street can tell us about.
  • Sandhill Organics and Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, IL is a 100 acre for-profit organic farm right next to a planned conservation community development of 400 large homes. Home-owners were happy to live beside an organic farm, while they might not have chosen to be neighbors to a chemical farm. A term for this combination is “agricultural urbanism.” This last chapter is followed by How to Start an Urban Farm. With benefit of all the information and the range of perspectives in this book, we are well-equipped to ask the right questions and gather the resources we need.

Edwin Marty gives a thoughtful conclusion, with pointers to the future. This is a book all farmers, educators, ecologists and community-builders can learn from. To buy a copy, visit http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270541 or call 800 777 4726