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The key to sustainable farming: Cities

When people talk about being conscious of where their food comes from, they most likely are thinking of farms, and, for some, the zeal for local food leads to dreams of urban agriculture. But cities have a natural role in a sustainable food system, and a time-honored one: as markets. Cities are what make farms viable—whom else would farms sell their produce to? The growing appetite for local and regional foods is bringing many advocates’ and market operators’ attention to the urban infrastructure that is necessary to make local and regional foods a stable proposition for both growers and eaters.

The notion of a clear divide between the urban and the rural is itself a curious artifact of modernity. Because milk was too perishable to transport significant distances, milk production for cities was long concentrated in dairies within city centers, where cows munched swill from breweries and distilleries. Only with the railway was it possible to promote the sale in cities of “country milk” as a more wholesome alternative.

And it was the railway that created the nationwide food system that we all take for granted and that many now question. A monument to this system hides in plain sight. New York City’s High Line Park, created out of a disused elevated freight railway, is acclaimed as a graceful reclamation of an industrial relic. But the success of its repurposing has obscured its significance as the conduit that fed the country’s largest metropolis with produce from coast to coast. 

Architectural historian Patrick Ciccone has reconstructed the High Line’s decades as New York’s “life line,” illustrating the scale and complexity of a modern big city’s food-distribution needs. New York Central Railroad’s West Side line was the only freight railway that entered Manhattan, and the High Line, built between 1929 and 1934, lifted the tracks above grade level. This was done partly for safety reasons but also with a futuristic vision in which the whole of Manhattan’s West Side would be lined with enormous new buildings equipped with sidings for receiving shipments directly from cars on the elevated railway—a “new city within the city,” much of it dedicated to receiving the fruits of the “large producing areas” of the West, now connected by rail.

The High Line’s planners took for granted that local producers could never supply New York City’s food needs and celebrated the project’s ability to furnish foods “available in varieties and quantities that were unthinkable a hundred years ago,” regardless of the season. A 1930 study cited by Ciccone reported that the “average distance of haulage of foodstuffs to the markets of New York City is fifteen hundred miles.” New York Central ads for the Sheffield Farms 57th Street dairy plant and Cudahy Packing Co. Branch House vaunted the ability to directly transfer milk and meat horizontally into refrigerated storage and vertically onto local delivery trucks.

The full vision of the “new city” was never realized before the High Line declined in the 1960s with the growth of interstate trucking, but the legacy of the transcontinental food system, based on giant farms, remains. As Ciccone says, “It’s impossible to reverse the history, or we would starve.” Indeed, New York advocates of a decentralized food system don’t harbor illusions that small local farms can provide food for the entire city. However, the demand for regional foods has grown to the extent that the city’s market operators face the need to create their own infrastructure. Greenmarket, the city’s biggest farmers-market operator, runs a small wholesale farmers market—Wholesale Greenmarket—outdoors near the city’s main wholesale produce terminal at Hunts Point in the Bronx. But officials say that a building, a covered market, is indispensable for medium-size producers—those too big to rely on neighborhood retail-market stalls but too small for the mainstream wholesale system—to tap the demand that can keep them viable.

Greenmarket Director Michael Hurwitz and Wholesale Greenmarket Specialist Shayna Cohen note the features of a well-designed covered market: shelter from the elements for produce as well as for customers; loading docks that make it easy for both producers and buyers to load and unload food; and refrigerated storage to maintain the “cold chain” to preserve dairy and meat, the two categories of local food that Cohen says have the greatest unmet demand. (More slaughterhouses and live auction houses in upstate New York top Hurwitz’s list of additional regional infrastructural needs.)

More fundamentally, Cohen says, a permanent market building “formalizes” and “lends credibility” to the market “just by being there.” Without a firmly established wholesaling system, regional produce can’t be integrated into the fuller range of places most people get their food on a daily basis, including schools, hospitals and corner stores: “Farmers markets are not enough,” Hurwitz says.

Hurwitz points to the examples of the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto, and the Rungis Market in Paris, general wholesale terminals with dedicated space for regional producers. He also invokes the covered public markets that you still find in European cities and that were once part of U.S. cities’ fabric, and often remain, even in disuse, cities’ most distinctive buildings. The public market is also the avowed inspiration for the New Amsterdam Market, also currently an open-air phenomenon, outside the defunct homes of the Fulton Fish Market, the 1907 Tin Building and the 1939 New Market Building. New Amsterdam’s president, Robert LaValva, a Harvard architecture graduate and former city planner, harbors the goal of a permanent covered facility that will reanchor a neighborhood that has been a point of face-to-face exchange since Dutch colonial times but hemmed in for decades by the high-rise financial district.

New York market officials note that some of the farmers who sell at the Wholesale Greenmarket belong to families that, a few generations before, tilled land within the city limits but later moved elsewhere in the region. Their farms have moved, but their point of sale remained the same: Little could better illustrate that distribution in the city is the nexus of any food system.

Jonathan_TaylorJonathan Taylor has written about places, buildings and food for publications including Print, The Believer, Bookforum and the blog Emdashes.