We live among many design flaws. The one about to affect us most is our dysfunctional and dangerously fragile food system.
Most of our food comes from large mono-crop agribusinesses that rely on cheap labor and fossil fuels. Fresh water and soil are two of the most critical natural resources for our species, and their depletion threatens the ability of our next generation to comfortably survive. It is no longer sustainable or practical to have less than 2 percent of the US population directly involved in its own food production.
Across the globe we see examples of a reimagined, wiser food system, in which the distance between food producer and consumer is radically shortened. Ten years ago, a few women sitting around a kitchen table in Todmorden, England, started organizing to transform the town’s public spaces into farms filled with edible herbs and vegetables, free for the taking. The “Incredible Edible Todmorden” movement has spawned 100 similar programs throughout England. In Chicago, Sweet Water Foundation is reclaiming abandoned land and property and putting art, innovation, and food at the center of its repurposing, leveraging the existing local culture of a historically African American community.
We have a unique opportunity here in Boston to build on these inspiring ideas. Greater Boston has a strong local food community that has built deep relationships over the past decades. An important participant is Roxbury-based Urban Farming Institute. Over the past five years, UFI has trained dozens of master growers specializing in small-plot intensive production, reconnecting thousands of individuals to their food supply through conferences, workshops, and farmers markets. It was instrumental in passing Article 89, the change in Boston’s zoning laws that allows urban farming as a right.
Last year, in partnership with Historic Boston, UFI broke ground on the restoration of one of Mattapan’s oldest buildings, an 18th-century farmhouse and barn that will open this summer as Boston’s urban-farming cultural center. Just recently, UFI created the Urban Farm Community Land Trust as a vehicle to preserve open space and protect land for food production. One example is the Garrison-Trotter urban farm in a former vacant lot on Harold Street in Roxbury, which will be transferred to a land trust to help ensure its tenure against development pressures in the community.
The ingredients above signify a cultural shift. Imagine a not-so-distant future in which each household on your block has a market-sized garden and numerous fruit trees abound. A few of your neighbors have taken up farming chickens or rabbits. The smart app the kids are talking about is the one that monitors their custom-designed, residential aquaponics system. Common spaces—sidewalk medians, vacant lots, and unused parts of parks—are beginning to overflow with food production.
The practitioners, food activists, and community leaders working on this vision continue to be important navigators in steering our current food system away from the iceberg. Increasing the numbers of those who have influence on the design process—architects, landscapers, developers, those willing and able to reimagine a wiser design—can play an important role in accelerating the possible.