By Spencer Bilodeau
According to a 2018 report by the UN, over half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. That number is on the rise, and by 2050, will likely reach close to 75%. There is a massive shift towards urban environments, leaving food production largely to corporations involved in commercial agriculture.
This shift has had noticeable effects, especially in how city-dwellers consider and consume food. It has created a significant disconnect in the minds of urban consumers between food production, and what they eat. Basically, consumers no longer think about what they’re eating. As a result, their health diminishes as convenient-but-heavily-processed salt- and sugar-laden junk food sources proliferate.
There are additional issues.
Increasing urban sprawl, coupled with the wider use of monocrop agriculture, has a devastating effect on biodiversity. Modern commercial agricultural practices kill the soil and destroy insect populations. Native flora and fauna have started to disappear, even when they are themselves very often healthy sources of food.
If it doesn’t sell well, it’s done away with.
How Do We Solve All These Issues?
They’re complex, with no single perfect solution. Many of these issues can be mitigated, however, through urban gardening and agricultural initiatives.
I grew up in cities and apartments. My mother understood that she needed to take extra effort to instil in me the same love of nature that she had. Part of her affinity with nature was gardening, but being an urban apartment dweller with no backyard or land of any kind, gardening was something of a challenge for her.
She solved this challenge in two ways.
The first was to grow food in her windows and on her balcony. During the summers, her balconies have always been lush and green, filled with fresh food, herbs, and flowers that buzzed with insects. They would be visited by birds too, who were in all likelihood delightfully surprised to find an oasis of green in an otherwise concrete-filled land.
Her other go-to for gardening was renting city garden plots during the spring and summer. Most cities have unused spaces: areas that—for varying reasons—are unsuitable for development. Sometimes they’re covered with lawns, maintained through taxes by the municipal governments.
Take Advantage of Every Unused Space Available
Some of these spaces are just disregarded and left to themselves. As time has gone by, though, these spaces have started to see changes, notably through efforts by people who would rather see them be put to good use in food production.
The garden plot my mother rented was located along an otherwise unused corridor beneath electrical lines. Others are located in awkwardly placed and shaped spaces along rivers, between buildings, in industrial zones, and so forth. Even building rooftops are put to use.
People are claiming these spaces and growing their own food.
Gardening enthusiasts petition their city councils to let them use these spaces, and in many cases, the cities are beginning to see the benefits. When a number of civilians descend upon the land, and transform it and maintain it through their own efforts, the city is is able to reduce the amount of upkeep they need to provide.
Urban gardening plots also help to create communities of like-minded people who swap tricks and tips, who watch out for each other, and who share food and seeds.
Some enterprising people and organizations are going even further. They find space in old, abandoned factories and warehouses, and create highly productive indoor farming operations.
Will Allen of Growing Power has started up aquaponics operations in Milwaukee and Chicago. He involves the community in these projects, taking disadvantaged youth and teaching them the various principles of growing food. This food goes directly out into the communities, providing healthy, fresh produce to people who often have limited access to it.
These Initiatives Bring Hope
One of the more encouraging developments of late is the rise of urban beekeeping.
Amateur and professional apiarists work primarily on rooftops, preserving dwindling bee populations by providing them with hives.
These bees take advantage of urban blight, seeking out the weeds taking over in unused or abandoned sites throughout the city. The beekeepers learn more about these incredibly important pollinators, and very often find themselves able to turn a bit of a profit by selling their honey to local businesses.
Humans may be moving to cities more and more. We may be seeing a decline in health, and in biodiversity. We may be losing touch with nature. But with some enthusiasm, wisdom, and community, cities don’t have to be desolate.
We can bring Nature back into the urban sprawl. Cities can thrive and produce much of the food they need. And along the way we will see greater beauty, animals can return to the land, and the people can live better, healthier lives.