Food fractals

Posted on September 20, 2011


I am looking out at my paltry efforts to grow some vegetables.  The cherry tomato has bravely spawned a dozen or so globes that resolutely stay green.  The pumpkin vine is a three leaf farce while the zucchini looks like it could win a prize in the local bonsai competition.

Even the mini greenhouses that I bought enthusiastically a month ago have yet to perform in the manner desired: the gale that blew last week carried them both straight across the garden and into the fruit trees. But none of this makes any difference to the enormous pleasure the garden has given.  Sitting out in the last of the summer sun, book in hand and Panama firmly on head, the quiet life surrounding these plants has provided good company. A snail inches into the watering can and even though I rescue it from drowning every other day it persists in finding its way back into the deep green gloom.  The occasional bee casually inspects the efforts of my plants to reproduce, and deems them worthy, choosing to stop at more than one delicate stamen.

Each time I have entered the space I am drawn into a world that is at once real and present and a far larger place in the imagined possibilities that the meagre offering suggests.

In my imaginings the garden is a riot of life, colour, textures and shapes.  Sometimes it is a vast, sprawling kitchen garden. At other times it is a walled, secret garden. Occasionally it is a full-scale cottage industry.  It doesn’t help that I spent many years of my childhood in a similar reality.  Our sustainable farm was a windswept landscape, bleachingly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. We didn’t quite manage to grow everything we ate, but we were close and perhaps it is this tinge of near-completion that drives my fantasy.

The challenge and the desire to grow all my own food is firmly planted in my imagination even though I know it requires considerable skill, attention, the right space and environmental ingredients.  It feeds a need in me to be connected to the Earth’s natural cycles and to feel in some neanderthaal-like way that I can provide at the most basic level. But how realistic is this really?  Is it sensible even?

Urban food growing is having a renaissance in cities right around the globe.  It is happening on window ledges, in pocket parks, on roof-tops, in school-yards, on verges and median strips.  It is being shared via allotments and through community gardens, and increasingly through orchestrated means such as garden-share and land-share schemes, or city-wide programmes, such as the 2012 garden spaces by 2012 in London.  It is being planned for on a grand scale for new cities including eco-cities and agri-city proposals.  Already, in China, agri-cities are being built as a way to feed people as close to where they live as possible.

There is some collective desire being expressed in this growth-burst of gardening.  I am fascinated by the challenge it creates: matching desire to reality.  How much food can really be produced? Is it the best use of space?  What about resources  – does it use soil, water and nutrients in the most effective way possible?

It is an individual desire which can be fulfilled at a micro level (on the window ledge), but also at macro level (the agri-city development).  In this, it is fractal.  Despite the huge tension in duplicating this particular system of provision, it does appear that growing food in urban environments is scalable.  It gives rise to so many rich possibilities for doing things differently in cities.  If food grown locally is fresher, and more democratised somehow, what does it show us about other ways of living and producing in cities?  What does the collective endeavour of food growing do for this strange new morphology? Rather than a city being seen as a big, bold, impersonal place, does this level of activity engage us in the interpersonal level in a way we left behind once the industrial era began?

What, then, would be different about this new-old form of engagement now? Of course, the world has been transformed by technology and by wealth.  Cities are no longer rife with swilling sewage and disease.  We have solved many of the problems that plagued us, but in so doing, we lost much of the human scale of cities.  Now we are revisiting traditions and applying them with a new lens and new tools.  These help us solve many of the technical challenges that confront us in re-embracing old practices but do they help us understand how we work with each other in this new space?  Who owns food grown on the verge of a road?  How do we take our goods to market when it has been grown in the community garden?  What value do I place on my produce and is it only a financial currency I am seeking?

The grand urban food experiment is of course not entirely new, but this chapter in its history is an exciting one.  It is bearing fruit now but perhaps we will only know whether it is fit for the table or just for jam in the full, ripeness of time.