What do you want from your city’s soil? There are many homegrown and local agriculture ideas in Living Concrete/Carrot City, an exhibition currently on view at Parsons The New School for Design, and they’re worth a look. The projects range from farm visits for families to bodega research, education and empowerment. There are mapping projects that do the basic chore of charting urban gardens and farms, and there are maps that gather information about harvests and how they translate into economic terms. There are rainwater harvesting kits and partnerships on water. There are sustainable food projects for kids in the Bronx and for adults on the Lower East Side (PDF). There are biological cocktails made out of frogs and gelatin, and there are sculptures of apples visualizing their carbon footprint. There is the ubiquitous traveling planter bag. And there are bees: beehives, bee sound projects, and bee videos.
The Living Concrete/Carrot City project is described as “a cross-institutional dialogue” between the newly produced Living Concrete, co-curated by Nevin Cohen and Radhika Subramaniam and featuring work by faculty and students at Parsons, Eugene Lang College and other parts of the New School, and Carrot City: Designing for Urban Agriculture, an initiative of the Department of Architectural Sciences at Ryerson University in Toronto that came to fruition under the green thumbs of Mark Gorgolewski, June Komisar and Joe Nasr. Wall panels feature some of the projects shown at Ryerson, international in scope and conceived by students and design professionals alike, which are also listed in detail on the Carrot City website. The projects are organized by category: City, Community & Knowledge, Housing, Rooftops, and Products. We should hope that NYC designers will be inspired by projects from Berlin or other cities where urban agriculture used to be a necessity and has only become a privilege in its own right quite recently.
One of the things that is hard to reconcile in the realm of urban agriculture is the seeming lack of cohesiveness between certain groups ostensibly seeking similar outcomes. The accretion of projects in Living Concrete/Carrot City serves first and foremost to put everyone on the same page. In that vein, what becomes interesting is the partnership between Parsons and Ryerson. Nevin Cohen and Radhika Subramaniam knew an important piece of urban agriculture documentation when they saw it and decided to follow suit with their own version of the show, adding more projects, people, and media attention to the movement.
A pamphlet has been published to accompany the exhibition, which emphasizes the growing role of the university in the development of urban agricultural ideas and initiatives; Scott Stringer’s participation in the Food and Climate Summit hosted by NYU and Just Food last December is exemplary of this. The idea of urban farming as an educational utility is inescapable. The exhibition can be lauded for its efforts to create a visible, public platform for pedagogy, something that targeted local organizations sometimes miss. And the show is indeed down-to-earth, in the sense that it is not looking for the perfect vertical farm or the tomato of the future. Rather, they are testing how the existing urban landscape can be used to challenge the agro-industrial complex.
Urban agriculture is not a new phenomenon. My friend Daniel who is trying to put a mobile vegetable garden in front of City Hall sends me articles from his research into the history of urban agriculture in the US. The latest was about an architects corps managed by our very own Architectural League in 1917 to till and cultivate 40 acres of urban farmland. Architects were encouraged to donate half of their vacation time over 3 to 4 months during the growing season to cultivating fields, or to pay the equivalent of $21 towards the effort. Over 100 responded for work, with the women in the offices handling the administrative work and the Mayor’s committee distributing the harvest.
Symbolically these things say a lot, but they are fraught with sexism, economic inequality, pro bono labor and problems of access. And what is sustained as a result of these efforts — before, during and after? Things like efficiency, value, health (one of the projects uses PVC planters – not on my plate, please), and inclusion need to be further investigated, which is why the Design Trust’s Five Borough Farm project exhibited is so important. Five Borough’s analysis of existing urban farming initiatives and the development of metrics for grading success will be key in assessing the long term viability of urban agriculture as a source of food, in addition to its pedagogical and community-building aspects.
But where do we turn journalism into activism, a documentation of projects into policy? The DIY or DIT (do-it-together) component is lacking in the project selection. Many require a city agency, a student (if not professional) design team, in part due to permits required and acquisition of land. But I wonder where Atom Cianfarani is, with her green-it-yourself roofing kit, and all the guerrilla gardeners out there — does their harvest count in the Farming Concrete total? I am of the opinion that urban agriculture is not a fad and will continue to inform community design and city-based health campaigns, but some people think the urban agriculture design trend will be exhausted, expire and we will move on.
But even if the urban agriculture design movement falls flat, the DIY/DIT urban agriculture movement will continue to grow. There is an enormous sense of community that goes with it. Picking up a CSA share once a week and exchanging recipes with people who are eating the same things is fun. Dropping off compost at the community garden is rewarding. Fresh herbs from the backyard are tasty and free.
In the meantime, while the urban agriculture design movement is booming, Living Concrete/Carrot City is presenting a tremendous opportunity to see some great designers and speakers who know a lot about these things, from New York City and beyond, every Wednesday night at the Parsons gallery on 13th Street. You can download the public program schedule here to join in the conversation. There is also a question-answer board in the gallery and a place to post fliers about your own upcoming food and urban agriculture events – don’t miss it.
LIVING CONCRETE/CARROT CITY
October 1–December 15, 2010
Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center
66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street
New York, NY
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.