Rob Stephenson is a photographer who meditates on the places where nature and the built environment overlap with, merge with or intrude upon one another. Past series have explored the beachfront buildings and spaces of the Rockaways, and what he calls the “Borderlands” of New York, where train tracks cut through stone outcroppings, foliage grows over unkept fences, and tiny patches of green and brown fight against asphalt and concrete. Another series, “Transformations,” focuses on construction and decay in some of the city’s most rapidly developing neighborhoods. Most recently, Stephenson was awarded the Design Trust for Public Space‘s 2011 Photo Urbanism Fellowship, for which he spent a year documenting urban agriculture in New York City. I was a member of the jury for the 2011 fellowship, which the Design Trust conceived to be an integral component of its broader initiative Five Borough Farm, a departure from past years when each fellowship was considered a discrete project.
Conducted in partnership with Added Value, Five Borough Farm set out to understand urban agriculture across the city; establish metrics to evaluate its social, health, economic and ecological benefits; and develop policy recommendations to make urban agriculture a more robust, efficient, and permanent part of New York City. Last week, after three years of research and evaluation (which you can read more about in our interview with the project’s Policy Fellow, Nevin Cohen, or hear more about at this panel discussion at the Center for Architecture on Wednesday, August 1), the Design Trust and Added Value launched their findings and recommendations in a publication and companion website, both illustrated with Stephenson’s photographic portrait of the farms and gardens of New York. Here, Stephenson shares a selection of his photographs and talks about his participation in the initiative.
In 1917, the Mayor’s Committee on Food Gardens issued a report documenting the creation of nearly 12,000 gardens and 1,120 acres of large plots dedicated to growing vegetables in New York City. Nearly 100 years later, many New Yorkers have no access to fresh produce and those that do often eat food that has traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles. Economic, social and environmental concerns have fueled a revival of urban agricultural in the city and created a new urban landscape in the process.
This work is an effort to create a comprehensive visual document of the different approaches to implementing a sustainable food system in New York City. The images looks at how traditional methods of agriculture have been adapted to succeed in an urban environment, examining the evolving relationship between a city and its food source.
This project was the result of a fellowship I received from the Design Trust for Public Space in 2011. The images were meant to support their Five Borough Farm initiative, which looks at the effects and benefits of urban farming in New York City.
I’ve documented urban wildernesses and transitioning spaces, so urban agriculture was a natural extension of my interests. Much of my work looks at the ecology of cities, in particular examining the incongruous juxtapositions that exist in urban areas. For the landscapes in this project, I tried to make images that contextualized the farms and gardens as unmistakably urban spaces.
Since starting the project, the pace and scale at which urban agriculture has grown has been remarkable. This past spring, plans for the largest rooftop farm in the world were announced in Brooklyn. The roof will be 100,000 square feet, producing nearly 1,000,000 pounds of food per year. Just a few months later, a farm double that size was proposed for the roof of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx. Combined with the continuing spread of community farms and backyard gardens, cornstalks could someday supplant skyscrapers as the emblematic image of New York.
The Five Borough Farm book and website recently launched and I’m currently working on a final edit for a book of photographs from the project.
All photos by and courtesy of Rob Stephenson.