Before you bite into the next carrot from out of state, take a look at Carrot City, a preview of concepts that may someday come to an urban garden near you. A project based at Ryerson University, Carrot City seeks to add aesthetic appeal to the grungy task of growing food in urban areas. This site is the fruit of design students’ research on how to integrate agriculture with increasingly crowded cities.

Carrot City is international with a Canadian emphasis. The site’s designers published a book in 2011 and have also produced a YouTube video.

During the next century, our planet will continue to urbanize. In crowded neighborhoods, finding attractive ways to garden can be challenging. Carrot City’s case studies suggest tantalizing alternatives:

  1. Quebec’s hydroponics-based Rooftop Garden Project 
  2. The train-oriented Syracuse Sustenance System 
  3. A greenhouse placed under a highway in Toronto
  4. The South Bronx’s Via Verde housing complex
  5. Troy Gardens, a mixed-income housing complex and farm in Wisconsin 

Urban gardens bring a smorgasbord of benefits to their communities. In addition to supporting local economies, improving public health, and reducing the environmental cost of food processing and transportation, gardening may even reduce crime.


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When I first moved to Boston, I became convinced the way we design houses needs to change. A persuasive editorial in the New York Times this week agrees with me. Building cookie-cutter houses for nuclear families has left us with houses that can’t adapt easily to hard economic times, changing lifestyles, and immigration.

In Chicago, one of my friends rented an apartment which was a former coach house and was built above a stable. The apartment was near the main house on the property, but detached from it. When recent graduates need to live with their parents, semi-detached apartments like that would give them autonomy.

Making housing modular – adding entrances and exits, providing small units that are partly detached from common spaces, and not assuming that everyone in the house will be part of a close-knit family – would add flexibility to home construction. If the traditional dream of owning a house is no longer families’ top priority, apartment buildings should be able to accommodate extended families and changes in their life situations.

The New York Times article talks about immigrant families sharing suburban houses. There are at least two more angles to that story:

  1. Families of choice are rarely – if ever – a target market for housing construction. But many people who are distant from their families of origin may prefer to share space with their friends. Buildings that combine shared space with private sections or apartments could accommodate this social reality.
  2. Since the recession, recent college and high school graduates often live with their parents. Since they are eager for autonomy and may even be in long-term relationships, this lack of privacy could cause family tension. Designing sections of houses with kitchenettes and independent entrances would make their lives easier.

The New York Times article recommends turning old industrial buildings into flexibly designed lofts that can accommodate larger families and changing work situations. A loft-style building would be one potential answer to the dilemma of families squeezing into small spaces in ways that may lead to conflict and stress.

Cohousing is another practical and relatively affordable model. In cohousing developments, shared spaces are surrounded by compact apartments or houses. Cohousing is usually designed for unrelated groups who share social values about common space. The same idea could be adapted for multi-generational families.

By any cold-blooded measurement of pulse and heartbeat, cities are dead. Like shells, they provide a home for the living creatures who construct them.

Shell
Seashell by candlelight (Source: stock.xchng)

But an intriguing post at Treehugger.com links to a video which says cities are alive. Not in the literal, breathing sense of the term – but in the interconnected, fractal, neural network sense of the word. Cities may not live and die the way we do, but they do exist as vibrant, organized webs of activity. Here’s the video which inspired the original post.

TO UNDERSTAND IS TO PERCEIVE PATTERNS from jason silva on Vimeo

This quote from Steven Johnson sums up the idea beautifully:

“Coral reefs are sometimes called ‘the cities of the sea,’ and part of the argument is that we need to take the metaphor seriously: the reef ecosystem is so innovative because it shares some defining characteristics with actual cities. These patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk. Whether you’re looking at original innovations of carbon-based life or the explosion of news tools on the web, the same shapes keep turning up… when life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents.”

No wonder reading about news tools online is so entertaining. I’m watching a city of knowledge being built.

Extrapolating this idea to other environments could yield fascinating results.

green eye
If we don't see our environment, that may be because we don't think it matters.

The road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions.

If we know something is good for us, that is no guarantee we will take action. In the context of environmental and social issues, I’m interested in actions and results. Good intentions don’t mean that the rubber will hit the road.

There’s a growing discussion online and offline about what kids lose by spending so much time indoors. Asking young people questions about their neighborhood ecosystems shows that they often are not aware of the ecosystems around them.

However, I don’t see this as a question of lacking a sense of place or belonging. It’s a question of selective perception. Young people perceive the things they need to notice for survival and social approval (and for some other reasons). If something isn’t relevant, they may overlook it. They learn what matters by talking with their friends, families, classmates and teachers.

In the urban environment where I lived before college, I didn’t need to know about edible plants. I was aware of industrial pollution because I could smell steel mill exhaust. Occasionally, it was not safe to swim in Lake Michigan. So I needed to know about pollution when beaches were closed.

But the water advisories weren’t very important to me and other teenagers I knew in Chicago. We often thought about jobs, appearances, grades, friends and sports because those were the priorities of our communities. Street safety was also relevant. Edible plants were not part of the story.

Instead of regretting young people’s lack of connection to their ecosystems, we should look at the messages we give them. If they realize environmental knowledge is relevant to their lives, that’s when the story will change. If we talk with young people about environmental issues in a way that relates directly to their lives and interests, we can shift the story from “it’s good for you” to “it matters to you.” Making environmental communication relevant requires a shift in perspective.

Speaking of shifts in perspective, I decided to write this post after visiting the “Eye Spy: Playing with Perception” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibit, a series of optical illusions, includes a quote which summarizes the take-home message of this post.

We perceive what we expect to perceive and what we think is expected of us. – Ray Moses

I found this Grist article on community gardening and Martin Luther King both moving and personally relevant.

News stories about urban gardening are both down-to-earth and local. In environmental news coverage, local details sometimes get lost in translation. Global warming coverage is one good example. The potential effects are sweeping and large-scale, but when reporters and readers look for a local angle, story lines become evasive. Because of scientific uncertainty and big-picture thinking, the specifics practically vanish into the page.

However, we should take the opposite approach. Specific details make writing come alive for readers.  If you want to wake people up, you should get concrete – as fiction writers say, show, don’t tell. (This is a useful approach for teachers too.) Also, getting down to specifics helps people make connections between actions and their results – a skill not everyone learns in school.

People often don’t graduate from high school with a clear sense of what they are eating. I’m a graduate of an urban high school. Although I had some great teachers, I don’t remember any of them talking with us about the snacks we were buying in the vending machines down the hall. We learned about cell division, but we never learned why environmental issues mattered in our neighborhoods or at our grocery stores.

In my twenties, I lived and worked in two “food deserts.” A food desert is a neighborhood where healthy food choices aren’t available to most people – either because grocery stores have left or because they are too expensive. (Replacing a more affordable grocery store in Jamaica Plain with a Whole Foods would be a step in that direction, by the way. Whole Foods may have the best organic mangoes around, but that doesn’t mean everyone can buy them.)

Locally grown food has not traditionally been a luxury. In many parts of the world, it still isn’t. Community gardening is one way to rebuild local access to vegetables and fruit.

Communities that are interested in gardening should also have conversations about food preservation. Often, if you want year-round access to locally-grown vegetables, you have to know how to preserve them and have the equipment to do it. In Boston, you can’t pick tomatoes outdoors in winter. We just had a 17-inch snowfall last week.

Many people take a moral stance about eating health food, but this stance ignores the reality that convenience and access often determine our choices. Cooking takes time and effort, even if one plans ahead and cooks in bulk.

In Boston, many groups are working to improve local access to vegetables and fruit. The Urban Homesteaders’ League offers workshops on food preservation. This spring, the Museum of Science is hosting a series of events called “Let’s Talk about Food.”

At the Be the Media conference last week, I heard about “third places” for the first time. A third place is a public place where people can spend time and get to know each other. But I’d never realized third places provide a balancing effect. Third places can strengthen community ties by bringing people out of their houses and apartments.

I am typing this blog post from a location where there are no coffee shops within an easy walking distance. If I wanted to sit in a public place and type this entry, I’d have to walk for half an hour to get to the library. At the library, I can type, but I can’t talk with people.

I think our over-emphasis on the importance of being at home, in the United States, mirrors our misconception that people want to spend all of their time with their families or roommates. Other cultures see this differently. For example, the Iroquois organized their communities around a central space.

An Iroquois community with shared space in the center
An Iroquois community with shared space in the center

I’m interested in the question of whether or not there’s an inverse relationship between the size of people’s houses and the availability of coffee shops and other public spaces. From my experience, that seems true. Coffee shops and community centers tend to show up in areas where people live in apartments. I haven’t looked up any articles about this, though.

Why does it matter to build community interaction? Networking, mutual aid, friendships, local economic development, and offline social circles can begin in these third places. Websites like Meetup.com give people the opportunity to connect through shared interests. Meetups often happen at coffee shops. Book groups, music shows and other social events also happen there.

If your community lacks meeting places, that can encourage people who seek out social and cultural events to move away. This shift could change property values, reduce business development, and make the area less attractive to people under 35.

The perception that “responsible people are at home” also affects street behavior. I notice major differences between neighborhoods where people expect foot traffic and neighborhoods where they are surprised to see people using the sidewalk.