inprt1_300Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities
Darrin Nordahl
Island Press

2000 M Street NW Suite 650
Washington, DC 20036 
2014. 224 pages. Paperback, $19.99.

This brief tome, a revised edition of a book by the same title published in 2009, trumpets the cause of edible cities with new examples of the growing international movement bent on ensuring the basic human right to a healthy daily diet, while also returning to food sources that are both local and affordable. Author Darrin Nordahl is a landscape architect and city planner with a pithy writing style and a keen eye for details. He also has an abundant knowledge of plant life and the practicalities of plant care in urban environments. In this regard, his chapters on aesthetics and maintenance, as well as those on gleaning and foraging, are outstanding.

His is the call for “food security” instead of food dependence. Nordahl argues for a revival of small-scale “civic agriculture” reminiscent of the victory gardens of World War II. While noting that there were 20 million gardens in 1944, Nordahl cautions that they were temporary emergency measures only, to be eclipsed after the war by the demise of the family farm and the dominance of corporate, industrialized agriculture. He calls instead for a permanent enterprise that, by decentralizing food production, can link “the inextricable bonds between food, community, and quality of life.”

What distinguishes this book from others is an emphasis on tapping easily accessible public spaces (and in some cases privately owned, but publicly used spaces) as resources for locavore living and sponsorship. Guerrilla gardeners as well as community and government entities in various U.S. and Canadian cities are profiled to represent a growing constituency willing to rethink the landscape role of parks, squares, plazas, street medians, and sidewalks as feasible and legitimate locations to grow fresh food.

Guerrilla gardener Ron Finley, who has spoken at ULI events, is a self-professed “street artist” who lives in the South Central district of Los Angeles. South Central is one of numerous “food deserts” nationwide, where residents must choose between cheap but unhealthy fast food or no food at all. Similar neighborhoods lacking food security are where an estimated 26.5 million Americans reside. Gardening is Finley’s graffiti enterprise, planted without a municipal permit—a 10-by-150-foot (3 by 46 m) strip of fruit trees and vegetables between the sidewalk and the curb. He admonishes the city of Los Angeles for doing nothing with vacant parcels it owns, equivalent to 20 Central Parks, or “enough space to plant 725 million tomato plants.” He exhorts his neighbors to “grow their own food; growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

Nevertheless, Nordahl argues that city government must play a leadership role. Calgary, the largest city in the Canadian province of Alberta, is highlighted for its Community Orchard Research Project, a five-year pilot program under the leadership of Jill Spence, a staff forester. The concept was to test the ability of commercial varieties of fruit trees and shrubs to survive in a grassland landscape and a harsh climate. With assistance from experts from the University of Saskatchewan, Spence and her crew planted an orchard comprising 224 trees and shrubs in four public parks with a mix of apple, pear, cherry, apricot, honeyberry, strawberry, gooseberry, and hazelnut. She learned several lessons about plant survival from this experience, including the advantage of partnering with grass-roots organizations willing to maintain plants at little or no cost to the city.

Other examples of municipal sponsorship include the honeybee colony atop City Hall in Chicago, “transitional” gardens using native plant species along creeks to help feed the less fortunate in Worthington, Ohio (an idea spawned by city councilman Doug Smith), and efforts by the parks and recreation department in Portland, Oregon, to codify the acceptance of fruit trees for use as street trees.

As impressive as some of these effort are, they do not seem to add up to the critical mass that the author claims, and this is a significant shortcoming of this book. Nordahl appears to have overstated the current power of the movement as compared with five years ago, when he wrote the original edition Public Produce.

Urban agriculture is as worthy an endeavor as one can imagine in a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening and obesity levels are creeping upward. But, when it comes to this form of agriculture, it may take considerably more time and effort to plant the seeds of change in the public’s mind.

MARTIN ZIMMERMAN writes on transportation mobility, development, and smart growth from Charlotte, North Carolina.