One of my favorite aspects of permaculture, though I think it is often forgotten, is the lean towards using land that human have already tarnished as opposed to natural settings in no need of our interference. It’s only logical that, with established nature being much more sustainable on its own, our input into these proven systems is likely to be more detrimental than advantageous, in the global perspective of things. What’s more is that, in those urban and suburban environments that have already fallen prey to a soon-to-be outdated brand of human ingenuity, nature—weeds, wildlife, water—is usually viewed as a problem to be dealt with rather than a means to a positive end.
In truth, there is a lot to be said about urban agriculture, more than can be addressed in this particular article or even by this particular author, but I still relish the opportunity to instigate such discussions. Urban environments have a productive potential that seems to, at the same time, present some amazing opportunities for improving some of the struggles of the day and offer new challenges for growers interested in expanding and more intelligently relocating our food supply lines. As someone who feels, as the years pass, ever more the beginner with permaculture, I like to fall back on simplistic ideas of what we each can personally be doing and what tips might help us on that endeavor.
Recently, I was thumbing through a book that my mother, who just retired from being a school teacher, picked up from her school’s library, which has been ridding its shelves of physical manuscripts. In one way, the theory and approaches in the book seemed rather elementary, and in another, they sparked my mind to revisit issues that I’d tucked away as understood. Suddenly, I was reevaluating using raised beds, placing beds to get the most sun, building soil, and so on. And, therein lies another of my favorite things about permaculture: Something new always seems to come from stripping it down and getting back to basics. I’ve written plenty about container gardens and productive balconies but never about the practical pros and cons of growing in urban areas.
The advantage that inspired this article was a point my mother’s book listed, and it was coincidentally an effect she herself had been remarking on of late. She’s just moved into a new home in the mountains of North Carolina, and every time she drives into the nearby town, Brevard, she notices that the temperature is a few degrees warmer. Of course, urban environments lack trees to moderate the temperature and are chocked full of thermal masses—roads, buildings, cars, etc.—to absorb, radiate, and create heat. When we are talking temperate climate, those few degrees can be a huge advantage in extending the growing season, such as utilizing the sunny walls to thwart freezing. The cityscape is warmer, and in this environment, that’s quite useful.
In the same vein, due to the abundance of buildings in urban spaces or fences in suburban neighborhoods, areas tend to be much more sheltered (or, on the other hand, absolute wind tunnels). If we can find the protected areas, then we have a decided advantage because most plants perform better without extreme gusts blowing them sideways. This is exactly why we design windbreaks in open country. In the city, we have this same benefit as part of the existing infrastructure.
Because permaculture considers the site before prescribing a method, I am also able to see the advantage of using the prototypical raised beds of urban gardens. North Carolina is in the cool, humid temperate climate with fairly steady rain all year, so raised bed gardens make great sense. In other climates, there are other potential approaches. Rainwater catchments should be really easy in a place with so many rooftops around, so keeping things watered should also be realistic. Greywater would also be abundant and offer some low-tech possibilities in more arid climates.
With raised beds on predetermined—often concrete—sites and space at premium, urban environments also call out for intense cultivation of annuals, with growers able to look over their entire crop in only few steps. Small gardens, like those in Zone 1 settings, are much more productive per square meter than we produce in broad acreage because they can be closely monitored with much less effort. In short, an urban grower can creatively utilize vertical space, companion planting, and crop sequencing to fill a small area with a notable harvest. Not only is the garden able to be more intensively watched over, but also the grower gets to be creative—a rewarding feeling—in his or her approach to arranging and incrementally improving it all.
Lastly, the urban garden is just much more logical and sustainable because it is located where there are more people looking for food. Not only that, but, from a business standpoint, there are more people with the money to pay premium prices for fresh, organic, local produce. Then, from an altruistic point of view, there are equally—or more—people around in need of fresh, organic fruit and vegetables but cannot afford to shop at specialty markets. For growers simply looking to feed themselves, there isn’t a less expensive way to do so with healthy food.
However, I don’t wish to make urban gardening sound like it is without its challenges. We’ve already mentioned how there is likelihood of encountering severe wind tunnels. This is largely due to wind whipping around the sides of and in between buildings, as well as across rooftops, where there is probably the most space available for installing urban gardens. Usually, the same spaces between buildings, where wind tunnels are prone, especially in east-west alleyways, an equally concerning lack of light could be problematic, making those spaces unlikely spots for urban gardens. On the roofs of buildings, beyond winds, there may be issues of weight to think about, not to mention overly intense sun. There are, of course, solutions—trellised shade and permeable windbreaks—but these are issues nonetheless.
For me, the two main concerns I have with urban gardens are all of the inputs from outside sources and all of the outputs from inside sources. Gardens full of healthy vegetables need nutrient rich soil, but urban gardens don’t leave a lot of room for creating much of an environment for that. Composting is an obvious help, but there is a need to do it quickly and compactly, likely elbowing out those ideas of low-maintenance bins sitting idly for a year. Worm bins and quick compost of local waste like kitchen scraps and shredded boxes seems viable, but that’s a lot of continuous effort. Then, there are the outputs from inside sources: How do we grow healthy food in all that pollution? There is a real concern about the air the plants get and what exactly is leaching into the soil from the water and surfaces from which it is collected. Again, the solutions are there, but the issues are worth noting.
In the end, what I find to be most relevant is that there needs to be action. It’s very easy to talk about the potential and challenges of these spaces, to appreciate all that could be accomplished, but none of those ideas amount to much if no one is pursuing them. And, that leads me to perhaps the largest advantage of making a kickass urban garden: It will inspire way more people than one that is off some remote dirt road. A productive site in the middle of the city is certainly something that would garner serious attention, much more so than another one in the countryside. It would be a real chance to share the joy and appreciation of knowing where your food comes from.
To be completely honest, as fun a project as that would be, it also leads me to perhaps the biggest challenges: Cities are expensive and not exactly where nature-lovers long to be. I’m not the person to do it, at least not in the city proper. I don’t work in a city and, thus, can’t afford to live in one. Also, I like to hike, build things, be amongst the trees, swim in lakes, spot wildlife, and listen to birds and squirrels in the morning. I imagine many permaculturists feel the same. But, I know there are genuinely concerned, conscious, and caring people that love the bustle as much as they do an organically grown tomato-basil salad. I hope this article can perhaps tickle some lingering thoughts of those people into action.
I’m not sure where that leaves us, but I hope at the very least, for those who’ve made their way this far, this article has done for you what my mother’s book —Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet: Inventive Ideas for Growing Food in a Small Space—did for me: Revisited some old ideas from a new perspective and perhaps inspired some new ones as well. Ultimately, we’ve just got figure out how to get those thoughts in the design and get some food growing.