Cultivating the land of the concrete jungle: environmental and social security, but for whom?

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University 

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There are many different aspects of daily life that symbolise wider environmental challenges in the world, some as close to us as the food we eat. Recent debates and discussions about reducing our environmental impact have often focused on the drive to ‘go local’ with our food, and in particular to grow our own in the face of rising food insecurity at a global scale. One particular potential solution to this has been to promote urban agriculture, however, moving the farm to the city is not without problems.

Neilson and Rickards (2016), in their paper published in The Geographical Journal, draw upon practices of urban agriculture in Melbourne, Australia, to highlight that longstanding tensions between what is seen as the ‘urban’ and what is understood as ‘rural’ continue to prevail. They suggest that the notion of growing food is often perceived to be a ‘rural’ practice that is ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for city dwellers and people who rely on supermarkets and shops to buy their food. Urban farms, therefore, can be seen as being out of place, and are sometimes perceived to be an invasive force that take over the land of the city. Neilson and Rickards (2016: 10) describe urban farms as ‘ecological colonisers’ that seek to be ‘green’ and inhibit the growth of the city through food production.

When we look at examples of urban farming, it’s clear that the tensions in these practices go deeper and further than the land itself, and are reflected within and between the groups of people who are meant to benefit from it. For example, The Guardian reports that a rise in urban farming in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is not a simple solution to issues of health and inequality in different areas of the city. Urban agricultural practices can be problematic in cities like Tulsa because urban farming is perceived to be a ‘white trend’ solution, which reveals and reinforces racial divides. For instance, longstanding issues with social security among ‘minority’ groups can make it difficult for urban agriculture to fully take off. Furthermore, the concept of agriculture brings connotations of slavery from the past for young Black Tulsans, who are among the target group for developing these farms. Black Tulsans tend to associate working on the land with of slavery, so the practice of urban agriculture can expose the influence of a dark past history upon the present generations. These divides unmask how particular sustainable practices, such as urban agriculture, are situated within longstanding historical racial tensions (Lieberman, 2016). Tulsa therefore shows that re-thinking frameworks in the context of urban/rural agricultural dichotomy is not sufficient. People who are practising urban agriculture and those who could benefit from doing so, but are left behind, should all be reached and included. For farms, both urban and rural, it’s essential to recognise not just the diversity of the places, but the world in which we live, to ensure a food-secure future for all.

60-world2 Lieberman A 2016 ‘Could urban farming provide a much needed oasis in the Tulsa food desert?’ The Guardian Online 25th August 2016

books_icon Neilson C and Rickards L 2016 The relational character of urban agriculture: competing perspectives on land, food, people, agriculture and the city The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geoj.12188

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