Tag Archives: City

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

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University 


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

Growing urban agriculture beyond the city limit

By Chenae Neilson, University of Melbourne, and Lauren Rickards, RMIT University

It is hard not to notice the rising interest and flourishing activity in cities around the world for growing food in innovative ways. Rooftop gardens, guerrilla gardens, urban apiaries, city farms, allotments, micro-livestock keeping, community and institutional gardens, as well as other evolving ways to interact with primary food production, are fast becoming a celebrated part of the contemporary city-scape.

‘Urban agriculture’ is a key term used when we talk about food production pursuits in cities and urban landscapes, wrapping together a range of models and practices – which are shaped by diverse motivations, for example improving local food security, greening cities and adapting to climate change, engaging the community and connecting to nature, to name a few.

While urban agriculture has certainly become a popular activity, it also seems surprisingly disconnected in many ways from wider agriculture established in surrounding rural hinterlands. And unlike many food production activities in the rural context, the value of urban agriculture can remain hard to pin down and articulate in the context of competing “normal” city land uses and activities, particularly in cities of the global north.

Is urban agriculture primarily about the production of food, like much of its rural counterpart? Or is it about something else, such as offering positive practices for urban communities or making a strategic claim on city space? Much research to date indicates that the answer to date largely depends on the context of where the activity is occurring and who is taking part  (Prove et al 2016). Research on urban agriculture is proliferating in geography and beyond, with many authors highlighting the multiplicity of benefits, limitations and opportunities urban agriculture generates (McClintock 2013, Mok 2013, Tornaghi 2014, Classen 2015, Weissman 2016) and the way it slips across multiple high level agendas (e.g. environment, social justice and health).

Looking at this literature and wider discourses about the topic circulating in media, policy and practitioners, we noted that, beyond agreement that urban agriculture means different things to different people, there is underlying ambiguity about how urban agriculture compares to “the rest of agriculture” and “the rest of the city”. Dealing with these questions seems to strongly shape how urban agriculture is understood in any particular context.

Our recent paper in The Geographical Journal explores this by closely examining five discourses about urban agriculture that we found at work in Melbourne, Australia, where a range of urban agriculture initiatives exist and more are underway. Through empirical analysis of these discourses about urban agriculture, the ambiguities of its relational position within both the city and the agricultural sector became apparent.

We believe that, as policy makers and practitioners vie to generate the diverse benefits and transformational opportunities urban agriculture potentially offers, recognising the common agricultural and urban context of all such initiatives may help clarify the stakes of the challenge.

These stakes include the uncertain position urban agriculture continues to occupy within both contexts. Many urban agriculture initiatives are conducted under the shadow of lingering questions about whether they will ever be regarded as more than liminal, temporary, decorative and optional activities and land uses. If urban agriculture is to step out of the margins and make a substantial and lasting difference, it will be need to appraise and manage its relationship with rural agriculture and the rest of the city.

About the authors: Chenae Neilson is a research assistant at RMIT University and a Geospatial Analyst at The Australian Bureau of Statistics. Lauren Rickards is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University. 

books_icon Classens 2015 The nature of urban gardens: toward a political ecology of urban agriculture Agric. Hum. Values, 32 229–239

books_icon Mcclintock N 2013 Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions Local Environment 19 147-171

60-world2 McMillan T 2016 Boom Time for Urban Farming National Geographic 

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

60-world2 Nierenberg D, Nink E and Crelin J 2015 28 Inspiring Urban Agriculture Projects  Foodtank 

books_icon Mok H-F, Williamson V, Grove J, Burry K, Barker F and Hamilton A 2013, Strawberry fields forever? Urban agriculture in developed countries: a review, Agronomy for Sustainable Development 33 1-23

books_icon Prové C, Dessein J and Krom M 2016 Taking context into account in urban agriculture governance: Case studies of Warsaw (Poland) and Ghent (Belgium) Land Use Policy 56 16-26

books_icon Tornaghi, C 2014 Critical geography of urban agriculture Progress in Human Geography 38 51-567.

books_icon Weissman E 2015 Entrepreneurial endeavors: (re)producing neoliberalization through urban agriculture youth programming in Brooklyn, New York Environmental Education Research 21 351-364

60-world2 Winkless L 2016 Urban Farming: Fad Or Futureproof? Forbes, 9 March 2016

East Side Gallery and the Contested Geographies of Graffiti

by Sarah Mills

Following on from Fiona’s entry today (below) about a flâneur’s encounter with graffiti in Toulouse, I was struck by one of this week’s news stories.  Tensions over the East Side Gallery – a series of graffiti based images on a particular stretch of the Berlin Wall – have triggered long-standing debates about the role of graffiti/public art in cities.  The Gallery was originally created after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to bring together (unpaid) artists from East and West Germany in a creative project.  Controversially, a number of pieces have been whitewashed and overlaid with copied images in a recent renovation, described by one commentator as a “faked-up’ pastiche of itself…a Disneyesque, postmodern reconstruction of the art of the Wall designed to please tourists”.  A number of the original artists are now suing the city council over issues of copyright and the reproduction of images without the artists’ permission.

These ethical and legal issues over the display and ownership of graffiti, in this case embroiled with political symbolism and significance, highlights a broader set of complex geographies that interweave ideas of creativity, art, public space, urbanism and place-making.  In the context of this news story, McAuliffe and Iveson’s article in Geography Compass (see Fiona’s entry) also offers valuable insight into the tensions surrounding graffiti, which they describe as “a modern touchstone of urban discontent, a global popular culture phenomena that drives urban managers to distraction” (2011: 128).  In providing a critical review of the literature, they aim to uncover the complexity of graffiti’s dynamic and contested geographies and explore the tensions surrounding public graffiti, which are so clearly demonstrated in the ongoing debates surrounding the East Side Gallery.

 Read C. McAuliffe and K. Iveson (2011) Art and Crime (and Other Things Besides …): Conceptualising Graffiti in the City, Geography Compass 5 (3): 128-143.

 Read ‘Berlin Wall artists sue city in copyright controversy’ in The Guardian

 Read Jonathan Jones ‘In praise of the Berlin Wall murals’ in The Guardian  

The Geography of Higher Education

Harvard Yard in Winter. Wikimedia Commons, 2009.

By Benjamin J. Sacks

May is commencement season in American higher education. Throughout the country nearly 4,000 research universities, liberal-arts colleges, community colleges, and specialty schools will graduate hundreds of thousands of students. It is fitting, then, to highlight the fascinating role geography plays in higher education. The American university model is traditionally designed as an all-encompassing environment for academic life, learning, and society. Most institutions are designed with the following characteristics in mind: a central green, or quadrangle surrounded by administrative, departmental, and library buildings. Surrounding the quadrangle lie dormitories, other libraries, offices, classrooms, and facilities. Finally, sports facilities and grounds are added.

The geographic organization of these buildings in relationship to one other, as well as how they fit in as part of the larger  ‘whole’ of the university, is sweeping in its variety. In a review of Architecture and Utopia, Isaac A. Meir argued that, ‘Envisioning, designing, and building the ideal environment has been part of the human endeavour since time immemorial. The physical setting in which a society functions is perceived a basic determinant of social interaction’ [Geographical Journal 174 no. 2 (June, 2008): pp. 188-189]. American universities, young in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts, were deliberately designed as utopian landscapes. Such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), responsible for the layout of the Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Chicago campuses, molded architecture and landscape together to create fabricated geographies. In so doing, university founders determined the nature of social/academic interaction. Frederick Rudolph’s seminal work, The American College and University: A History, remains the most important analysis of the social and economic forces behind American university geography. Peter Kraftl’s ‘Geographies of Architecture: the Multiple Lives of Buildings’ in the May, 2010 issue of Geography Compass provides new, contemporary discussion of the role buildings play in human geography.

Perspectives on university and geography are by no means limited to the American experience. The ancient universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Paris, Salamanca, and Vienna, amongst others, grew as an integral part of their urban surroundings. Through gradual expansion concurrent with the development of the community, the geography of the mediaeval university became the geography of the city.

See Kraftl’s analysis of architecture geography in Geography Compass here.

See Meir’s definition of utopias in geography, along with an analysis of its application in Israeli kibbutzim, in the Geographical Journal.