By Adam Brock
The cover story of this week’s New York Magazine follows up on April’s intriguing skyfarming feature with another look into urban food production. This time, though, the focus is a little more, um, down to earth: Manny Howard’s “My Empire of Dirt” is an account of the author’s attempt to eat entirely out of his Brooklyn backyard for the month of August. The story, involving a sawed-off pinkie, a cannibalistic hen, and a freak tornado, is a pretty entertaining example of how much work it takes to turn an urban backyard into a viable source of calories.
Although Manny’s experiment might seem a little extreme, he’s not the only one on the hundred yard diet. In the past couple weeks, Worldchanging and the New Yorker have both covered personal attempts at subsisting completely on hyperlocal food. Like No Impact Man‘s year without elevators, subways or washing machines, these self-induced experiments in extreme green diets have been crucial in publicly highlighting more sustainable lifestyles.
But while living entirely on food from your backyard might make great press, it’s not exactly a model that the rest of us can – or even should – follow. It’s true that we need to drastically scale down our systems of production; it’s true that us city dwellers could stand to pick up a trick or two from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. But, as Colin or Manny would tell you, trying to become our own islands of self-sufficiency can be humiliating, time-consuming, and lonely. And in a city like New York, where the forest green infrastructure is getting more robust by the month, it’s starting to seem a little silly.
What we’re really after isn’t self-sufficiency, then, but what permaculturalist Aric McBay terms “community sufficiency”: a healthy balance between DIY and Made in China. Like an ecosystem, a self-sustaining community shares the resources of its members for the benefit of all involved, minimizing its footprint through small-scale, localized production but maintaining a healthy division of labor to take advantage each member’s unique skills.
At this point, the appropriate scale for self-sufficiency in urban areas is yet to be determined. Can we realistically grow all of our food in the neighborhood, or will we need to rely on farms a couple hundred miles away? It depends on how successful we are at integrating agriculture with the existing built environment – and how much we’re willing change our diets to align with our bioregion.