How Local?

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.

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6 thoughts on “How Local?

  1. EarthFreak says:

    Quoting from Manny Howard’s webpage “My Empire of Dirt:”

    “Then I sent out soil samples for analysis, and the results were dire: No nutrient content to speak of and high levels of lead. A toxic wasteland. … it was buried by five and a half tons of fecund topsoil trucked in from a Long Island farm…”

    I wonder how widespread of an issue toxic soils might be in the NYC area. Heck, this applies to all kinds of places, particularly those that are urban. Continuing, how many people have the money/means to have their soil tested let alone have four tons of new soil trucked in. (I don’t dare go off on a tangent on the lack of sustainability in that decision.)

    Suggestion:
    Perhaps you could write a post on NYC soil toxicity and how it may relate to domestic food production. Points of focus could include which toxins are applicable (e.g plant reuptake of heavy metals) and perhaps some mapping of old brownfields/industrial sites overlaid w/current street maps.

  2. Anne Robert says:

    I agree with your take on this albeit fun experiment and wanted to bring your attention to the amazing realistic approach taken by the Greater London authorities . Food up Front.org will deliver kits free to Londoners who want to get started with home grown food on balconies- front outdoor space etc… I think this is the kind of initiative that can help the really urban kind ( like myself) navigate their way into change..as we must agree we are not all eco warriors!
    love your site

  3. Anne Robert says:

    I would like to add that I created a blog to help those who are perhaps less green minded, thoroughbred eco friends – but who do want to change . I think many ideas are just too ambitious for the mass of us socialising clubbing office working urbanites.. When I set out I was reading about skyscrapers green acres and new sci fi tech.. That is why I created my modest blog = ie the baby step approach with perhaps a do it with style/ design slant when possible and why I feel the London approach is fantastic and realistic. Love to keep in touch!

  4. Mike Elliott says:

    I have always believed in the virtue of self-sufficiency and we have been prctising this in France for the last 4 years. In theory it is an excellent concept but for the person ready to embark, please do not forget that alongside with heavy toil, a living must be earnt somehow…..

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