By Adam Brock

Yesterday’s City Dirt has a nice mini-interview with ecological designer Andrew Faust, founder of the Center for Bioregional Living. A recent Brooklyn transplant, Faust has been spending the past several years practicing sustainable living on a homestead in West Virginia and teaching permaculture courses. These days, he’s got some clever ideas for reintegrating nature into the five boroughs: how about a backyard wetland to soak up hundreds of gallons of stormwater runoff? Or a series of floating plant filters to clean up the Gowanus canal:

I want to design floating pond remediators. These are rafts will host plants that clean the toxins out of the water. In China they created floating walkways to clean up the open sewage canals. Not only are the plants removing the toxins from the water, but you have a beautiful area for people to stroll through and enjoy the waterways.

Plant pods seem to be on everybody’s minds these days: a similar concept was proposed in H2Grow, one of the finalists in the Envisioning Gateway contest.

Faust, meanwhile, will be keeping busy this spring teaching a permaculture certification course in Manhattan on fridays. Email andrew@homebiome.com if you’d like to sign up.

Why Cityfarming?

January 9, 2008

By Adam Brock

The following is the first in a four-part series on the current state of urban agriculture. In this and the next three sections of the series, I’ll be showing the ways in which urban agriculture is quickly spreading its roots, and assessing the potential of cityfarming from the perspectives of business, equity and leisure.

Environmentalists have been warning of the fragility of our food systems for years, but the recent spike in food prices has made more mainstream outlets take note, as well. The December 6th cover story of the Economist declared the “end of cheap food”, while a recent Guardian article warned that “the risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years.”

There’s no avoiding it: like many other aspects of industrial civilization, our current agricultural system is in a state of crisis. In California and the Midwest, factory farming is eroding thousands of square of miles of topsoil every year, slowly drawing the nutrients from some of the world’s most fertile farmland. What’s to blame? Overproduction and chemical fertilizers, which, being petroleum based, are themselves nearing the end of their shelf life. Add to these concerns the possibility of herbicide-immune pests and land competition from biofuel production, and it becomes pretty clear that, within a generation or so, we’re going to have to completely reconfigure the way we cultivate and transport food.

The first line of defense, of course, is family farms, which are back on the upswing after decades of decline. But the small farms currently in existence won’t provide nearly enough to feed the massive appetites of our large cities, and rising fuel costs might make even a trip of several hundred miles uneconomical. In that case, it might make sense to procure our food from even closer to home – as close, perhaps, as our own backyards and rooftops.

How much food are we really talking about here? Is it possible that we’ll soon be feeding ourselves entirely from the city limits? I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a class last year that tried to estimate how much land it would take to grow all of New York’s produce within the five boroughs. The Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, which handles most of NYC’s conventional produce, has a throughput of 2.7 billion pounds per year. Growing that amount using permaculture techniques would require about 100,000 acres, or three times the entire parkland in the city. Possible? Sure. Feasible? Not so much.

That is, unless you take the farming indoors – and go up. The vertical farm, a high-rise building solely dedicated to the intensive cultivation of produce, has made headlines recently as the answer to the food crisis of the 21st century. Its main proponent is Dickson Despommier, a Columbia professor that’s led courses examining the feasibility of vertical farming for the last few years. His students have explored the viability of everything from buildings full of gourmet lettuce to complicated ecosystems of chickens, tilapia and dozens of crops.

As crazy as it sounds, the vertical farm isn’t completely without precedent: greenhouses like the massive Eurofresh complex in Arizona have been utilizing hydroponics to grow high-yielding indoor crops for years. But in its stacked growing rooms, use of cutting edge materials, and of course its location, the vertical farm is indeed something entirely new. Theoretically, a vertical farm has the potential to provide for a neighborhood of 50,000, making our cities agriculturally self-sufficient. But getting one off the ground would take an investment of hundreds of millions, and it’s bound to be decades before they start proliferating.

Food security is a vital and oft-overlooked component of sustainable cities, albeit one that might take decades to acheive. In the meantime, though, there are a host of other reasons why cityfarming makes sense in the short term. In fact, the urban ag revolution has already begun: from backyards to rooftops to vacant city-owned lots, urban farms are popping up all over the place – and in the process, they’re transforming not only food systems, but underprivileged communities, urban economics and even our brain chemistry. If the twentieth century accomplished the urbanization of the countryside, the twenty-first will see the pastoralization of the city, proving once and for all that crops and condos can peacefully coexist.

Grounded

January 4, 2008

By Adam Brock

In a society obsessed with efficiency, the miracle of crisscrossing the planet in a matter of hours has become mundane. Every day, from Duluth to Dubai, millions of people shuffle through metal detectors, pack themselves into cramped metal tubes, doze off, distractedly watch a movie or two, and disembark, sore, bleary, and suddenly somewhere else. All in all, it’s a pretty depressing cultural dance: like so much else in the overdeveloped world, our contemporary paradigm of transporation is high on quantity and short on quality. We might be able to travel between any major city in a matter of hours, but that freedom comes at a dear cost – not only to our climate, but also our mental health and our sense of place.

This summer, I made the decision to stop flying altogether. When I explain my decision to people, I think most assume that I’m caught up in footprint mania, on some kind quest for carbon martyrdom. But while the emissions thing is indeed a part of my decision to stick to the ground, what’s more important is my desire to make long-distance transportation something that nourishes rather than drains me. I want to experience what it really feels like to get from place to place, to travel in a way that’s as much about process as product. Being able to take note of the subtle shifts in culture and landscape on the way from A to B gives me much richer sense of place when I get to my destination. What’s more, moving at a more human speed allows me the time to reflect on where I’m coming from and where I’m going – something I hardly ever get to do in my supersaturated life.

I’ve been practicing this philosophy of “slow travel” for a few years now, but I hadn’t made the explicit decision to avoid the airplane until this winter break, when I convinced a few friends from my hometown of Denver to take the train back from New York with me. I went into the ride expecting a certain dose of adventure, and there were certainly some hitches: a snowstorm on the way to Chicago stretched what should have been an 18-hour ride into a 23-hour one, and the circa-1981 seats were much better to look at than sleep in. But I also enjoyed great conversation, met some fascinating folks, and saw with fresh eyes a part of the country I’d long written off.

I’m fortunate that the trip I wanted to take was relatively simple and cheap to make on the ground. Of course, it won’t always be that easy: trains might be an underrated way to traverse the USA, but much of the travel we’re accustomed to can’t practically happen without the miracle of flight. From volunteering in remote African villages to attending business meetings thousands of miles away, the fact of cheap and easy air travel has opened up all kinds of doors for citizens of the overdeveloped world, and few people (myself included) would like to see those doors shut.

But whether the remarkable ease of mobility that aviation creates is a good thing or not, the reality is that it natural limits, filtered through policy and economics, won’t allow it to exist for much longer. Carbon legislation and ever-climbing fuel prices are all but certain to make air travel a luxury in the near future – and an un-PC one at that, like wearing a fur coat.

The implications, as they say, are vast, for the way we get around shapes our experience of the world. The successive transportation revolutions of the fossil fuel era laid the groundwork for a global society, enabling unprecedented migration and cross-cultural dialogue. The regeneration, in contrast, will bring about a rediscovery of the art of inhabitance. Grist reader naught101 made a good case for staying put in a comment a few weeks back:

I’d like to point out that it’s quite possible to spend decades in one place, and still not discover everything that’s within walking distance. And the biodiversity in your local ecosystems (assuming they’re not completely destroyed) is more complex than anything you’ll ever learn from travelling for a short period to any other ecosystem.

The fundamental answer to this question is another question: why travel?

Naught101’s question might be overdoing it slightly; I still believe in the value of experiencing a place fundamentally different from the one you’re used to. But his point remains: the end of easy aviation will challenge us to rethink what it means to explore the world around us. Perhaps we’ll a have a smaller menu of destinations to choose from, but we’ll be afforded the time to enjoy the journey – and the opportunity to rediscover the wonders that lie a bit closer to home.

photo credit: flickr/cjelli

By Adam Brock

What with finals and all, Nelson and I have had less time to spend at the WGY helm as of late. Don’t worry, we’ll be back in a big way in a week or so; in the meantime we’d like to use this opportunity to direct you to some of the other excellent verdy blogs hanging out on these inter nets.

Today’s blog namedrop is John Feeney’s Growth is Madness, which covers the much-needed beat of explaining the earth’s carrying capacity. The official description:

GIM addresses humanity’s most urgent challenge: the need to confront our continued irrational push for unending growth on a finite earth. The emphasis is on population growth and corporate economic growth as they interact with resource consumption rates and our reliance on fossil energy, pushing us toward global ecological collapse.

GIM’s most recent post is a reader Q+A (good idea!) with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg, who has hypothesized a direct correlation between total food production and population growth. According to Hopfenberg, our population explosion and all its attendant ecological devastation won’t let up until we stop increasing the amount of food we grow.

It’s a touchy topic, to be sure – which is exactly why it’s good to see experts and curious readers engaged in open discussion on Feeney’s blog. For better or worse, we could be finding out pretty soon whether the Hopfenberg Hypothesis is correct: a peak in energy supply will probably mean a peak in food supply, as well. After all, what’s the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s without all those petroleum-based fertilizers?

Best, then, to read up on it now… so go check it out!

By Adam Brock

At Just Food’s Good Food Now! summit on Saturday, I attended a workshop session held by members of the Green Edge Collaborative, a newish organization that facilitates potlucks and eco-eatery tours around the city. Listening to the participants brainstorm ideas for future events, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of deja vu – Green Edge seemed to be aiming for a cross between Green Drinks and Green Arch, with a little bit of Green Maps thrown in.

The experience keyed me into a trend in the New York environmental movement that seems both entirely obvious and completely novel: thanks in large part to the adhesive powers of the internet, the regeneration is creating a proliferation of loose, local communities centered around increasingly specific themes. These mini-networks exist half online, half in the real world, and are usually managed by one or two people in their free time. They’re multiplying at a dizzying pace, but it would be silly to think of them as competing with each other: as Annie noted the other day, maintaining diversity in the movement is key. Here’s a rundown of the NYCentric green collectives I’m hip to (it’s by no means comprehensive – please add your own in the comments):

Perhaps the best known verdy social networks in NYC are the two local chapters of Green Drinks, which host monthly gatherings at bars in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each meetup usually brings a few hundred young greensters to eco-conscious locales around town, though I can’t say they’re really my scene: the crowd tends towards the lime and profesh.

Another network that’s been getting some hype of a different stripe is freegan.info. These folks are best known for their propensity to dumpster dive, but there’s far more to the freegan philosophy than that: drawing wealth from the abundance of other peoples’ waste is just one strategy in their fight to extract themselves from the global capitalist system. On the freegan.info site, you’ll find the scoop on upcoming bike workshops, wild food foraging walks – and, yes, trash tours.

On a slightly more entertaining tip is nonsense, a weekly email of hipster happenings curated by Williamsurg resident Jeff Stark (also a co-host of the biweekly freegan feast grub). While many of the nonsense events don’t have a lick of greenness about them, the ones that do make it well worth the occasional read – this week’s email included a benefit auction for food security in Nicaragua, a gathering of the “trash worship society” and a holiday fair of local crafts.

Eating Liberally is an NYC sustainable food network run by Greenwich Village residents Kerry Trueman and Matthew Rosenberg. Eating Liberally hosts and promotes potlucks, food-related parties, and movie screenings, and the site’s got a terrific blog on sustainable ag.

The NYC chapter of the Peak Oil Meetup group has been hosting some thought-provoking talks as of late: see my posts on recent lectures by peak oilers Albert Bates and Daniel Lerch.

Finally, there’s the Green Arch Initiative, a google group managed by yours truly that promotes verdy activities around NYU and NYC at large. Green Arch was founded a few years ago as a student club, but is now largely an online presence that caters to NYU students and New Yorkers alike.

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