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Communicating the benefits of urban agriculture while innovation grows

Posted Apr 27 2010 9:06pm

The area of urban agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. I think the more people start to realize the feasibility, and soon necessity, of producing their own food, the more it will develop and become even more feasible, affordable, and mainstream. So what are some of the innovations we have seen?

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Innovations in urban agriculture

  • Hydroponics is a method of growing fruits and vegetables in water , which conserves the use of vast areas of farmland and allows crops to be grown in desert areas where they otherwise would not be able to. Further, it is able to also conserve and re-use water that is lost during evaporation or field run-off in traditional soil farming. Also, there is no risk for parasites or weeds to infest the controlled systems in which hydroponic plants are grown, therefore making them largely non-GMO and free of pesticides and chemicals. Bonus: you can grow hydroponically basically anywhere–in an apartment or a house. Eve Bratman has a hydroponic garden on her houseboat that she made entirely on her own from used water bottles and empty jugs.
  • Permaculture is still a bit of a flimsy term, in my opinion, only because it can mean so many different things, and isn’t widely known about. But it basically indicates an “ ecologically designed system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor.” Permaculture is currently being used in different ways in different places and in all of those places, there is not a unified “permaculture” there are just isolated tactics that build on the idea of a permaculture. For example, think of worm composting, or vermiculture, which is one such tactic which is being carried out in various cities in the country, some even offering workshops and providing free worms and materials to those interested. This provides a sort of mutual symbiosis between two living things–the worms benefits by being fed, humans benefit by receiving rich soil and not filling landfills with compostable garbage. Perhaps a ” perfect permaculture” is the pie-in-the-sky goal we set to achieve, but it is through these mutually symbiotic relationships that we are able to do get closer to that.

    Photo credit: cafedirect

  • Rooftop farming, which can often be combined with hydroponic growing, is typcially used in areas of urban sprawl where soil/ground space is limited, to utilize unused rooftop spaces where sunlight is ample. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn is one case study that has really taken this concept to a whole new level. They also offer  various workshops on cooking, gardening and how the farm works. Their farm grows primarily vegetables, and is open from June through November.
  • Sack gardening is a way for people to grow vegetables in small sack containers, usually when the contamination of the soil around them is too high. It is typically done on a smaller, individual scale, in places where food scarcity is a problem, and in both urban and rural locations .
  • Window farming is another way of using hydroponics , but in a specialized manner and primarily in urban settings. It is a way of using water bottles, water, hydroponic seeds (usually herbs and lettuce and greens like that), along with an low energy-intensive air pump which circulates the water, to grow plants in your window. This type of method is barely “farming,” however, if people were properly instructed on how to best go about making their own, it could be worth looking into. Also, if you live in a city and the view of your outdoors is the brick wall of the building next to yours, this could actually prove to be an improvement to your home, from an aesthetic viewpoint. (Not to mention that having plants in your home has been known to have all sorts of health benefits .)
  • Seasonal cooking would basically just mean knowing what is in season and planning your meals around those items. The fortunate reality is that a lot of us have access to local, fresh fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t know what to do with a lot of those fruits and vegetables. It would be great to see more community and cooking classes, mobilizing people to learn how to cook just to start, but also to learn how to use local ingredients. Because if the option is there, there’s no reason not to choose local over imported. Epicurious offers an example of a map that can help to inform people about about what to expect is in peak season from their CSA or farmer’s market and how to therefore meal plan to accommodate those ingredients.

So what’s stopping us?

Locations. Some work better in some communities versus others.

Seasons. Not all of these methods can provide food at all times of the year everywhere, (except for the hydroponic ones.)

Culture/Value systems. People are going to have to shift how they think about and value their food, each other, and future generations. These types of methods require more time, patience, research, and money than traditional ways of getting food–going to a restaurant or the grocery store. Which means people are going to have to change the way they think about food. People might have to forfeit some of the time they spend watching television in the evenings in order to tend to their gardens or make time to cook meals from scratch in their homes. They are going to have to learn to appreciate eating with the seasons, and in fact, eating generally less, in quantity.

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Communicating benefits to consumers

While all of these methods of urban gardening and having a local, low carbon-footprint certainly interest some of us, and they are something we would be willing to use, they aren’t all 100 percent practical. Would these methods be used in conjunction with traditional food shopping? Would they slowly replace traditional methods? Or would they just be something some people adopted while others did not?

It’s hard to really know the answer. What I foresee is something quite similar to how companies like, say, Apple, market their products to consumers: first, the innovators get on board. Eve Bratman , my professor with the compost bin and on-the-boat garden, is one such innovator in the field of urban agriculture. Next, there are the early adopters, then the early majority (also called the “pragmatists”),  then the late majority (“the conservatives”), and lastly the laggards. How you move along more quickly is by conveying the importance–the “gotta-have-it” factor–of the technologies.

This reality and challenge is something that excites me, as a student and soon-to-be graduate in the field of communications. I feel like a lot of what is missing in the environmental movement is strategic communication about how and why people should change their behaviors. I think there is a place for communicators to get that message out to the public and I see that as being a huge catalyst for change in the future of the “sustainable movement”.

The way I imagine these sorts of methods becoming more widely accepted is through slow implementation motivated by strategic communication, just like all new technology works. Pilot programs embraced and tested out by the innovators and early adopters will not only provide evidence for the feasibility of certain tactics, but will allow for what doesn’t work to shine through and motivate alterations that can be modeled after later on. This will also allow programs to evolve at a pace that doesn’t freak out the “treehugger-phobics” as I like to call them (the kind of people who, when you “threaten to take away their right to buy  bottled water ” get all bent out of shape and start spouting off allegations of “fascism”)!

It’s important to communicate knowing that there are going to be those opposing voices when it comes to getting people to change their lifestyles. Which is why I feel when it comes to revolutionizing our food system, especially with tactics that require people to change on a personal level, you have to prove to consumers the benefits, and that change doesn’t have to be just easy, it’s rewarding.


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