Remapping the grid: Urban farming and the ‘100-yard diet’

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Forget dismal gray concrete and rusted silver steel. The new material that is about to form the building blocks of the urban landscape is green.

Urban farming is an innovative concept that responds to the need for locally harvested, environmentally friendly, and low-cost produce in cities. As of 2007, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas — shouldn’t these be, then, the most forward-thinking and sustainable areas of development?

Processing, cultivating, and distributing produce in cities is a solution to the problem of nationwide (and worldwide) food shortages and rising energy costs — both in terms of cost of transportation and in warming effects of increased carbon emissions on the Earth. To combat these issues, many urbanites in such cities as New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and others both in the United States and around the world are turning whatever open space is left into an opportunity to grow tomatoes, eggplants, basil, and whatever else can grow in small amounts of dirt and heavy amounts of tree-hugging love.

Urban farming works. As Clive Thompson explains in “Grow Your Own,” an article in the September 2008 issue of Wired magazine, cultivating just one half-acre of urban terrain has the potential to yield over $50,000 worth of crops in a single year.

What he calls the “100-yard diet” — an only partially facetious take on the idea of the 100-mile diet, in which one consumes food produced within his or her immediate area — proposes that we make a cultural move toward largely localized food production.

In this move toward greening our most traditionally overbuilt and resource-heavy structures — cities themselves — we can revitalize land we may have thought was forever divorced from nature. Now, apartment balconies are the perfect platforms to host potted herbs, and rooftops are home to organic vegetable beds.

In that vein, while the idea of urban farming seems to be initially an architectural response to the problem of wasted energy and resources as well as the need for locally grown food, it has technological implications as well. The same rooftops that can house rows of flowers and herbs can also feature progressive water-retention technology that can be used to both water the vegetables of the changing green landscape as well as hook up to the plumbing of a given downtown building. As Thompson describes in the Wired article, technology geeks can rejoice in urban agriculture, too: “Aquaponics” rigs are being constructed by urbanites who use fish as part of a cradle-to-grave ecosystem.

A more extensive demonstration of the idea of urban farming is in Chico, Calif., where over 40 people donated their underused urban yards to a farmer who cultivates the land for little cost (he pays the landowners with a week’s worth of groceries). As Jane Black described in an Aug. 30 article titled “As Food Becomes a Cause, Meeting Puts Issues on the Table” from the Washington Post, the movement started when 28-year-old Lee Callender aspired to become a farmer, and he has now done so, making use of the underused urban space in a unique way.

From all of the green-minded development, the landscape of the city of the future is changing. The surface of the urban grid is getting a face-lift: No longer dominated by the monotonous grays and browns of the urban architecture of the late 20th century, the landscape is now dotted with green.

This is happening in our near and dear Pittsburgh to a degree, where communal farming plots are spreading through some of the city’s neighborhoods.

In fact, the idea of donating land to an aspiring farmer — or at least joining up with your neighbors in Shadyside to create a larger spread of vegetables and herbs — is entirely possible. The Squirrel Hill and Lawrenceville neighborhoods also feature small, densely packed homes with yards that can fit little more than a row of tomato plants — and what better to fill them with?

Regardless of how feasible (or infeasible) it may be to get involved with urban farming as a Carnegie Mellon student (Housing Services may frown upon you and your hall-mates for planting a row of marigolds on top of West Wing and Resnik houses), it’s imperative that we all begin to frame urban spaces in our minds as spaces that can be adapted to green technology.

Maybe you can’t place potted herbs on your non-existent windowsill outside Morewood Gardens, but you can still support the consumption of local produce. Go down to the Strip District next Saturday morning and buy some fresh basil or rosemary and a package of local strawberries or blueberries (they’re cheaper, save energy in transport costs, and are delicious). And when you’re walking around the weathered warehouses of the North Side or the dilapidated student housing of South Oakland, look for the next spaces that will soon be green.