The Crooked Path from Farm to Fork
Gentrification and urban agriculture
By James McWilliams
The cultural—and agricultural—quest to reclaim and reform the food system appeals primarily to relatively privileged, mostly white urbanites. Committed to the pulse of city life, these advocates generally view the countryside as a place for weekend getaways. Still, they want to be close to the point of food production and in turn are bringing agriculture into the city, one vacant lot at a time, to close the gap between farm and fork.
In the Bay Area, the veritable epicenter of food activism, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA) declares its agrarian ideology thus: “We want more people to successfully grow food on more of our tiny 49-square-mile city.” It’s an empowering sentiment, as is the entire effort to reclaim an industrial food system run amok. However, for all the appeal and inspiration involved, critics (including SFUAA itself) are beginning to wonder whether urban agriculture might not have the unintended consequence of either displacing marginalized communities from established neighborhoods or excluding them from future ones. In a word: gentrification.
The tension between urban farming and socioeconomic access to urban space recently came to a head in Austin, Texas. Hispanic neighbors became increasingly annoyed with the smell emanating from HausBar Farm, a small East Austin operation that grew vegetables amid free-ranging chickens, geese, donkeys, and “meat” rabbits. Although many patrons considered the farm a model of sustainable agriculture, its location in a moderately poor and mostly nonwhite neighborhood, not to mention its mostly white patronage, placed the white owners on the defensive against charges of environmental racism. The farm, under such unexpected (and possibly unfair) fire—and as the target of a flurry of subsequently alleged code questions—decided to close.
Supporters of urban agriculture are by no means unaware of the specter of gentrification. In perhaps the most thorough rumination on the problem to date, urban farmer Patrick Crouch, in a superb 2012 Grist essay, admits that he’s “still left wondering about my role in gentrification” despite his remarkable accomplishments in bringing farming into Detroit’s city limits. David Roach, a noted advocate of urban farming in Oakland, California, told Edible East Bay that many blighted urban areas offer opportunities for newcomers to arrive and receive external support for their innovative agrarian ideas. Nonetheless, he notes, less privileged residents “have had good ideas for a long time and haven’t gotten anything.” A National Geographic article celebrating urban farming recognized that “land in cities is often expensive, especially since gardens tend to contribute to gentrification and rising rents.”
Even if supporters of urban agriculture actively acknowledge the problem, they’re not offering much in the way of hard solutions. They generally tend to counter the claim of gentrification with claims of the numerous benefits that urban farming can bring to local communities. Crouch, the Detroit farmer, insists that “Urban agriculture can be a force for good in under-resourced neighborhoods,” citing “job training, access to healthy food,” and reduced crime as examples. Supporters of urban agriculture in the Bay Area, for their part, routinely highlight the “holistic” nature of urban farming, noting the benefits of youth employment, science education, improved air quality, improved access to green space, and even personal relaxation as examples.
Holistic urban sites of relaxation should never be downplayed. Common economic sense, however, suggests that there’s little hope that such holism will remain democratic amid the luxury lofts, brew pubs, and tony restaurants that tend to punctuate the urban renewal and gentrification process. Crouch’s tactful dance around this difficult issue illustrates his understandable desire to have it both ways—that is, to bring farms into the city while maintaining socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity as well as access to the pleasures of local food.
In his Grist piece, he notes that the projects he’s worked on “don’t seem to have increased property values” but also admits that his efforts could “contribute to a neighborhood that is one day filled with luxury lofts, rather than the rehabbed houses and affordable housing it needs.” Should this concern prevent Crouch from continuing to ruralize the city? “Probably not,” he writes. He may be right. But for less privileged citizens who may want to someday inhabit a rehabilitated downtown Detroit, “probably not” is cold comfort.
To be clear, there are numerous causes of gentrification. Urban farming is not alone. Nonetheless, urban farming as a practice fits squarely and seductively into the “lifestyle politics” that fuel the elite nature of so much urban renewal. The city slicker’s dinner table of the future might very well display a cornucopia of locally sourced food, but every indication currently suggests that the guest list will be an exclusive one.
James McWilliams is the Ingram Professor of History at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.