Back in the day, urban gardens everywhere

Village of Catskill, NY

In the eighteenth century, villages, towns and cities had almost as many gardens as buildings.

Have you ever walked through your neighborhood, noticed a vacant lot, and wondered why nobody had bothered to plant a garden there, instead of just letting the land sit around empty?

Now, of course, plant and insect people will tell you that no land is empty. Even the humblest weedlot plays a role in urban ecology.

But I’d wager that few vacant lots are under the control of a wildlife manager or urban forester. Instead, it’s clear that most empty lots just sit there, waiting for the the real estate market to improve. Hardly the highest and best use of scarce urban land.

In the past, people never would have let good land in a well populated area go to waste. Just take the example of the UK town of Guildford, 27 miles southwest of London. Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins recently unearthed an 18th-century map of the town showing how yesteryear’s version of smart development revolved around maximizing in-town photosynthesis:

We see, for example, that the hospital has its own vegetable garden.  The Free School has its own orchard.  While many of the houses have their own gardens, others appear to have allotments out the back, large pieces of land divided into plots.  In the center of the map is a cluster of coaching inns, each of which have yards full of vegetable gardens.  Behind every house, on every piece of ground, food is being grown.  It is an extraordinary snapshot of a time when food production was the principal form of urban land use after roads and buildings.

Down with lawns!

Hopkins isn’t trying to romanticize the bad old days when life was harder and standards of living were much lower, but instead, “to marvel at what a really local food culture looks like in reality for those of us who have no living memory of such a thing.”

And of course to suggest that, if we’re smart now and lucky later, maps of our towns in the future might show just as much urban space under cultivation as Hopkins’s 18th-century map of Guildford does.

Today, I wince when I see a wide expanse of expensive urban land going to waste. And I cringe when I see, even worse, some status-conscious property owner subjecting God’s own sun, rain and soil (not to mention the devil’s own petroleum products) to the insult of producing fodder for a riding lawn mower.

But if the sight of huge toxic lawns, acres of parking lot or neighborhoods blighted by brownfields sprouting broken glass and rusted shards of beer cans is repulsive, then, with apologies to Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff in The Fugitive, the vision of a garden behind every warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse, is sublimely beautiful.

And planting mini-orchards of apple, pear and cherry trees in every median strip, on every sidewalk and in every public park could help our cities and towns provide a new kind of prosperity to their residents.

Gardening our cities would be easy, cheap and fun for all. Why wait? Volunteer citizen efforts are a great start, getting neighbors together to make sure everybody’s planted their own backyard. But to really spread, you have to start gardening some of those vacant lots.

It may be time to re-work local property tax. Instead of taxing parcels that have a building on them at a higher rate, why not tax vacant lots more — unless of course, their owners plant food gardens or allow someone else to do it. Then, reward that civic-minded property owner with a big discount on her property tax bill.

Call it the Food Security Tax Break.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    I am not sure as to the reasoning, but I think it goes something like this.

    Your garden produce had almost no cash value as a trade item. So if you wanted them, you grew them yourself. I think the problem was that they did not travel well, so they did not become a “cash crop” until preservation methods, and transportation improved. The better the preservation and transportation, the less demand for local produce.

    Are you implying that there will a change in one of those variables? LOL

    • says

      Yes, russell1200, I think there will be much less trade in food in the future. Every calorie of food produced from today’s industrial food system takes ten calories of fossil fuel to grow. And that doesn’t even count transportation. Obviously, a system with a poor future in world of depleting fossil fuels and rising costs for energy. Growing food at home has already started to become cost effective for many families in today’s tough economy. In the future, homegrown will pay off even more.

  2. Maggie says

    Love this! Have you ever read “The Fifth Sacred Thing”, by Starhawk? It is a beautifully told and richly complex tale of life after the collapse of civilization…anyway, whatever complaints I’ve heard some make about this novel, Starhawk at least does a fantastic job of painting a detailed picture of a sustainably-operated city. She beautifully and quite practically describes the abundant food production carried out via both personal family gardens that are a necessary norm for citizens, as well as publicly in terms of such things as fruit trees grown along every street and in every park. Again, I wonder–how we were ever persuaded to trade all of our time in, doing mostly awful ‘jobs’ (and a good part of their awfulness lying in the very amount of our precious time they take up)…how were we persuaded to trade our precious time for money to buy food grown both toxically and way too far away from us?

    • says

      I love post-collapse fiction, so I’ve been wanting to check out Starhawk for a long time. And speaking of jobs, I like what Wendell Berry says about them: “contrary to all the unmeaning and unmeant political talk about ‘job creation,’ work ought not to be merely a bone thrown to the otherwise unemployed…work ought to be necessary; it ought to be good; it ought to be satisfying and dignifying to the people who do it, and genuinely useful and pleasing to the people for whom it is done.”

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