Civic Agriculture Builds Urban Communities

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — For nearly two decades urban farmer Josh Slotnick has been growing food to build community. Of course, when he started cultivating fruits and vegetables on 2 acres in a city once known as “The Pit,” he had no idea that something more than food would sprout.

He thought the community garden going in next to a trailer park that housed low-income families would help feed those in need and contribute to the local economy. It did both. But, more importantly, he said the garden has engaged those living in the former paper mill city.

“We were growing food beyond the need for food,” Slotnick said. “That was just icing on the cake. Important icing. But civic agriculture was the compelling part of it. The pretty garden and the collaboration it takes to maintain is why people volunteer. It’s why they get involved.”

Kathryn De Master, a visiting assistant professor at the Brown University Center for Environmental Studies, introduced her fellow Montanan during a Nov. 29 lunchtime talk. She said Missoula, a city of about 80,000 in western Montana, once “smelled” and had “worse smog than Los Angeles.” Today, she said, The Pit is known as the “Garden City.”

“Missoula is a great story about what environmental legislation can do,” she said. “Urban agriculture was a big part of the transformation, and Josh was at the forefront.”

Slotnick, a lecturer in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana and co-founder of the nonprofit Garden City Harvest, gave a presentation entitled “Hunger for Community: Why Civic Agriculture Works.” He spoke for an hour about the rationale for participating in local food systems in light of the specific qualities of experience they afford.

“Civic agriculture not only pushes a handful of our evolutionary buttons, but may well be a pre-requisite for a more sustainable future,” he said.

Garden City Harvest is now a 10-acre operation that engages the local population in myriad ways, from internships, school garden curriculum, farm field trips and summer camps to providing 15-by-15 foot community garden plots to working with teenagers in the area’s Youth Drug Court and Youth Homes program.

The work Garden City Harvest does is similar to the services provided here by Southside Community Land Trust and New Urban Farmers. Organizations like these have created a movement nationwide and one that you can measure by the amount of food they produce, according to Slotnick.

“Every city in America has these types of farms,” he said. “Cleveland and Detroit have homesteading — $500 for a piece of land.”

While urban farms grow food, improve soil quality and shrink carbon footprints— all invaluable community assets — Slotnick said he has seen firsthand what these types of operations truly create. They cause people, he said, to become “attached to each other and where they live.”

Slotnick shared stories of college students timidly beginning summer internships and referring to the farm’s tools and produce as "his." In a few weeks, he said, that pronoun changes to "our," and the students start working together as a tribe.

“They become part of a high-functioning group,” he said. “Everyone has a job to do and they count on each other. They form an allegiance with the people they are working with and with the ground under their feet.”

He said he has watched those who work and volunteer at Garden City Harvest gain a better sense of sustainability. “They develop a deep sense of ownership and go to great lengths to maintain the farm.”

Slotnick said it is in our DNA to behave sustainably, but we got too good at meeting our needs. Small groups stopped growing their food, building their homes and clothing their children. Local cooperation became global corporations.

He’s not calling for a return to the 1920s, but Slotnick believes more constructive cooperation would foster more productive attachment to people and place.

Urban/civic agriculture helps nurture that sense of community. It teaches the importance of saving native seeds and eating healthy, local food, and it strengthens sustainable practices.