In the summer of 2011, a small group of passionate filmmakers set off on a journey around the country to explore the urban farming movement. What they discovered changed how they think about food, community, and sustainability.
Growing Cities covers the breadth of the urban farming movement. Producer and Director, Dan Susman, admits that the process of making this film altered his understanding of “urban farming.” Initially, the phrase conjured up visions of large-scale farms in reclaimed vacant lots, expansive rooftop gardens, and full-fledged community gardens taking up half an acre of land within city limits. Instead, what he found was that there is no single model dominating the movement; the organization, farmers, communities, and motivations were all incredibly diverse.
Throughout their journey, Susman and his crew asked farmers if they saw themselves as part of a larger movement. The answers may surprise you. Some farmers did indeed see themselves as addressing systemic injustices, like social and economic equality. However, there were some who had never even heard the term “urban farming” before. And there were also some who did not consider their work revolutionary; rather, they found themselves growing food simply because that is what their family has done for generations.
Urban farmers grow food for a plethora of reasons. Non-profit models are most prevalent, but their missions vary. Some focus on providing their community with fresh, affordable food in neighborhoods that would otherwise be considered a “food desert.” Other farms aim to create employment opportunities for young people so that they can learn job skills and responsibility. While the non-profit model is most common, according to Susman, there are a number of businesses around the country that are working on creating economically sustainable for-profit models. For instance, there is a growing desire to provide jobs for people who simply want to work with their hands and have meaningful jobs. In some cases, this move toward for-profit models is a direct response to a heavy reliance on grant funding, which is ultimately unsustainable. When the local and organic food trend ultimately wanes, the money will dry up, as well, putting an end to most urban farms and community gardens.
Funding is not the biggest challenge that this movement faces, however. The leasing, borrowing, and acquisition of land is primary. Before a project can even begin, farmers must answer three questions: How do we get the land? How do we make the land affordable? How do we get to keep the land? It can be challenging for farmers to find land to work, and Susman found that some of the more resourceful farmers have entered into partnerships with non-profits who have access to real estate within city limits. For example, rooftop farmers can create leases with building owners to rent space. The relationship is beneficial for the owners, too, because they see benefits like reductions in heating and cooling costs. Then there are farmers who are exploring the creation of land trusts inside city limits. What was traditionally a way to protect wildlife and resources in rural areas, can now be applied within urban landscapes to teach youth about environmental conservation and the importance of green space. After spending months in the San Francisco Bay area, Growing Cities discovered that Oakland is making an effort to identify how much land is available and what vacant lots that can be leased to farmers for long term projects.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to work with city governments, which are focused on tangible results. The challenge for farmers is to provide local officials with solid data that demonstrates how urban farms improve communities and residents’ lives. The movement has a long way to go in this area. There is a great deal of research that needs to be done, including learning more about how farms influence the children’s eating habits and how they impact the surrounding environment.
With all of the various models and challenges, what holds this movement together? The answer is – food. No matter what part of the country they live in, what crops they grow, or how much funding they have, all of the farmers in this film simply care about how our food is grown. Any attempts to create a clearer definition of the movement only make it more exclusive, says Susman. And that exclusivity does it a disservice and ignores the beauty of its diversity and resilience.
It is easy to dismiss the urban farming movement as a utopian-hippie-trend and argue that it can never feed the world. But Growing Cities cautions viewers that it is more than just hipsters leasing rooftop real estate on top of swanky New York City skyscrapers. It is about getting your hands dirty and knowing your food intimately. It is about community revitalization and family tradition. This movement has the potential to address social and economic inequality locally and on a national scale, one seed at a time.
To help Susman and his crew complete their film, which is in the editing stages, please go to their Kickstarter page to donate to their campaign. Your money will go a long way to giving these farmers and this movement a voice.