Dreaming of edible landscapes and vegetal cities

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a TEDx talk by Ben Falk (which I’ll put at the bottom of this post), and today I watched it while eating lunch. My lunch was nice — a big salad and some of the bread I made yesterday, but apart from the actual making of the bread, the rest of it was store-bought and I hadn’t grown any of the ingredients myself. There’s nothing in the garden that’s ready to pick yet, aside from herbs and the celery that lasted through the winter — way too much celery really, so I’ve been feeling a bit rabbity this week since Alvaro doesn’t like the stuff. I’ve duly noted this and won’t bother planting so much celery this year.

So while I was happy with my nice midday salad, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of Falk’s rural Vermont homestead. What a dream, to be able to grow almost all of your own food, grains included, as well as medicinal herbs and eggs from happy chickens. To be able to feed yourself almost entirely with what you’d coaxed into being with your own two hands.

But it also got me thinking again about something that has nagged me for years: we, the people who are into this sort of stuff, salivate over lush foodscapes like Falk’s backyard while at the same time living in apartment blocks, paved-over suburbs or cities, with a lucky few having a few square feet of balcony. The rest have to be contented with windowsill boxes… if that — I once lived in a studio apartment whose two windows looked out onto a fire escape, barbed wire fence, and the next building’s wall eight feet away. We didn’t get much sun so I tried to compensate by painting the place canary yellow.

More than half of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, and I’m sure many people living in apartments like mine would, like me, be very happy to get away from it all and live somewhere that doesn’t smell like car exhaust, and isn’t so cramped that the guys working on the scaffolding of the building across the way can see what TEDx video you’re watching while eating your supermarket lunch. But not everyone who wants to can get out — because of finances, family, work, available land to buy — and even if they did, where would they all go? Wikipedia has just told me that if we were to spread out the human population over the Earth’s land mass, excluding Antarctica, we would be more than 50 people per square mile — and that’s taking into account land mass including the top of Mont Blanc and the middle of the Mohave Desert.

Thus, it’s not going to happen, that we as a species can all heed the call to go back to the land. That isn’t to say that those who have the inclination and possibility to do it shouldn’t. If Alvaro and I are lucky enough to score a piece of land upon which to cultivate our paradise, we’ll certainly jump at the chance. For that, Falk’s talk is some lovely farm porn, something to dream about and work towards, but it remains that there need to be some alternatives presented that better take into account the fact that this dream is not realizable for everyone — nor is it for everyone.

I organized a walking tour for a group of art students yesterday that ambled through the streets of Geneva on mission to discover alternative systems of food production in this urban landscape. We saw large and small plots of fruits and vegetables, chicken runs and bee hives, beautiful and cared for pockets of land squeezed in among old buildings and new ones. It all looked so precarious, and yet at the same time gave a tiny taste of the way things could be — even with Geneva’s housing crisis — if there existed the political and cultural will to change. Problem is, there isn’t really. As is the case in other cities, there are very few urban gardening projects in Geneva that take the long view. There are a few exceptions, but most urban gardeners here have to be contented with a few square meters of clay-heavy soil in peripheral areas or parcels of land that the city lets them use temporarily while finalizing the permits for an upcoming construction project. (The latter is the case of my community garden — I’ll give an update on that here soon.) There is no grand urban planning scheme here, no thought to preserving green spaces aside from the city parks. Always there is the cry of “but we’re in a housing crisis” and “but all these immigrants need apartments.” These sound like excuses to me, because look around Geneva and you’ll see plenty of buildings that are either vacant or vacated of meaning, shops filled with fast fashion and electronics that will stop working after two years, offices whose sole purpose is to pass paper around or trade decimals of wheat. We don’t have a housing issue — we have a priorities issue.

I’m afraid I don’t have any sweeping plans that I can take to the Grand Conseil tomorrow, so this will be filed under Complaints with No Clear Alternative Offered. I will therefore leave you with Ben Falk’s video, and continue pondering the issue and try to figure out something that at least I personally can do about it.