Growing our own food in urban areas makes us rethink the urban-rural relationship. Following seven urban agriculture projects in Berlin presented in the documentary, we reflect on the social, economic, environmental, political and health repercussions that come with it.
This documentary presents seven urban agriculture projects in Berlin (community gardens, intercultural gardens, indoor gardens, and also “guerrilla horticulture”). It shows urban farmers expressing their personal views and impressions while also recording specific projects that experiment with a new, alternative approach to urban planning. These citizens would like to change cities and make them greener, to grow their own food, and to work with intercultural communities. In addition to the social aspect, they are also motivated by the political will to develop new concepts of urban life in the long term. The film aims to raise awareness about the commitment of these gardeners and the possibilities for civic participation in the city.
Genesis, Chapter 2 (King James version)
8. “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. […] And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”
Agriculture and city have always been connected. The city becomes possible when agriculture binds human beings to the land that feeds them. Agriculture has been present in urban development for thousands of years. However, as mechanisation improved the methods of transport and agriculture was industrialised, the city began to grow and food production, moving further and further away from the urban centre, came to be totally alien to it in many cases. Nevertheless, there are movements that have tried to maintain the connection, and more than a few architects and urban planners have included the concept of urban architecture in their projects.
Both Ebenezer Howard, with his idea of the garden city, and Frank Lloyd Wright with Broadacre City, conceived of agricultural production linked with the city and established small garden plots so the residents could grow their own food. In this regard, from a more mechanistic standpoint, Le Corbusier said, “The inhabitant comes back from his factory or office […] and sets to work in his garden. His plot, cultivated in a standardised and scientific way, feeds him for a good part of the year.”(1)
Speaking Gardens presents experiences that are very different from these planned, regulated, and productivity-oriented positions. Like similar projects carried out in cities around the world, the initiatives shown in the documentary arise from spontaneity and, conceived without any desire for permanence, aim to convey a series of qualitative values that have little to do with quantitative production. Rather, they are values with considerable pedagogical content that could be important for achieving a balance between rural and urban environments, bringing the urbanite closer to the means of food production and fostering understanding of all its social, economic, environmental, political, and health consequences.
Some of the values these projects aspire to convey are related with questioning mainstream patterns of consumption, and consciousness-raising about local and seasonal consumption (of food and any other kind of product) so as to achieve a healthier diet with less impact on the environment. It means becoming aware of food sovereignty, having the ability not to depend on food imports and not to be subject to price fluctuations in the market when they become financial products. It means knowing about the existence of local varieties that are adapted to the climate, and about the agro-industrial market that regulates the quality and appearance of food products and rejects those that do not conform to marketing criteria. It means understanding, too, the rigid regulation of the seed market and the difficulties of preserving local varieties and biodiversity, as well as the agri-food industry’s dependence on oil and all the environmental effects involved. It means incorporating short distribution circuits, consumer cooperatives, and direct purchase from the producer into our habits, in order to reduce dependence on intermediaries if they do not add value.
If cities are understood as the main locus of consumption, the degree of the urban consumer’s knowledge could be the first step in recognising the importance of the space of food production and that of the agents involved. Perhaps combatting the emptying of rural areas should also include seeing and appreciating them from the zones that consume their products. This way, it might be possible to imagine the city differently while also achieving a territorial balance. We should abandon the idea of the self-sufficient city that produces everything it consumes as the magic formula for sustainability and favour instead a symbiosis of territories with different realities. Perhaps we could imagine cities that are fed by what is produced from nearby, fertile, biodiverse land whose products—for which producers are directly paid a fair and decent price—reach centres of consumption by railway and other kinds of low-emission transport.
Rethinking the urban-rural relationship, it is even possible to consider how the urban metabolism might supply goods to rural zones. In Vienna(2), for example, a large amount of the organic part of waste that has been collected since 1991 presently generates between 40,000 and 50,000 tons per year of high-quality compost and biogas. Accordingly, the current craze for setting up energy “farms” in rural areas could be redirected into urban centres and industrial estates. This is the case with a recent agreement (3) signed by the Barcelona City Council and the city’s Zona Franca (Free Economic Zone) with the aim of promoting the installation of solar cell panels on the roofs of already constructed buildings. Perhaps we might even imagine the city’s waterproof surfaces as a huge collector of rainwater that could later be distributed to other areas, as Joan Rieradevall suggested in his conversation(4) with Vanesa Freixa during Barcelona’s last Sustainable Food Week (October, 2021).
Perhaps, if we are to imagine new ways of making cities and territories, we should listen more to gardens.
(1) Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, G. Crès, Paris, 1924 (translated here from the Spanish edition, La ciudad del futuro, Editorial Infinito, Buenos Aires, 1971).
(2) City of Vienna (2002). Biowaste Management in Vienna. See wien.gv.at https://www.wien.gv.at/umwelt/ma48/service/publikationen/pdf/biokreislaufwirtschaft-en.pdf
(4) Setmana Ciutadana Alimentació Sostenible (Sustainable Food Week, 16 October 2021). Dialogue between Vanesa Freixa and Joan Rieradevall. See alimentaciosostenible.barcelona/es/semana-ciudadana