An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism

Urban farms are lovely but they aren't actually green.

None of this speaks well of the oft-trumpeted promise of urban farms to guarantee “food security.” Locavore theorists—and now city officials—believe that nudging low-income consumers toward farmer’s markets and CSAs will increase their access to fresh produce, but it will likely do the opposite. A pricey, horribly inconvenient CSA membership is a terrible way for working families on tight budgets and schedules to get their vegetables. Indeed, the whole notion of fresh, secure local food is an oxymoron. Fresh produce never existed in New York during the yearly famines we call “winter”—until transcontinental railroads brought it here.

The industrial food system has its problems—and enormous advantages that locavore schemes can’t beat. But what’s most frustrating to me about the urban farming movement is its gaping obliviousness to New York’s real environmental virtues.

Red Hook Farm. (Photo: Jessica Reeder)

Red Hook Farm. (Photo: Jessica Reeder)

Consider some iconic acre of Brooklyn vacant lot. You could grow food on it—or you could throw up a 30-story apartment complex housing 600 people. That’s 600 people who won’t be settling in low-density exurbs where they would be smeared across 60 acres of subdivision; in turn, those 60 acres of vacant exurb could remain farmland or forest. Using communal laundromats and lacking basements to put junk in, those new Brooklynites would lead lives of anti-consumerism. And because they would use mass transit instead of driving everywhere, their carbon footprints would be roughly a third as large as the average American’s. That fundamental land-use equation is the key to understanding how cities promote global sustainability. By concentrating high-density housing, business and lifestyles inside its borders, New York lifts enormous burdens from the ecosystem outside its borders, but that potential is squandered when we consign pristine brownfields to low-density crop-growing. We may root for the community gardeners in their eternal battle with real-estate developers, but it’s the developers who are, despite themselves, the better environmentalists.

I’m not saying we should pave over every garden bed. Urban farming has its place in the New York tapestry. It’s a fun hobby for horticulturalists and a viable business niche for luxury brands supplying status food to gourmands and green fanatics; if it burns through interns like diesel fuel, well, that’s as quintessentially New York as overpriced chow. Or we could think of it as public art with benefits: the eco-system services that Brooklyn Grange’s green roof provides by cooling the heat island and sponging up storm runoff may well repay its $592,000 city grant, but even if they don’t, that’s still less tax money than we might have dropped on a Christo installation. Above all, urban farming is a scene—a classic New York cultural fantasia that’s “about” farming in roughly the same proportion that Oklahoma! is about Oklahoma.

Urban farming won’t add appreciably to New York’s sustainability or its food security, and too much of it could actually subtract from both. We should prioritize real economic development over gardening and supermarkets over farmer’s markets. The New York City Housing Authority should build housing, not shovel compost. Good jobs and lower rents will let New Yorkers buy a lot more vegetables than we can grow.

And let’s remember that New York’s sustainability lies in its sidewalks and subways, in the stupendous density that puts the world within strolling distance and makes driving impossible, in the teeming high-rises that pen people in spaces small enough to cramp a veal calf. The result is a triumph of eco-engineering that leverages extreme communal efficiencies to conserve land, minimize carbon emissions and abate all the toxic externalities of civilized life far more effectively than boutique agriculture can. New York doesn’t need more farms to be sustainable, it needs more apartments, more offices, more factories, more skyscrapers—more New York. By being the grayest city in America, it’s also the greenest.