Urban farming is putting unexpected pressure on the working class

Growing fresh fruits and vegetables, in addition to raising small livestock, in urban areas is pretty great. Theoretically anyone can do it — within some bounds, like limitations on space — and it can provide a source of affordable fresh food. Which is why people have been doing it for decades, with low income and working class people sometimes relying on urban farming practices to help cut the grocery bills and provide access to produce in communities where it’s not readily available. But now it’s getting trendy with the middle class, and as a result, some complicated things are happening.

In terms of surface value, it’s good to see urban farming spreading. We should be making use of underutilised spaces and growing things and teaching people how to grow things. Getting youth involved with farming and gardening is particularly great, as is making it accessible in low income communities where people may have limited resources — for example, people in apartments don’t have space to farm, but they could use a community garden. And connecting with food is incredibly valuable, even if people are kind of swooping in and acting like they invented the concept instead of respecting people who have gone before.

But there’s a sinister side, too. Because as in all things, a class divide is emerging, and it’s being heavily reinforced by regulation, even more so than when I wrote about the ‘pretty ugly garden‘ over two years ago. On the one hand, some cities are starting to lift nonsensical bans on urban farming practices — but others are putting more restrictions in place, sometimes out of moral panic (ew, slaughtering small livestock for personal use!) and sometimes out of what, for lack of a better term, I suppose I would term aesthetic panic. People want their neighbourhoods to look pretty, and urban farms must look just so in order to pass muster.

Here’s the thing: It’s possible to create an urban farm extremely cheaply. Pick up some food-grade plastic tubs from a restaurant, punch some holes in them, and you have planters — or scavenge wooden materials and use them to build rough boxes. Use old wire fencing or dowels to make trellises for beans and tomatoes. Fill a giant bucket with some straw and seed potatoes. Throw together some pallets to make a compost enclosure. These things make urban farming financial accessible by taking many of the costs out, especially when paired with free soil programmes like they have in some communities (soil can be unexpectedly expensive).

These things also don’t look terribly pretty. They’re not artfully rustic, but actually quite ugly sometimes. Planters are all different shapes and sizes, plants list instead of looking orderly, things just aren’t that attractive. People sometimes let things go to seed because they want to collect seeds rather than buying new every year, which results in dry sticks of dead plants that linger for weeks or months. This kind of farming is working class, practical farming — akin to that practiced on many family farms, where the focus is function, not form.

Yes, custom-built or mass-produced pretty planters are functional too, but they’re also designed to look nice. Sawed-off wine barrels can add a touch of class, with their even size and appearance. Real trellising is pretty and elegant. An urban farm can be turned into a lush ornamental garden in addition to a practical one. And for people who have the money and the inclination to engage in the upkeep needed, this is dandy. People should be able to do as they please when it comes to farming — as long as they’re happy and not endangering anyone, go for it. And let’s face it, a potato is a potato is a potato, no matter what it grew in.

But municipalities are starting to get their panties in a wad over the issue of what’s aesthetically pleasing. Some are attacking people for gardening in front yards and on front porches — in condo associations, people can get dinged by the city and the association for extra points. Even if there’s limited room behind a home or apartment, or the growing conditions are poor, people aren’t supposed to have ugly food plants in their ugly containers just sitting out front where anyone can see them. Or they’re not allowed to keep chickens because they’re noisy, or bees because they’re ‘disruptive,’ or the city will come by and hack at fruit trees.

In all of this, middle class and wealthy people tend to come out on top because they can afford the kinds of properties that allow them to comply with the law (like single family homes with actual back yards) and the equipment cities prefer, like attractive planters. This leaves the working class people who have kept urban farming traditions alive for all this time without the ability to keep farming, all because something they did has become trendy and is now subject to tighter regulation. There’s something darkly bitter about that, a world in which people who farmed to support their diets due to lack of access now can’t farm, but still face the same limited access.

Once the fad passes, rich people will transition back to ornamental landscaping or whatever, but the ordinances passed to make farming pretty will linger, and cities will find reasons to enforce them, effectively driving the practice out for all but those able to afford it. Financial barriers shouldn’t stand between people and gardening, and the fact that they do is a telling testimony to our current cultural landscape.

Image: CSA Produce, Matt Hannon, Flickr