Getting to the Root of the Problem

Urban Roots film

Urban Roots, the recently released documentary on urban farming in Detroit, closes with the image to the right: a projection of a future Detroit, in which a large-scale agricultural operation dripping with verdure is nestled in among high-density development. As a self-proclaimed urban agriculture skeptic, I found this depiction of urban food production more tenable than most. Yet the image is a rendering of a proposed commercial farm that is opposed by the smaller-scale farmers and community members featured in the film. This tension is indicative of a much larger conversation that needs to take place if urban agriculture hopes to evolve from gardens precariously situated on public land and privately-owned operations selling high-end products to a permanent element of the urban fabric. Surprisingly, Urban Roots made some headway in initiating that discussion.

As the image of a verdant Detroit faded from the screen at Drexel’s Bossone Research Center Tuesday night, the packed auditorium burst into applause. Understandably so, as the film presented fairly standard, digestible rhetoric, common of the urban agriculture movement. For much of its 90 minute run-time, the film illustrates the oft-repeated tale of “food justice” in the city. You know the rap: factories relocate; the jobs leave; many residents follow them; those who cannot, or do not want to leave, stay; the grocery stores follow their customer base and leave; “food deserts” result; residents take matters into their own hands and grow their own food, and the desert becomes a garden of healthy, fresh produce.

Urban Roots film

But what I liked about Urban Roots was that it took the food justice formula one step further, emphasizing the employment opportunities to be had in a “local food economy.” If we can employ people, particularly here in Philadelphia, among the ashes of old industrial sites (soil tests pending), producing a product that is always in demand (food) for profit then that makes sense to me. I hasten to emphasize that a local food economy in a globalized city would still depend on the global circulation of goods and capital, and is still susceptible to the whims of the market (and climate). By that I mean it is not panacea, but for the current conditions in many American cities—land-use-wise, employment-wise, health-wise—it is part of a mosaic of appropriate solutions for our cites’ urban problems.

Urban agriculture won’t employ everyone, and it won’t feed everyone, which is why we still need the diversity and density of uses that make city’s dynamic, more equitable places to live. When one commentator in Urban Roots celebrates the fact that his garden/soup kitchen operation has been able to “keep out major chains and big developments,” I cringed. This kind of attitude is the antithesis of the mixed-use urban planning that has become so popular over the past few decades—and rightly so, as it fosters walkability, community, and equity, all of which are central tenets of actually achieving “food justice,” and more importantly, social justice.

Urban Roots film

Just as urban food production needs to be physically integrated into the urban fabric, food justice work needs to be integrated into the network of social justice work. Food justice projects should be making greater strides to connect “food injustice” with its root cause—economic injustice—and to recognize that the socioeconomic factors that lead to food injustice are not remedied solely by the provisioning of (local or organic) food. There are numerous ways to incorporate and acknowledge the underlying causes of food insecurity: connect people with existing programs for low-income households, hire from the neighborhoods you’re attempting to serve, partner with organizations working on transportation equity (whether it be a free bike program or a neighborhood carpool), partner with schools to provide hands-on education opportunities, talk to hospitals about starting a local produce prescription program—as St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children has done with their Farm to Families program (full disclosure: I run NKCDC’s Farm to Families distribution site), donate produce to neighborhood events, provide free job training to those who want to make a foray into urban agriculture—the possibilities are tremendous.

As for the technical implementation of urban agriculture, we’re lucky here in Philadelphia, with the zoning code being rewritten and the Greenworks program underway, just as urban agriculture is gaining considerable popularity. During the panel discussion that followed the screening of Urban Roots, Sarah Wu, Policy and Outreach Manager for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, stated that urban agriculture is being taken into consideration in both efforts. In particular, Wu said to expect vacant land policy pertinent to community gardens within the next three months. And as Hidden City reported last week, Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez has introduced a bill that would create a central land bank comprising all the vacant parcels currently in the possession of various city agencies.

In Detroit, the scene depicted in Urban Roots was not so harmonious. City planners and the former mayor were portrayed as out-of-touch with the urban agriculture happening on the ground in their city, and were accused of being development-centric, just waiting for the next GM or Ford to come along and fix their crises. This led urban agriculturalists in the film to take on a near-libertarian stance: if the government won’t help and the corporations won’t help, do it yourself. While their self-determination is admirable, I hope in the future these Detroit residents will be open to a more communicative relationship between the city and its users. If the City of Detroit is able to engage its population the way Philadelphia does, there will a greater possibility for a verdant, dense and diverse Detroit.

Ariel Diliberto

grew up in the Greater Philadelphia Area and received her BA in Urban Ecology at Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY) in 2011. She’s interested in using environmental justice as a pathway for social and economic justice in the city. She has interned with the atelier d’architecture autogérée (Studio for Self-Managed Architecture) in Paris, the Plant Biology program at University of Texas-Austin, and the NYC Department of Design and Construction. Ariel currently works for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation as Sustainable 19125 Project Coordinator.

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1 Comment


  1. I was just talking all night about 19125 in my “greening philly” urban studies class!
    Sounds like quite an intriguing film! Sad to say I missed it!
    One thing did catch my eye while reading though.

    “When one commentator in Urban Roots celebrates the fact that his garden/soup kitchen operation has been able to “keep out major chains and big developments,” I cringed. This kind of attitude is the antithesis of the mixed-use urban planning”

    Don’t you feel that the operator of the soup kitchen was most likely referring to corporate entities and planning firms acting in the corporations’ best interest? (in other words, not being locally community minded)
    Although not all corporations are evil or even malevolent by common standards, they and other “chain” businesses do act in best interest of their stockholders, and thereby undermining the control, affect, and impact that these local residents will have on their community (maybe not at first, but in some way shape or form eventually). I was just surprised to see your reaction to this man taking pride in his personal mark on his community.
    Is it wrong to counter the gentrifying forces happening in the cities all over the nation? That has been a subject of much debate, but in situations where the local community’s identity and small business sector is threatened from multi-national corporations, and even some minor franchises, I say hurrah to you sir, for taking pride in our community, my phellow Philadelphian.
    And of course, what a thorough and enjoyable read Ariel! Proud to see Philly taking big strides (and even more the fact that you’re on the front line!!!)

    p.s. I was sitting in my urban studies class tonight reveling to myself over how far Philadelphia has come with urban agriculture already, and how proud I am that a movement with such passion can find a home and catalyst in Philly.

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