Bombs and Bell Peppers

While traveling through Europe on a motorcycle in the summer of 2010, I felt immersed in the beauty of the place; the mountains of Switzerland, the villages of Austria, the fields of Slovenia, and the beaches of Croatia. They all had their own character and beauty, but what amazed me the most was Bosnia. Seeing the mortar scars, shells of burnt out buildings, and monuments to the slaughtered was overwhelming and powerful, but it was balanced by beautiful strength and simplicity of life and community.

Many rural homes destroyed during the war had begun to be rebuilt by the residents by hand. They were amazingly crafted testaments to home and family, but also interesting to me were the equally well tended gardens and crops surrounding the homes. These agricultural elements were not limited to the country homes; in a number of cities the housing towers were surrounded by the residents’ gardens. And as I sat eating the roasted corn, tomatoes, and bell peppers grown by my friend’s family in the small garden plot in front of their apartment building, I couldn’t help but think that these humble Bosnian gardens could teach us Americans a lesson or two.

To many Americans urban agriculture seems like a pipedream or an upper-middle class hobby. Our Bosnian counterparts prove this wrong; but why can they do it while we feel it isn’t possible in the mainstream?

Education is one of the largest barriers against the implementation of urban agriculture in the United States; many Americans don’t understand the variety of urban agricultural typologies that exist. These interventions can range in scale from a balcony garden to a multi-acre commercial farm to a garden on a restaurant rooftop; and all types have a place and purpose in the city. Urban agriculture doesn’t always imply large scale projects. As with the gardens in Bosnia, a large impact can made through personal small scale gardening.

But even more, urban agriculture can creatively take advantage of unused or under-utilized spaces. In fact, a vast majority of unused space in cities is in the public right-of-way – consider the space under power lines and along boulevards. Some people have realized the potential of these spaces and begun planting gardens illegally, spurring the term “Guerilla Gardening”. But also, gardens can be excellent interim uses for vacant plots. Not only do they aesthetically improve the area, but they are also a great tool to promote and inform the public about the potential of urban gardening.

Finally, regulations went a long way to deter agriculture in the city. Considering that zoning origins can be partially traced health concerns of city living, it is not surprising at some point we put a stop to agriculture in city limits. Luckily, cities such as Seattle have learned the errors of their ways and begun revising the zoning codes and ordinances to allow more flexibility for urban agriculture. In fact, King county employees has even begun an educational and charity urban garden in Seattle called Goat Hill. Government leadership is key to making urban agriculture a mainstream phenomenon.

Seattle has made its presence known in the urban agriculture revolution, but still has far to go. Subsidence agriculture in American cities is not impossible, and whether it is government or rebel lead, education is the key to invoking change. Our society has not only forgotten to eat our vegetables, but also forgotten how to grow them. It is ironic since the United States was found on agrarian principles. It is time we relearn our roots.

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