Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.
Think of a farm. What do you imagine?
I’m guessing that most of you picture something from the label on a jug of organic milk. Some place way out in the countryside, maybe down a dirt road, with Old McDonald plowing the fields.
You probably don’t think of Urbandale Farm. In the city of Lansing, Michigan, beneath the rumble of the I-496 ring road, onions and beans and the craziest tomatoes I’ve ever seen grow up next to the sidewalk, lovingly tended by welders and interior designers. These concrete farmers walk to the fields from their houses down the block, maybe stopping to get a coffee at a convenience store. Trucks roar by. It is not a rural idyll.
But when I first saw it, at dawn, Urbandale looked a lot like Old McDonald’s farm. I’d rolled in to Michigan the night before—Lansing being a stop along my road trip from Santa Cruz, California to northern Vermont—and I slept in the farmhouse. After munching some kale scramble, I pulled on an extra shirt against the mist and tromped out to a field of peppers and leafy greens, joining the chuckles of the farm workers as they said good morning and talked over the day’s tasks. Dew soaked the hems of my jeans. The farm cat slinked intently though rows of vegetables. Right there in a city of 100,000 people.
Lansing sits in the palm of the hand Michiganders always show you when you ask where they’re from. The Urbandale section, in Lansing’s Eastside, used to be a neighborhood of autoworkers, but in recent years it’s taken many of the same economic punches that have bruised the rest of the state. The neighborhood is dotted with foreclosed homes and abandoned lots. Many of the occupied houses are crumbling—Urbandale sits in the flood plain of the Red Cedar River, so you’re not allowed to build or even significantly improve your house there. As the neighborhood struggles, and people move out, more and more lots go vacant. Most of these lots are overseen by the City of Lansing and the Ingham County Land Bank, which mows the grass and shovels the snow and tries to revitalize the empty spaces.
Such a place does not make a profitable site for a grocery store, so residents with limited access to transportation have to work hard just to buy vegetables. Urbandale is one of hundreds of “food deserts”—a controversial term, but an apt one—in poor or sparsely populated communities across the country. The USDA tells us that 23.5 million Americans live in them. That’s like Connecticut and New York combined. We hear a lot about income inequality in America, but not so much about its offspring, food inequality. Our gigantic food infrastructure grows, packs, and ships vast cornucopias of produce from all over the world every day, but that system passes a lot of people by.
Urbandale Farm is the brainchild of Laura DeLind and Linda Anderson, two longtime members of Lansing’s local food scene. For a while, Eastside Lansing had a greenhouse and a farmer’s market, but no actual farm. In 2009, Laura and Linda learned that while you cannot build in the floodplain, you can grow food there. The two women found a foreclosed lot that looked promising and asked the Land Bank whether they could farm it. The Land Bank let them have the place, and the Lansing Urban Farm Project was born.
The goal of the project was to cultivate not just healthy food, but a healthy community. Food deserts are an outgrowth of civic dislocation: In twenty-first-century America, our nourishment comes from far away. So, of course, do most of our things. The globalized life offers amazing benefits (I would look like a scarecrow if I had to sew my own shirts) but it makes communities less connected and in some ways, more expendable. In a neighborhood like Urbandale a farm could, perhaps, provide not just food, but a space to help return the community to itself.
Since 2009 the farm’s grown like, well, a weed. When I was there earlier this fall, Urbandale Farm covered five lots and employed a part-time manager. The lots are ordinary residential spaces, so the farm makes a kind of checkerboard around South Hayford Street. Apprentices, all young and middle-aged adults from the neighborhood, grow its veggies. An internship program tosses students from Michigan State into the agricultural salad. Linda and Laura are a bit conflicted about their expansion—every new field of chard or broccoli means one less neighbor in the neighborhood. But in the meantime, they grow spectacular crops: garlic and pumpkins and sunflowers and giant fronds of kale that turn little stretches of land into jungles. Urbandale’s peppers curl around like cursive signatures. The best way I can describe the speckled Roman tomatoes is that if Salvador Dali had chosen to paint food baskets instead of clocks, these things would have been his trademark.
On Saturdays, they sell all this bounty from a farm stand—neighbors get a discount. The farm being right on the block, people can just swing by. You can also find their food at the local farmer’s market and the East Lansing Food Co-op and the Fork in the Road diner. But the coolest part of this homemade food system is the Veggie Wagon. Neighborhood kids fill up a big hand-drawn wagon with produce and haul it, door to door, around Urbandale. Like an ice cream truck, but good for you.
All over the country—all over the world—urban farms are growing in spaces too small or too hidden for the dominant food system, planting salads in backyards and football fields and rooftops. The local food movement is beginning to separate nourishment from net worth. As we’ve all moved to the city (81 percent of us at last count) we’ve gotten used to relying on others for services—everyone needs light, heat, water, food, information; that’s why we have infrastructure in the first place. But where these systems fail, people are rediscovering self-reliance, from rooftop solar to greywater reuse to regional food hubs (for more on food hubs, check out “From Farm to Table,” Rowan Jacobsen’s report from the Mad River Food Hub, in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion). Urbandale and its kindred go a step further. In a neighborhood with an urban farm, you don’t just rely on yourself—you and your neighbors rely on each other.
Most new infrastructure is pretty passive—you don’t do much with a wind turbine. But farming—I don’t mean to get all Michael Pollan on you—farming is an engaged, interactive task, one that demands people communicate with their landscape and experience it with all their senses and even, ultimately, after the harvest, incorporate it into themselves. Until Linda and Laura found their vacant lot, there was no way for anyone to do this in their community. But now the farm in the city is accomplishing more for Urbandale, body and soul, than the absent supermarkets, or the faraway rural farms, ever could.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.