Urban Agriculture Advocates Not Thinking Ecologically, Argues Conservation BiologistIs the urban agricultural movement (for the purposes of this post, we’re assuming there is a movement) too narrowly defining useful landscapes and creating a “craze to farmify our surroundings”? Mariellé Anzelone, an urban conservation biologist, and executive director of NYC Wildflower Week, thinks so; she advanced her position on urban agriculture in a New York Times editorial last week. Anzelone’s concern? She thinks “we are ignoring the utility of plants like wildflowers and native ornamentals in favor of imported fruit trees.” What, then is the utility of these natives over imported species (indeed, most of the food we eat and grow in the United States are not crops native to the Americas; a few, very few, are)? According to Anzelone: “A study published early this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that bumblebees preferred to forage at sites with a greater variety of plants and more floral choices. They would like our landscapes to look more like diverse natural meadows than single-species farm fields. Such considerations are paramount in cities, where open space is in short supply.” And for Anzelone, the stakes are high: “All around us, even in cities, there are natural processes at work that we depend on… these ‘ecosystem services’ are critical to the survival of our species.” Are urban agricultural efforts actually undermining those services?
Anzelone’s argument, while interesting, seems too strong. Obviously, if we plant one thing, in most cases, by necessity, it displaces another thing. But, along the path to deriding urban agriculture, why did she not stop to ask if native and non-natives can coexist where urban farmscapes emerge? American History professor William Kerrigan, in response to Anzelone’s op-ed, wondered the same thing. Moreover, can Anzelone tell us how much native vegetation we need for an ecologically healthy cityscape? Her argument seems to lack such quantitative specificity.
Despite my criticism of Anzelone’s argument, I think she is noticing farms and farming (especially smaller, local, organic, etc.) getting a lot of positive attention right now from urban consumers, urban communities, and in the popular press. Her article is an attempted corrective; it is meant to complicate the matter for those who see doing food gardening in the city as inherently good, for those who do not see the tradeoffs inherent. “The craze for farms has even reached our urban parks,” writes Anzelone. “When the High Line, the former railroad-turned-park, opened in Manhattan, the editor of the design magazine Dwell praised the park’s success. But he said nothing about the wildflower beds weaving through the abandoned tracks, yearning instead for the addition of ‘vegetable gardens or chicken coops.’”
Whether or not Anzelone is right that native plants are being marginalized by urban agriculgturalists, we may take heed of her call to think about landscape management in general. Indeed, how we define useful landscapes is important, and when we do agriculture, there may be both on-farm and broader ecological benefits to managing the landscape more holistically, in which agriculturalists think of food production for our benefit (either through direct consumption, or sale), as a piece of a broader ecological puzzle.