During the first and second world wars, the Canadian government encouraged its citizens to produce small garden plots, known as victory gardens, in order to support the war and reduce the strain on public food supply.
Today, growing food in our living spaces is once again gaining popularity. But this time, the war seems to be with our own food distributors, making people question what we are really eating. As our insecurities about food rise with the occurrence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and artificial pesticides, so does our awareness of which practices we are supporting. Unethical conditions for farmers, depleting resources to ship food overseas, and artificial preservation methods all add to these unsustainable practices and are causing people to turn to urban agriculture once again.
Growing edible plants in the city you live in ensures the most local and fresh food possible. It allows you to grow food in the way you are comfortable with, which generally means it will be organic and free of potentially harmful chemicals. As well, small businesses and individuals would not even be able to afford, and generally do not have access to, GMO seeds.
Urban farming also results in eating more of what is in season, which may benefit us for many reasons including matching food to our body’s natural rhythm, which some believe is important for a healthy diet. And eating a regular variety of fresh fruit and vegetables gives us essential vitamins and minerals, which promote health and prevent a variety of ailments, such as heart disease and cancer.
Since there is more variety to manage and everything is manually cultivated, some may argue that utilizing smaller spaces means lots of work. In reality, small-scale farming can actually be incredibly efficient. Crops are easier to rotate, reducing insect problems. In cities, animals such as grazing deer are rarely an issue. Plots are often close to home or in one’s own backyard, allowing more time for actual gardening. And manually working crops allows people to pay closer attention to them, addressing potential problems before they become big and being prepared for the best harvest dates. Lack of large machinery and tractors also allows denser planting with more variety and the use of beneficial techniques such as companion planting.
Urban gardens contribute to greener cities, helping to combat climate change and raise well-being. The way they are structured often helps manage storm water by reducing runoff. Composting becomes more prevalent, redirecting food waste from the landfill and converting it to healthy soil. Green roofs absorb the light from the sun due to photosynthesis, reducing the urban heat island effect. And plants in general filter toxins from the air, resulting in a cleaner environment and healthier people.
Green spaces create human happiness through aesthetics and social interaction. And if I have learned anything from José Mujica, the world’s poorest (and arguably, most fascinating) president, it is that we need to focus on changing the systems that are already in place. “Development cannot go against happiness,” he says in his famous speech, Human Happiness and the Environment. People like Danish architect Jan Gehl understand this as well and are pushing for cities designed around people, rather than traffic, to support this view.
A variety of colourful, fresh vegetables are not only prettier than concrete, they also bring people together. We are social by nature and community gardens fulfill this need to connect with others, allowing us to work towards something meaningful and rewarding. There is nothing quite like putting effort into something and watching it grow.
Recently I have been volunteering with Fresh Roots, a small company utilizing urban spaces such as schools for their market gardens. This configuration allows them to build a community and educate people at the same time. Through my experience working with them, I certainly agree that the experience brings people together. You cannot arrive in a bad mood without leaving happy.
Many companies like this one accommodate for interns and provide job training. Earthwise Society, located in the town I grew up in, is a non-profit farm that focuses on educating elementary school kids, helping them learn about and appreciate where food comes from. There is also Sole Food, which welcomes people with mental barriers by providing them with jobs and community support.
The popularity of urban agriculture is rising along with the benefits it brings. Let’s support this movement by learning more about growing food. Take a class, volunteer at a farm, or start a garden. You can feel good knowing you are benefiting the environment as well as your own health.