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Greening urban landscapes

  • Subject: [cg] Greening urban landscapes
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Mon, 6 Feb 2006 17:30:17 -0800 (PST)

Minnesota Daily
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

February 6, 2006

OPINION: Greening urban landscapes

Gardening is a satisfying activity with multiple
benefits and roots close to home. 
By Nathan Paulsen

Although farming might seem a strange and distant
occupation, most people in the United States are only
a few short generations removed from the land. While
debt and foreclosure forced many of our grandparents
and great-grandparents to migrate into cities decades
ago, the memory of how to grow our own food has
survived in the traditions of urban gardening.

Some 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in
metropolitan areas, making our nation among the most
urbanized in human history. One of the more alarming
consequences of this trend toward urbanization has
been the development of a sharp disconnect between a
majority of U.S. citizens and their food sources.
Despite vague inklings that farmers actually exist
somewhere in the world, I suspect that more than a few
of my peers probably have believed at some point in
their lives that vegetables are produced in the back
room of supermarkets. I know I did.

After all, when my family needed food, we went to the
grocery store and bought it. I was not accustomed to
seeing seeds sown into the ground. I never had an
opportunity to listen to the nervous chat of relatives
as they contemplated the effect that seasonal vagaries
would have on crop yields, nor was my body physically
involved in bringing the harvest in from the field. I
did not have a care in the world for the face behind
the meal on my plate, much less the practices that
were used in its production.

This all changed for me a few summers ago when I
decided to ask my landlord if I could grow a small
garden in the backyard of my duplex rental. Except for
the advice of my parents, I really didnt have a clue
as to how to get started or what I would do once I
did. Eventually I took the path that seemed most
practical and bought a shovel, fenced off a plot of
land, turned the soil a few times and spread some
seeds over the ground according to package directions.
I watered once in a while and plucked weeds
occasionally, and by early summer I had an abundance
of the most delicious green beans and radishes I ever
tasted. (Ive since discovered that food always tastes
better when you grow it yourself.)

By choosing to plant herbs and vegetables, I became
part of a rich living tradition that dates back
thousands of years. The ability to recognize useful
plants and nurture their growth has been among the
cornerstones of human culture for a large part of our
history. Since well before the earliest human
settlements in Mesopotamia more than 10,000 years ago,
people have gardened and produced food for themselves,
their family, friends and neighbors.

This dignified inheritance can be seen today in myriad
forms. Efforts to revitalize inner cities have led
volunteers in impoverished neighborhoods around the
country to begin turning vacant lots into bountiful
gardens that provide community residents with
employment and quality, affordable food. Our ancestors
are present every time a lawn is converted into garden
space or an herb is planted in a window box.

The enormous popularity of gardening in the
contemporary United States stems from the wide range
of benefits it offers people from all walks of life.
Wherever gardens are planted they beautify ugly city
streets, provide fresh and nutritious veggies through
the summer months, improve diets and bring neighbors
together. There are more subtle advantages, as well,
including the tendency of gardening to undermine
violent cultural currents by instilling in the
practitioner a more gentle nature and deeper respect
for life.

Beyond the obvious aesthetic, community and
nutritional value of gardening, tens of millions of
Americans growing organic food in their homes and
communities would be a powerful step on our nations
tortured quest for energy independence.

Massive quantities of petroleum are used in the
manufacture of pesticides and agricultural equipment,
the daily operation of farm machinery, food processing
plants and the transportation of produce from the
field to our tables. The hidden inefficiency of this
system is evidenced in the startling fact that the
food we eat normally travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles
before it reaches our plates. A growing chorus of
scholars and concerned citizens are voicing grave
public concerns about the vulnerability of this system
to large-scale disruptions when petroleum prices rise
sharply and as demand for oil outpaces production
within the next couple of decades.

Urban gardening is certainly not a panacea for all the
woes of industrial civilization. Nonetheless, finding
a neighborhood community garden to grow your favorite
vegetables, or throwing a few seeds in a pot of soil
and making sure it gets plenty of sun and water, are
simple tasks that go a remarkably long way toward
restoring the health of urban environments. By drawing
on our agricultural heritage, each of us has at our
disposal the means to transform our barren, concrete
surroundings into green landscapes that yield fresh
and nutritious food.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at npaulsen@mndaily.com.


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