A magnificent thing has been happening outside my window in Brooklyn. This past summer, I noticed vegetable gardens and fruit trees overwhelming the once-empty hull of yard behind my building. The paved patios have been blasted up and turned into thriving miniature farms. Gardens are being grown on the rusty fire escapes and tended by my young, overall-clad neighbors. Everything is getting greener, and leafier. Everything seems more… alive. A month ago, before the present frost hit, a gaggle of speckled birds I have never seen were casually tearing at the round fruits of a new tree. I’ve lived in my Brooklyn apartment for 14 years, long enough to turn from tenant to witness, so you’ll believe me when I tell you the change is considerable.
The results of the urban gardeners’ efforts are delightful and alluring. Even I — who managed to murder a prepackaged Chia herb garden I once received as a gift — am finding myself walking along New York’s streets with an overwhelming urge to plant. Green walls, green floors, moss-covered chairs, bathtub vegetable plots, milk carton pots.
It isn’t just in Brooklyn. There’s a Frenchman named Patrick Blanc who has been designing vertical gardens that loop up hotel walls and germinate across shopping mall interiors in Paris, Kuwait, Bangkok, and Gdansk. From his headquarters in Sweden, Folke Günther developed a vertical growing wall to promote more efficient and ecologically sound urban farming. He has named it the “Folkewall,” after himself, but vertical gardens are also being called “growing walls” and “living walls.” (I like “breathing walls” myself). Arbo-architects Ferdinand Ludwig, Oliver Storz and Hannes Schwertfeger call their work “building botany.” They make building structures that are a fusion of trees and steel pipes. The two intertwine such that organic and inorganic become a single being. Essentially, they want to make living, breathing, growing houses.
Urban gardening is affecting policy, too. The government in Antwerp, Belgium recently passed a law that, from now on, all new and renovated buildings must have green roofs. And they don’t just mean ecologically friendly roofs, roofs that are biodegradable or solar powered; “green roofs” in Antwerp means that roofs, from now on, must have some manner of bushes or grass on them, or at least a bit of earth and moss. What an idea! In making Antwerp “green,” will the whole city become an enormous palace of plants?
Are we looking at a future of edible balconies and backyard chickens and rooftop beekeepers? Most city livers (and we are now a majority) have felt to some degree or other that a life without occasional access to nature feels empty — or, not empty enough. We make our cities bigger and bigger, and still can’t fully shake the feeling that the things people build, the things that most remind us of our humanness, also rob us of an essential part of our humanity. We have come to think this absence can only be filled by being in an environment that has nothing to do with us, that is bigger than we are. An environment we can’t control, that allows us to relinquish control when we are inside it. A lack of access to the natural world, that world we fought so very hard to protect ourselves from, has always left us a little colder inside.
What, then, is the urban dweller’s relationship to nature supposed to be? Nobody knows. But it’s an old dilemma. You can see the debate played out, for instance, in Plato’s dialogue the “Phaedrus.” In it, Phaedrus notes how totally weird it is that Socrates, a man of the city if there ever was one, feels compelled to leave the city walls to listen to a speech on love by Lysias. Socrates doesn’t even like long speeches, Phaedrus notes. Yet as soon as Socrates gets into nature, away from the rational orderliness of the city, he is overcome by a “madness,” a poetic eloquence that some read as another way of saying that Socrates can think more creatively in the quiet of nature than in the bustle of the city.
In America, the Industrial Age gave rise to a crusade of romantic poets and reformers all convinced that the city not only suffocated your lungs but your very soul. This is one of industry’s great achievements: It inspired endless exaltations to the countryside. Many 19th-century urban dwellers felt deeply, just like their metropolitan ancestors, that a richer relationship to the natural world provided a richer relationship to the world in general. The advice was that urban folks should escape the city altogether, as often as they could, to get into nature and just… be. “We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor,” Thoreau waxed, “vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain.”
New York City has a particular enthusiasm for the ideas of the 19th-century “park-itecht” Frederic Law Olmsted. He, too, believed in the romantic vision that living in closer proximity to nature would enrich the impoverished souls of the over-civilized. Olmsted’s contribution was to bring nature back inside the city walls. The Olmsted park (now a fixture in American cities from Birmingham to Milwaukee) isn’t just a plot of grass with a pair of swings. It is a handcrafted and segregated green zone that replicates an untouched, unspoiled bit of countryside. A place where townies could enjoy a nature-like environment without actually leaving the city. Olmsted’s parks are Mother Nature at her most amenable. There is nothing to hide from, nothing to be tamed, nothing to do but contemplate the change of atmosphere and absorb the healthful effects. In other words, Olmsted’s parks are nature for nature’s sake. (Olmsted’s work ran in tandem to another unprecedented and inconceivably bold American venture, the national park, which, amazingly, managed to forge contemplative safe spaces out of genuinely wild tracts of nature. The very idea that one could look at, say, the Grand Canyon, and think of it as a “park” is a marvelous display of human ingenuity.) I’m an admirer of the Olmsted way myself, and have benefited from his efforts just as every other New Yorker has. And thanks to the likes of Olmsted, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvert Vaux, et al., most urban Americans now accept the nature-as-leisure park concept so wholly that it’s hard for us to think of nature any other way.
Which is somewhat astounding, given that Olmsted’s parks are radical in what they ask of us: to put aside our instincts and gaze upon the world as though watching it from the outside. We humans have always had a hard time letting nature just be. Frankly, this bores us. Our desire to have a relationship to nature is forever entwined with our desire to have some influence over it. This is as true in the Amazon rainforest and the glaciers of Greenland as in Brooklyn. When we get into nature we want to taste it, shape it, wear it, live in it, take it home in our pockets. The self-appointed tour guides who came up with the scheme to take you foraging through Central Park, showing you what you can eat there, are a case in point.
While we mourn the absence of the uncultivated countryside from our lives, we forget that “the countryside” is itself a manufactured good. The industrial revolution created “the countryside” when it siphoned humans and industry away from nature and into the cities. In other words, the countryside began to exist when we stopped being farmers. What’s interesting about the urban gardeners is how they are at once bringing “the countryside” into city life, as Olmsted did, and also turning it back into a site of agriculture.
Maybe the city is not such an obvious choice for agriculture. But then again, why not? Agriculture is, after all, culture. We can cultivate fountains in the desert; why not grow tomatoes on the windowsill? Urban gardeners tell us that we don’t need to leave the city to have a relationship with nature, nor do we have to leave nature alone in order to appreciate it. Whether or not urban growing truly brings us closer to nature, I cannot say. Perhaps, though, in turning farming into an aesthetic venture, urban growing will tweak the way we currently think about agriculture.
Certainly, many urban gardeners are interested in the environmental (i.e. moral) consequences of city growing. The eco-ethical dream of those like Folke Günther is that urban gardening could move beyond aesthetic concerns and really help feed the world’s urban poor. For now, though, the movement outside my window is not subsistence farming. No one in Brooklyn is going to starve without urban gardens. Even so, urban gardeners are earnest in their agricultural pursuits. I think most commercial farmers would be pretty surprised to see how much children in Prospect Park have learned about irrigation techniques. What’s surely exciting is that urban gardeners have us imagining cities as we’ve never seen them, that move beyond public parks and designated green zones: rooftop apple-picking, gardens in school cafeterias, skyscrapers that emerge out of forests. The modern city as the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Gardens — and still Babylon, too. • 12 January 2011