Farming the City

BY FABIANA MEACHAM
August 20, 2010

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Hayes Valley Farm extends to the very edge of a more traditional urban scene [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]

Spend a few hours walking through any sector of the city and you will inevitably stumble upon a small patch of toiled earth, usually surrounded by chain-link fencing and accompanied by the all too familiar odor of manure. Urban farms have surfaced throughout the country in recent years -- in both major and not-so-major urban areas -- and San Francisco has been no exception. We now have a proposed legislation to loosen zoning restrictions on urban agriculture -- a measure that would profoundly affect small scale farms' capacity to do business.

The reasons for practicing urban farming are copious: a closer connection to food sources, reclamation of vacant land in blighted areas, education about healthy eating habits, a source of employment in hard economic times.

But for many city dwellers, urban agriculture remains a somewhat vague practice carried out by highly motivated individuals who have somehow found time to till, sow, weed and harvest small slivers of earth that have escaped the traditional urbanizing forces of cement and asphalt. For most of us, urban farms still don't play much of a role in defining the way we experience our cities and questions concerning the feasibility and longevity of urban farming still remain:

  • What are the actual urban farming scenarios taking shape throughout the city and how did they come to be there?
  • How do urban farms confront the task of growing food in areas that were never intended to support agriculture?
  • To what extent can urban agriculture integrate itself into the urban landscape and way of life in the long-term?
  • Is urban farming about more than just feeding people? What else is it about?

"Farming the City," a new blog series, will address these questions by highlighting the urban farms taking root in and around San Francisco, the people who run them and the particularities that define their role in the urban landscape.

This week we'll look at Alemany Farm, one of San Francisco's pioneering urban agriculture projects.

Alemany Farm

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Alemany Farm occupies four and a half acres of land in southeastern San Francisco. Wedged between the Southern Freeway and the Alemany public housing development, the farm and its immediate surroundings reflect much that has gone wrong -- and the potential to do right -- in San Francisco's planning.

One of the City's early forays into urban agriculture, Alemany first came into use as a farm in 1994, when the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) received permission from the Recreation and Park Department to convert the site from a dumping ground to a community farm for residents of the Alemany and Potrero Housing Developments. Although SLUG eventually disbanded, the farm's commitment to community involvement persists. Today, a core group of 15-20 volunteers (with the occasional weekend influx of corporate community service groups) cultivates the land while maintaining a close relationship with the adjacent Alemany Housing Development, whose residents are eligible to receive a free CSA (community supported agriculture) share from the farm's harvest and have open access to the grounds at all times.

On a recent tour of the site led by dedicated volunteer Kom Siksamat, the farm boasted vegetable patches, a native plant garden, fruit trees, a bee colony, a frog pond, and an evolving terrace farm. Siksamat has led the effort to cultivate the steep slope comprising about one quarter of the farm's total land area, but the challenges of applying the ancient practice of terrace farming to the urban farm micro-scale have become apparent. (The Inca may have mastered terrace agriculture by constructing miles of irrigation channels in the Central Andes, but most urban farms can't count on the unflagging labor of thousands of devoted subjects to carry out such undertakings.) For now, much hand watering and heavy lifting is required. Siksamat hopes that a "hillside full of food" will one day become a mainstay at Alemany.

In many ways, Alemany perfectly embodies the non-profit model of urban farming: greening a slice of underutilized urban space, creating opportunities for the community to enjoy and learn from it, and thereby providing a new lens through which we might question our relationship to the surrounding urban environment. The existence of this thriving patch of land in the midst of such classic crimes of urban planning (the freeway cutting through the city, the alienated public housing project) implies that although we may not be able to completely dismantle such misguided urban mega-projects, we can at least ameliorate their negative impact through smaller scale interventions. Alemany Farm gives us a reason to visit this neglected part of the city, providing a rare opportunity to consider not just what went wrong there, but also marvel at everything that seems to be going right.

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The Southern Freeway looms in the distance

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A volunteer amidst an abundance of greenery

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The terraced hillside

[Photo Credit: All photos by Fabiana Meacham]

On Saturday, August 28, SPUR's Young Urbanists will host Urban farming 101 at Alemany Farm at 11:30 a.m. Participants will have the opportunity to practice skills learned in the workshop from 1-3 p.m

Urban farms play a central role in SPUR's upcoming exhibition, DIY Urbanism: Testing the Grounds for Social Change, opening September 7.