Critiquing the Critic: James Kunstler’s KunstlerCast #114: Agrarian Urbanism

This post is a synopsis and critique of a June 3, 2010 podcast (AKA KunstlerCast) by James Howard Kunstler . It can be heard here: http://kunstlercast.com/forum/index.php?topic=3482.0

First off let me state that I am a huge fan of James Howard Kunstler and, although I feel he is a bit of a fatalist and, at times willing to sacrifice the good for the perfect, I agree with most of his points on most topics and he has incredible insights concerning the sorry state of urban planning and design. I encourage anyone and everyone to listen to his other podcasts and read his books, both fictional and non-fictional.  This post is in reference to one of his podcasts in particular in which he addresses “Agrarian Urbanism”.As stated, I normally heartily agree with these commentaries but whats the fun in critiquing something I agree with? Besides, I think Mr. Kunstler generally comes into these interview blind and the podcast administrator picks a topic and they run with it. Although there are lots of very interesting topics and the conversation is an in depth one I do take issue with several of the points made and although I could argue either way on any of these I’m playing devils advocate here in order to further the conversation. I want to thank Mr. Kunstler for sharing his ideas I’m sure he will take this constructive criticism in the best nature.

Take Ben Flanner for example, he is the head farmer at a one acre, commercial production farm on a Brooklyn (actually located in Long Island City, Queens) rooftop known as Brooklyn Grange Farm is not to be taken lightly and I’m sure he could successfully make Mr. Kunstler realize that not all food growers in the city are merely gardeners.The Brooklyn Grange is now moving into there second growing season and seem to be successful in their mission. A couple examples from my former city of residence, Orlando come by way of Simple Living Institute President, Tia Meer and her husband Terry, who have created a homestead just outside the city but have been community catalysts for the creation of community gardens throughout the city. These community gardens coupled with monthly classes that teach residents how to garden organically and local businesses like My Yard Farm and Evolving Landscapes which help install and maintain edible landscapes and permaculture environments for those less inclined, Orlando is becoming a very fruitful city indeed. I also have a future venture brewing that will offer similar services to Queens, NY residence and be called, Nourishing Cities. I think we should embrace the fact that we can farm within the urban limits and those taking it to that level of production are truly farmers.

The idea of urban agriculture is then discussed in the terms and ideals of New Urbanists an how this alternate framework relates to other current trends. CNU is framing these ideas in more of an intellectual framework in order to start the conversation and figure out viable solutions to the future of food. Trying to rethink industrial agriculture as we know it now with combines and reliance on cheap oil (fertilizers, pesticides etc.).Facing the fact that the US is actually facing a food crisis, with more and more food exported and imported our needs are unbalanced and susceptible to global trends and crises. Grain production is at an all time low due to climactic variables such as drought during growing season and heavy rain during harvest times. Again the oil crisis and industrial agriculture ties into just about everything Mr. Kunstler discusses.

Current economical issues are briefly referenced as well as the fact that many New Urbanists have “made themselves hostage to the production home industry” by associated themselves with large development companies. The idea of participating in the planned downsizing or contraction of urban areas was discussed. Hypothetical scenarios where Detroit is divided into several smaller towns separated by farmland are hinted at. Detroit is distinguished as a special scenario and the idea that farms in cities are just novelty. “[Agriculture] belongs on the fringe of towns in the place beyond the urban part”. New Urbanists haven’t been concerned with the contraction process and are disconnected from the fact that there is now a stop in growth, especially new, greenfield growth. Indeed new urbanism has taken much flack over the years for being primarily accomplished only in greenfield developments. Detroit is looking at deactivating some of their urban areas and the associated basic infrastructure including sewerage, garbage pickup and water in some sections of the city in order to consolidate service areas, the future of these areas are still unknown, but this stuff may just rot out anyway if they are not shut down. Emergent behavior is unknown so it is impossible to plan for what the future of these vacated lands will be.

Kunstler demands hat we cut through the fantasies of the “terrarium” skyscraper farms to grow arugula and basil. Stating that these are far fetched considering that traditional construction projects are at a standstill in today’s economy.  Laws will have to be reevaluated, such as keeping chickens in urban areas, different types of natural processes being brought back into the urban realm, different possible types of workable urban agriculture: whatever is realistic.

These vertical skyscraper garden “fantasies” are written off because “we can’t afford to build these.”  But I offer the fact that we don’t actually have to build them, there are vacant buildings sitting in cities throughout the world that could more easily be retrofitted for crop production than for human habitation. You can follow one such plan in the Bathgate Urban Food Industry Center located in South Bronx. I would like to state that I don’t see a future for towering buildings dedicated solely to food production rising above the city. But then again, Mr. Kunstler and the Congress for New Urbanism have never advocated for single use behemoths and I’m sure they would more readily embrace the more realistic idea of retrofitting existing vacant structures and incorporating some form of food production in new buildings as well. Then mixed use can go beyond the standard residential, commercial and/or light industrial uses to include on site food production (I would argue that on site waste management and energy production is going to be crucial in the future as well and all this can only be accomplished through integrated building systems in places where space is at a premium like cities).

Another topic generally looked down upon or brushed off as a passing fad that could never flourish in cities are urban chickens. Roosters are the main problem and just in case the general interest but for those misinformed or ignorant on the topic, chickens do not require roosters in order to produce eggs. Without them the chickens won’t reproduce viable eggs for reproduction but they will lay perfectly edible eggs nonetheless. Despite this fact, roosters ARE kept in cities, unfortunately this is primarily for the purpose of cock fighting and I’m sure they are kept in very inhumane conditions. I learned about this fact while taking the Safari 7 audible tour of the 7 line subway in Queens, New York. This audio tour is available for download and very interesting, if you are in New York I suggest a listen. Also in Queens, a charming fellow named Robert McMinn (AKA Bucky Buckaw) keeps a few miniature chickens as pets IN his home and brings them along to community garden events as well as composting happenings around the Astoria community to demonstrate their feathered feats. Robert produces a podcast about urban chickens that is always chock full of fun, avian info. You can listen in on his adventures at Bucky Buckaw’s Backyard Chicken Broadcast,enjoy!

Another standard comment that the bulk of our diet will not come from this form of food production, is repeated here, while it is stated that, there are plenty of places to garden and it would serve us well to optimize them, again the who idea is kind of marginalized by the thought that there would only be hobby gardeners in the city limits. Just as we are not going to run the “happy motoring” system on bio-diesel or algae fuels we won’t live off food from cities, Kunstler says. Although there is plenty of opportunity to grow lots of food in and near populous cities, they will not just become big farms. To this I would like to point out that cities don’t have to “become big farms” in order to be more productive but many underutilized spaces can be used. “According to an Oxfam report: ‘Today half of the fresh produce consumed by two million Havana residents is grown by ‘nontraditional urban producers’ in abandoned lots and green spaces wedged into the crowded typography of the city.’”(Slow Food International) The same thing has been going on in Japan for decades. I would definitely say that 50% of consumed produce (Cuba model) is above and beyond the novelty numbers that Mr. Kunstler is imagining and I would dare to say that these crop production areas would add social, economic and health amenities to the built environment across all the urban-rural transect zones in the communities that the CNU endorses.

Factory farming of animals in the city is briefly discussed. Correspondingly, meat will probably be much less prevalent in the American diet as we move forward into the future. Meat will become a much more respected component of meals much like it used to be. I mostly agree with these statements and am anxious to see how things shake out as meat becomes less available and more people become vegetarian because of monetary reasons and not, humanitarian, environmental or ethical. I can imagine not eating meat due to it’s soaring costs will likely cause an uproar and only at that point will the agricultural crisis we now face will truly understood by the masses.

I also agree with the points made that we cannot grow all the grain needs of America in urban areas and that the traditional ways of producing these crops in America’s bread basket (AKA agricultural hinterlands) needs to be address. One important innovation I would like to mention here is the research being done by the Rocky Mountain Institutes in which perennial plants and annual crops are being crossed (naturally through hybridization, NOT genetic modification) in hopes that a hybrid cultivar of a woody grain producing plant can successfully be grown. This would eliminate the need to farm in such intensive ways that are currently demanded by annual plant grain production. There are also strong arguments out there for a more holistic approach to farming (organic, biodynamic and permaculture) that does not rely so heavily on industrialized processes that deplete soil nutrients, encourage erosion and depend upon petroleum based products such as diesel, herbicide, pesticide and fertilizers. Another idea that I have tossed around in the past was to utilize highway medians and right-of-ways for grain production. Although I original thought this would be good to produce crops that could be refined at adjacent small refineries to produce bio-fuel that would be distributed right at the point of creation every hundred miles or so. The idea could probably just as easily be drawn upon to produce food crops as long as the polluted run-off from the highways are dealt with before they get to the crops.

It was noted that weather is a big factor for farming and has been highly variable in the recent past. Global warming, natural planetary cycles or whatever the cause is shall remain un-discussed here and now as It will likely be an interesting blog post for the future. The fact is still true, weather has been highly erratic as of late but this will actually have more of an effect on industrial farms where lots of acreage is devoted to monoculture crop production than it would on smaller scale where well distributed plots that are sheltered by surrounding buildings like they would be in the city farming model. A couple other interesting topics related to weather that where not discussed are the water crisis that and the fact that temperate zones are shifting north so that tropical crops can be grown further north and expanding desertification is diminishing the amount of arable land near the equator.

A constant theme in James Kunstlers commentaries is the oil crisis and the affect on everything from our “happy motoring” way of life to use of plastics and other household products derived from petrol. Of course he is spot on in his dire predictions of the effects of peak oil on industrial agriculture but again this is something that acts more as an argument for a decentralized, urban form of agriculture than against it. Since more workers are immediately present, these smaller plots can be managed by a larger workforce this larger workforce would be able to work the land with non motorized farm implements and the scale of the plots would be a hindrance to large machines anyway. Current industrial farming demands large monoculture plantings encouraging single crop pests to thrive and, in turn, heavy reliance on pesticides and herbicides. Conversely, the diversity of small vegetable plots tend to make it much easier to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices since some plants attract beneficial bugs that eat other pest insects. The list of benefits goes on and on…

One major topic that was not discussed is aquaculture. This is an important component to urban farming especially when growing crops hydroponically. Raising fish alongside plants creates a closed loop system much like that found in the grass-based farming model prescribed by superstar farmer Joel Salatin. Winter Garden, Florida has a successful business that has forged the way for this hydroponic/aquaculture technology at Green Sky Growers. Which is not only innovating technology but innovating design too as the farm has been retrofitted atop an existing building.

 

For more info about James Howard Kunstler and the KunstlerCast please visit his website here: http://www.kunstler.com/index.php

…and the referanced pocast here: http://landscapeandurbanism.blogspot.com/2010/11/on-agrarian-urbanism.html

Direct Download:
KunstlerCast_114.mp3
(15 MB | 23:21 mins.)

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