Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities [NOOK Book]


Plum and pear trees shade park benches in Kamloops, British Columbia. Tomatoes and cucumbers burst forth from planters at City Hall in Provo, Utah. Strawberries and carrots flourish along the sunny sidewalks of a Los Angeles neighborhood.
The idea that public land could be used creatively to grow fresh food for local citizens was beginning to gain traction when Public Produce was first published in 2009, but there were few concrete examples of action. Today, things are ...
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Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities

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Plum and pear trees shade park benches in Kamloops, British Columbia. Tomatoes and cucumbers burst forth from planters at City Hall in Provo, Utah. Strawberries and carrots flourish along the sunny sidewalks of a Los Angeles neighborhood.
The idea that public land could be used creatively to grow fresh food for local citizens was beginning to gain traction when Public Produce was first published in 2009, but there were few concrete examples of action. Today, things are different: fruits and vegetables are thriving in parks, plazas, along our streets, and around our civic buildings.

This revised edition of Public Produce profiles the many communities and community officials that are rethinking the role of public space in cities, and shows how places as diverse as parking lots and playgrounds can sustain health and happiness through fresh produce. But these efforts produce more than food. Revitalizing urban areas, connecting residents with their neighborhoods, and promoting healthier lifestyles are just a few of the community goods we harvest from growing fruits and vegetables in our public gathering spots.

Taking readers from inspiration to implementation, Public Produce is chock full of tantalizing images and hearty lessons for bringing agriculture back into our cities.
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Editorial Reviews

Landscape Architecture Magazine on the first edition

"As part of a small but growing group of local food advocates that includes Gary Paul Nabhan, Michael Pollan, and Alice Waters, Nordahl has produced a work that approaches the subject from the creative new angle of producing food in very public places."
Chez Panisse - Alice Walters

"This vital book shows how growing food on public land can transform our civic landscape, sprouting the seeds of biodiversity, sustainability, and community."
Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, author of What to Eat - Marion Nestle

"Nordahl is a visionary who shows how easily cities could promote urban agriculture to the great benefit of all concerned. This book is at the cutting edge of today's food revolution. Read it and get your city council to sign up!"
San Francisco Book Review

"Backed up by research and statistics, Public Produce is a sobering look at our current situation and a rallying cry for getting involved and making a change. For me, Nordahl gives solid reasons for the why and how to get involved today."
The Nature of Cities

"Public Produce is valuable for its detailed examples of urban agriculture that go beyond the familiar community garden, backyard garden, and urban farm, and provides numerous ideas for municipalities ready to take a more active approach to urban agriculture."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781610915502
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 9/29/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • File size: 11 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Darrin Nordahl is an award-winning writer on issues of food and city design. He currently lives and writes in the Sacramento region-- the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America. He is the author of Making Transit Fun!, My Kind of Transit, and Eating Appalachia.
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Read an Excerpt

Public Produce

Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities

By Darrin Nordahl


Copyright © 2014 Darrin Nordahl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-550-2


Food Security

I'm sitting on the back patio of a café in Sacramento, California, and all everyone is talking about is the gorgeous weather: sunny and warm, with a perfect springtime temperature of 79 degrees. Except it is not springtime. It is the dead of winter, and 79 degrees is the warmest temperature ever recorded in Sacramento in January. Not by 1 degree or 2 degrees, but by 5. In fact, today is the tenth day this month Sacramento has posted record high temperatures.

Now, maybe a hotter-than-ever January isn't worth getting too worried over. After all, Californians do not typically feel any guilt basking in unseasonably warm weather, even when the rest of the nation is being flash-frozen by the historic polar vortex of 2014. But this record-shattering warm spell is different, because it comes on the heels of the driest year ever recorded in the state. "We're facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago," noted Governor Jerry Brown during a press conference to declare a drought emergency.

Some scientists believe the drought is even rarer. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at UC Berkeley, is able to discern wet years from dry ones in California—even before records were kept—simply by examining the annual growth rings of trees. Wide rings indicate lots of growth, thanks to ample rainfall. In dry years, trees hardly enlarge, reflected by a very narrow band. The state's native redwoods, sequoias, and bristlecone pines provide Ingram with weather data that go back centuries.

So what do the trees say to Ingram? This latest drought might be the worst since Sir Francis Drake visited California in 1580.

At his press conference, Governor Brown didn't blame the record temperatures or aridity on climate change. Even climatologists aren't sure if the abnormal weather is the result of man or Mother Nature's capriciousness. But the fact is, these anomalies are becoming more regular in California. In 2008, after what was then the driest spring in eighty-eight years, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency as well. That's two emergency declarations in six years. These may not be aberrations after all. Some scientists speculate the west is witnessing the beginning of a mega-drought—severely dry conditions that last for decades. California's recent spate of hot winter days and parched soils could be, as Governor Brown forecasted, "a stark warning of things to come."

If Governor Brown's ominous prediction proves prescient, everyone in America should be deeply concerned. Why? Because California produces 95 percent of the nation's broccoli, that's why. The state also grows 86 percent of our domestic cauliflower, 98 percent of garlic, 94 percent of celery, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of nectarines, and 100 percent of clingstone peaches. Those bright red luscious strawberries that we love to eat plain or drizzled in chocolate? Ninety-two percent of them come from California. And don't forget those healthy leafy greens. California is the Salad Bowl of the United States, producing 85 percent of the nation's leaf lettuce and spinach.

California is also the primary grower of tree nuts, supplying 99 percent of our country's walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. In fact, California is number one in agricultural cash receipts, besting second-ranked Iowa by a whopping 40 percent. Half of all the US-grown fruits, vegetables, and nuts come from the Golden State. Regardless of where you live in the country, when you eat produce from your supermarket, you are eating from California.

But here's the hitch. While California has proved to be fertile ground for an appetizing array of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, higher temperatures and receding rainfall won't just curtail yields, it could obliterate California's ability to feed the nation. Such is the precarious nature of our current food supply system.

It wasn't always like this. Not long ago, our decentralized system of agriculture was regarded as the most productive in the world.5 Millions of smaller farms spread all over the land meant bad weather in one state wasn't bad news for an entire country. Decentralization was our food safety net. We had built into our agricultural supply what engineers would call redundancy: the duplication of critical components in a system for the purpose of increasing reliability.

With today's centralized system of agriculture, however, we've put all our eggplants in one basket. And when 300 million people rely on food from just a couple of locations—like California, or Iowa—local weather troubles create catastrophe for the entire country. One or two years of fidgety weather raises food prices, which is concerning enough. But prolonged fits could mean the most prosperous nation in the world goes hungry.

An uncertain climate isn't the only threat to our food prosperity. In fact, food prices have been escalating for over a decade, at a pace far faster than the increases in the cost of living. Sure, Mother Nature has been responsible for rising food costs in some years, such as 2008 when torrential rains flooded millions of acres of corn in Iowa. But the principle reasons for the rise in food costs are tied to production, processing, packaging, and transportation—which are all tied to oil.

In an open letter to the 2008 US president-elect Barack Obama, food expert and best-selling author Michael Pollan outlined just how our current system of food production is compromising not only the American dinner table, but national security. Pollan argues that our complete reliance on fossil fuels for food production spells imminent catastrophe as the era of cheap, abundant, and nonrenewable energy comes to a close. His arguments deftly illustrate the escalating futility of conventional agriculture. Pollan notes that in 1940, 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy produced 2.3 calories of food energy. But with today's industrial system of agriculture, the ratio has flipped to an inefficient, unsustainable equation, as it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just 1 calorie of modern supermarket food. Pollan maintains that the solution "could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy twentieth-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." He advocates for smaller agricultural efforts in more places across the country, "not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security." Pollan further contends that "nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food."

Pollan is not alone in his pessimistic views of our current state of food production. James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, is also a believer of the decimation that will ultimately result if we do not wean ourselves off of our high-petroleum diet. Many of Kunstler's arguments parallel Pollan's. Kunstler paints a chilling tale of doom for urban America that is quite frightening—frightening because his predictions do not seem particularly far-fetched. He predicts that smaller communities surrounded by agriculture have the highest hopes of surviving the Long Emergency. He is not so confident about the big cities, however, because they are growing in an unsustainable manner and they haven't had the urge to create or preserve an agricultural belt surrounding them. Kunstler concludes with a realization that our cities cannot continue to grow in the ways that they currently have, and predicts Americans will need to return to some form of agrarian life:

To put it simply, Americans have been eating oil and natural gas for the past century, at an ever-accelerating pace. Without the massive "inputs" of cheap gasoline and diesel fuel for machines, irrigation, and trucking, or petroleum-based herbicides and pesticides, or fertilizers made out of natural gas, Americans will be compelled to radically reorganize the way food is produced, or starve.

Before we discount Kunstler's and Pollan's arguments as apocalyptic hyperbole, let's recall the many government-guided, community-implemented food production programs in this country that arose from national crises. The most significant—and prolific—of these were the victory gardens of World War II: Twenty million small gardens supplied 40 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in America. But there were similar food-producing efforts during World War I, the Great Depression, and the Long Depression of the 1890s. During each of these distressed times, amid threats to national security, the federal government rallied the American people around food production, and created programs to educate citizens and assist them in exploiting food-growing opportunities throughout their urban communities.

The agriculture and gardening efforts during those periods of crisis were initiated to help secure our food supply, and the government looked to urban means of food production to supplement the rural farms that were unable to keep up with domestic demand. During World War I, the community agricultural efforts not only stabilized our nation's food supply, but bolstered that of the Allies as well. But more than a food source, the community agriculture efforts, especially the victory gardens, were meant to counteract a host of societal ills associated with crisis by providing "nutritional, psychological, and social returns for the individual and family." These agricultural activities provided work relief for the unemployed; allowed the otherwise helpless women, children, and elderly to participate in the war efforts, giving them a sense of patriotic self-sacrifice; and even provided a form of recreation, allowing people to escape, if only momentarily, the troubles of the times.

Today, the need for similar public agriculture efforts could not be greater. In addition to the concerns that our earlier community food-producing efforts addressed, our current food system has far-reaching environmental and societal health ramifications. What is at stake is threefold: the rising cost of produce (and the resultant effect on our pocketbook); the degradation of our environment; and the declining health of our citizens associated with the obesity epidemic. The gardening and agriculture endeavors during our previous economic depressions and world wars helped supplement the nation's food supply and sustain the American population through periods of food shortages. The great irony today is that the call for more abundant, locally led, and community-organized forms of agriculture is an appeal not so much to supplement our current system of food production as to save us from it.

At the crux of both Pollan's and Kunstler's arguments is our nation's reliance on oil for the production of food. From before the advent of agriculture until the Industrial Revolution, societies never had to rely on fossil fuels to feed themselves. Today, the conventional system of agriculture in the United States relies on fossil fuels for almost every phase of food production: in the manufacturing of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; for powering the complex machinery necessary for tilling, planting, harvesting, washing, sorting, and processing; and in transporting the final food product thousands of miles to our supermarkets. As the bounty of cheap oil dwindles, so too, does our bounty of food. The health of the people, and our environment, will rely on restructuring how food is grown and delivered to the hundreds of millions of people living in our urban environments. Smaller, localized agricultural efforts that do not rely on big, complex machinery, industrial agrichemicals, and vast systems of transport are needed in and around our cities. Fortunately, we already have an abundance of underutilized land within our communities—under public control—that can begin to return the agrarianism that Pollan and Kunstler contend is necessary for survival. Agrarianism and urbanism needn't be mutually exclusive.

Our centralized system of agriculture is eroding not only our environment and economy but our gustatory experience as well, erasing opportunities to enjoy fresh, fully ripened produce. Nonagenarian Juanita Kakalec reflects fondly on the times she used to pick fruit near her home in Washington, DC. "It was just like milking a cow," she reminisced, recalling the simple pleasures of harvesting blueberries fresh from the bush, just a few miles north of the city, in Maryland. "You'd set your bucket down on the ground and just work your fingers over the branches, letting blueberries fall into the pail." Juanita also remembers picking strawberries, as well as visiting the peach and apple orchards in the area.

After her move to North Carolina, Juanita was looking forward to some local peaches. Though not as famous as their Georgian siblings farther south, peaches grown in the Carolinas are wonderfully fragrant, juicy, and tasty. "Unfortunately, you can't find Carolina peaches here in the supermarkets of Carolina," lamented Juanita. "And when you do, they are not very good, because they pick them too early. It seems all the produce these days either comes from California or Peru." (Chile is the likeliest South American source, but her point is valid.)

Whether it is apples, avocados, or asparagus, the globalization of agriculture has given us year-round convenience. But when tied to the rising costs for oil, this convenience comes at a price. It raises the cost of produce and yields a diminished gustatory experience. It is a simple fact: pickers have to harvest fruit before it is ripe so it can be shipped around the world without spoiling. Once the produce has been delivered, it is often gassed with ethylene to induce ripening. Global agriculture also favors cultivated varieties that pack tighter and bruise less, sacrificing flavor and suppleness. The flavor, texture, aroma, and feel of a peach that is harvested early, transported thousands of miles, artificially ripened, then set on a supermarket shelf is quite different from one naturally ripened on the tree and plucked straight from the branch.

Juanita's desire for a fresh, local peach reminded me of an essay written by the provocative New Urbanist architect Daniel Solomon. Aptly titled "Peaches," the essay relays the profound experiences fresh produce provide to the urban dweller. Solomon notes that "food and urbanism are both fundamental to human experience." His argument is that the lack of everyday contact with fresh food in the modern city erodes our sense of place, disconnects us from the natural environment, and threatens an experience that was once commonplace. Solomon writes:

Foodies worry that masses of people will go through life and never taste a peach that tastes like a peach. The people will survive somehow—it's peachiness that is threatened with extinction. In the contemporary world, retaining the full-blown potential of the flavor of a peach as a part of most people's life experience is no small matter. It involves land use policy, banking, union agreements, transportation, and distribution networks as much as it involves peach breeding, which itself is a more complex subject than ever before. In an agrarian society, where the peach trees are outside one's door, the perfect peach is commonplace. Delivering perfect peaches to the modern metropolis is another question.

The land-use policies, transportation, and distribution networks that threaten our quest for perfect produce also threaten our pocketbook. Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, notes that the northeast region of the United States is especially susceptible. New England, at the extremity of both the national transportation system and the food chain, sees substantial increases in food costs compared to California, for example, where much of the country's fresh produce originates. As Winne contends, "The high energy costs associated with shipping food from those regions (near the beginning of the food chain) to New England increase food costs there by 6 to 10 percent."


Excerpted from Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl. Copyright © 2014 Darrin Nordahl. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Flashback: Notes on the Updated Edition,
Introduction: A Guerilla on Strawberry Street,
Chapter 1: Food Security,
Chapter 2: The Cost of Healthy Calories,
Chapter 3: Public Space, Public Officials, Public Policy,
Chapter 4: To Glean and Forage in the City,
Chapter 5: Maintenance and Aesthetics,
Chapter 6: Food Literacy,
Conclusion:Community Health and Prosperity,
Selected Bibliography,

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