“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” ― Wendell Berry
In September, this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows was announced. If you're not familiar with this award, it's often referred to colloquially as the ‘Genius Grant,’ and is given "to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." Several of this year's winners are built environment professionals, including Emmanuel Pratt, an urbanist and educator living and working on Chicago’s South Side. I wasn’t familiar with Pratt’s work at the Sweet Water Foundation before reading about this year’s recipients, and I really love his framing of urban placekeeping work within the language of agriculture. According to the MacArthur Fellowship website, Pratt's work uses “agriculture, education, and design in a resident-driven approach to community development and turning neglected urban neighborhoods into places of growth and vitality.” In particular, the use of terms like ‘cultivation’ and ‘regeneration’ emphasizes that a long term and caring, place-based approach is needed to bring forth renewal in neighborhoods whose prosperity has lapsed. This agricultural language frames care for a neighborhood in terms of nourishing an existing place (and its people) while also infusing new life into it. If you visit the Sweet Water Foundation's website, you're greeted with a clever play on a negative idiomatic expression: "There goes the neighborhood" becomes "There GROWS the neighborhood."
RND House, Sweet Water Foundation
Urban agriculture has always been a very accessible way for people to connect to urban placemaking. Vacant lots are an easy common enemy; innovations around vertical farming and hydroponics spark imagination about future sustainable cities (architects, at least, are fascinated by the possibilities). As humans, we all have a fundamental relationship to food, and therefore the resources needed to grow it. Anyone who has tried to garden or farm at any scale has at least a basic understanding of the time and care that go into producing a yield, not to mention the spatial requirements.
I don't know if Pratt's work at the Sweet Water Foundation was specifically influenced by the permaculture movement, but the emphasis on regeneration certainly suggests a link. Short for “permanent agriculture,” permaculture is an approach to sustainable farming codified by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and based on twelve foundational design principles:
Observe and interact
Catch and store energy
Obtain a yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
Use and value renewable resources and services
Produce no waste
Design from patterns to details
Integrate rather than segregate
Use small and slow solutions
Use and value diversity
Use edges and value the marginal
Creatively use and respond to change
A permaculture approach to urban agriculture begins to connect design, an intellectualized concept, to cultivation, a much more embodied and instinctual one, building a framework for conversation around spatial justice in cities--which is why growing food is such a great way to get people involved in growing neighborhoods! Organizations like the Sweet Water Foundation are at work all over the US (all over the world, really). Here in Richmond, Beautiful RVA links spatial justice with urban greening, through programs like Ginter Urban Gardeners and Northside Food Justice conversations. Chances are there are people doing similar work in your city, and if not, well--there's an opportunity!