What Does Urban Farming Mean to Boston?
My goal with this project was to look at the wide variety of ways which urban farming manifests itself in Boston, and to understand why certain types of farming become what they are. What made community gardening in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan so viable? Why have there been numerous forays into large-scale commercial farms within the past five years? What were the precedents for farming in the city, and how have practices changed since? I hoped to understand what farming means to different communities and see what groups have their hands in multiple types of farming.
I ended up discovering a long, rich history of farming. Beginning during World War II as a way for the city to collectively support the war effort at the Fenway Victory Gardens, and stretching to the late 1970’s as form of public empowerment and a tool for land reclamation in underserved neighborhoods. As research progressed, I found out about Mayor Menino’s push for urban agriculture starting in 2010, culminating in the late 2013 Article 89 which officially recognized and accounted for urban farming zoning.
Boston is a diverse but also very segregated city, and when looking at how different types of agriculture arose, it's important to keep in mind where the farming is occurring and by whom. The Boston Urban Gardeners, for example, rose up in a time of need. They helped plant gardens to take back the empty lots littered throughout the South End and Roxbury, and worked their way into becoming a steady liaison between the city and the community they served. They did this because they felt a need for change in their city, they cared deeply for their community, and discovered the way which they could make that change. Arguably their largest impact though, was their ability to begin working with the city of Boston to obtain empty lots for the communities they sat in. This set a precedent for land use and ownership which has bled into today in multiple community land trusts, most notably, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and their CLT, Dudley Neighbors, Inc., which gained powers of eminent domain and access to public funding in order begin developing their own neighborhood.
As incredible as these stories are, it's important to keep in mind why they happened. Rochester, the South End, Dorchester, and Mattapan were all areas which had been hit hard by economic downturn and disinvestment. Community organization of all types was necessary to retain agency amidst illegal dumping, racial tension and a severe lack of funding. Even today, many of the community farming and agricultural training organizations in this area are promoting gardening as a way to obtain economic independence, healthier lifestyles, and land. Community gardening in underserved areas of Boston can still be a fun, relaxing practice, but it is much more essential for these areas still recovering from the systemic economic depression of decades prior.
There are of course other forms of farming - Freight Farms and Corner Stalk Farm, Higher Ground, and Green City Growers to name a few. They offer services from consulting and installing farms, managing the farms, and commercial growing for nearby restaurants and direct sale. Now I need to make something clear, there is nothing directly wrong or inherently negative about these farms that became evident in my research. Many of them started from a love of gardening which turned into a way to provide hyper-local produce at almost no carbon footprint around the city. They offered a way to make Boston more and more agriculturally independent while using unused lots and roofs, and providing jobs and delicious, healthy produce all around the city. Many of these farms and businesses became possible due to the Article 89 legislation and really embraced what the city was hoping for, a new form of industry resulting in a higher concentration of green spaces and a healthier, cleaner city.
Much of my research on this project started with a Bay State Banner article titled “Boston’s often overlooked long history of urban farming,” which was partly an overview of Boston’s history of agriculture, and partly a response to a Guardian article which had been showing off the technology and possibilities of Freight Farm’s flagship product. In the Bay State Banner article they mention how so often the media celebrates “the white entrepreneurs,” and leaves “in the shadows the story of the black activists” who began the movement in the 1970’s. I found this to be true in my own research, any mention of the Urban Farming Institute, or the DSNI, was likely to be in a local newspaper, or often a research report. One search for Higher Ground, Green City Growers, or Freight Farms brought up a multitude of articles from the Boston Globe, NPR, or food blogs of all sorts, and almost every one of their websites has at least one documentary tracking their progress since inception.
The issue moves past representation though, because the fact is that very often the underserved communities who need access to healthy food and and sustainable jobs, have the most difficult road to urban agriculture due to difficulties with land use. Corner Stalk Farm’s owner was a successful tech entrepreneur who purchased a lot in East Boston, and five 85,000 dollar Freight Farm Leafy Green Machines, then began production. Higher Ground Farm was able to work with a green roof engineering company, and set up a farm on the roof of the Boston Design Center, then offered the opportunity to become the farmers for the Boston Medical center atop one of their roofs. There is inverse relationship to who can obtain land easiest and who could use the land the most.
Let’s go back to Article 89. In 2011, two farms were chosen to begin testing the new zoning regulations and were leased a few plots in Dorchester. These farms were ReVision Urban Farm, and City Growers, community organizations working on providing healthy food and a wage to their community. The leases were set up so that they had five years and if it proved to be successful, they could continue leasing the city-owned land. These two farms, in addition to the large working group consisting of community organizers, activists, and experts, who met with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Mayor’s office in order to design the zoning laws, are the people who created article 89. They opened the path up for these white-owned commercial ventures into the world of urban agriculture. So, when the Guardian writes an article without crediting the black activists of Boston who rose up to protect their neighborhoods, obtain land, and begin to make their own independence, they are silencing over forty years of neighborhood organizing which made possible and legal any farming in Boston.
Urban agriculture has existed in Boston as an act of community support for the country or themselves for nearly 80 years. It brings healthy produce, green space, better air quality, and recreational activity to the dense city landscape and life. Most importantly though, in a city with a long history of segregation and socioeconomic separation, urban farming serves as an act of independence and land reclamation for the communities who need it the most.