A Publication of WTVP

Urban agriculture reconnects our community to the food that sustains us.

In celebration of National Peace Corps Day several moons ago, I made a presentation to a delightfully rambunctious group of elementary schoolchildren in Kewanee, Illinois. Naturally, I waxed fondly and passionately on the importance of serving one’s fellow man, and on the value of experiencing the rich cultures outside the boundaries of our American shores. Toward the end of my presentation, I held up a banana (a staple food in all its many forms in East Africa’s Uganda, where I had served), and asked if anyone knew where this delightful and nutritious fruit came from. Without skipping a beat, a particularly earnest young man rose to his feet and firmly stated that “bananas come from Walmart!”

This experience has stayed with me. That earnest young man was no doubt trying to be clever and just a bit snarky, but he was also revealing the fact that beyond the modern-day grocery store where most of us purchase our daily sustenance, he had no idea about the origin of bananas, or their rich botanical history and complexity. He was completely disconnected from the source of the food that he enjoyed and that sustained him, despite living in a community surrounded by some of the richest farmland on the planet.

A Growing Movement
The nascent urban agriculture movement attempts to restore that fundamental connection between the communities where we live, work and play and the food sources that give us the energy to do so. This movement is broad and deep, encompassing a wide variety of food adjectives: “slow,” “local,” “organic,” “regional” and “seasonal” among them.

A development rating system that has attempted to bring these diverse ideas under one holistic roof is the Living Building Challenge (LBC)—perhaps a more comprehensive counterpoint to the widely-used LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council. The latest iteration of the LBC (May 2012) includes an “Urban Agriculture” site development requirement for all projects under its purview. The intent, as the LBC states it, is that “communities should be supported by local and regional agriculture, since no truly ‘sustainable’ community can rely on globally sourced food production.”

The Living Building Challenge thinks of food as the energy that sustains all homosapiens, just as other forms of energy sustain the buildings and cities we inhabit. And if being green and sustainable involves slowly but surely taking ourselves “off the energy grid,” that effort should apply to food as well as electricity, natural gas and petroleum.

The LBC further suggests a three-way split for agriculture in our society: (1) a modest but highly visible percentage of food production occurring within a city; (2) an additional and substantial portion of food production taking place in the suburbs; and (3) all remaining food production occurring within a few hundred miles (at most) of any given community.

Ash & Oak
Several passionate Peorians have been bringing these essential pieces of urban agriculture to their community for a number of years, from the well-established farmers’ markets in both downtown and midtown Peoria, to area restaurants that use as many locally grown and organic ingredients as possible. Two neighboring projects underway in the Heart of Peoria illustrate how urban agriculture can be taken to the next level. These are the Ash & Oak development planned for Union Hill in the West Bluff Historic District and the Crittenton Centers’ master redevelopment plan and expansion in Peoria’s near-south side.

The Ash & Oak project is the brainchild of Jason and Melinda Breede, two engaged Peorians fervently committed to the principles of sustainability and the renaissance of older neighborhoods. Their property, located in the heart of the city and bounded by Moss, Union Hill and Martin Luther King Drive, has long been a beautiful, yet untended piece of natural river bluff. Currently in the early planning and design stages, Jason and Melinda’s project will use the requirements of the Living Building Challenge to create an urban habitat that is genuinely and comprehensively in harmony with nature—and completely off the grid.

The founding charter they wrote for this development includes the following precept about food production: “Food will be organically grown and harvested on-site by a farmer and provided to tenants as part of their lease. The tenant’s compost will also be used by the farmer in the on-site food growing process. Additionally, Ash & Oak will contract with local organic farmers to provide on-demand ordering and delivery for any food that cannot be grown onsite. In these ways a very local, organic and communal relationship with food is nourished and encouraged.”

In the Urban Woods
Just down the bluff, Crittenton Centers has recently completed the first several phases of a long-range master improvement plan for its flagship early childhood education and crisis nursery facility. These initial improvements offer a significant emphasis on outdoor activities where children and their families can further engage with nature. They include an expanded outdoor learning and recreation environment, a gazebo for family and community gatherings, a gentle walking trail, and a large, urban community garden.

These outdoor venues echo the ideas found in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods—namely, that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and the physical and emotional well-being of both children and adults. A related concept that’s key to urban agriculture is the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that there is an instinctive and nurturing bond between human beings and all other living organisms. Popularized by the noted American biologist Edward O. Wilson, this fundamental premise informs the urban agriculture movement and is essential to its ultimate success.

In the words of Mr. Wilson, “From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it and hope rises on its currents. Returning the creation of the nourishment that sustains us back to the places where we live, work and play can strengthen that essential biophilic connection and thereby make our entire society more sustainable and enduring in the long term.” iBi

Edward J. Barry Jr. is a principal and Jeff Martin is a senior landscape architect with Farnsworth Group.