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Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl

We have been foraging the ripe Juneberries in our neighborhood.  The birds have been eaten the berries, too.  Also, the Juneberry or Amelanchier spp. provides an understated beauty to the streets and pathways it lines.  Contrast our story with the one presented by Darrin Nordahl on page two of Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture (2009):
Perhaps we were caught unawares because, even in our nation's capital, where more than three-thousand iconic cherry trees have become one of the city's premier tourist attractions, we are accustomed to plants in the urban environment providing simple aesthetics, rather than whole nourishment.  The Kwanzan cherry, the specific variety that makes up the bulk of the cherry trees in East Potomac Park, is a fruitless cultivar.  The Yoshino cherry--the principal cultivar that encircles the Tidal Basin and punctuates the Washington Monument grounds--does produce fruit, though it is stony and unpalatable to all but birds.  There is no denying the poetic beauty of these trees--a generous gift from Japan--whose showy blossoms are an allegory of friendship.  Yet, I wonder, if flowers can be an accepted symbol of goodwill and inspire all who gaze upon them, can fruit become an accepted symbol of equity, for all to eat?
Kwanzan cherries, Bleecker Street, NYC
 Our neighborhood is not filled with human-edible trees; the Amelanchiers are the exception not the rule. Furthermore, many of them are growing on private property though overhanging public rights of way.

Nordahl argues for public fruit because we live in food insecure environments, especially urban dwellers.  In Chapter 1 of the book, he defines several contributing factors of food insecurity: agricultural specialization, fossil fuel reliance, water scarcity, weather anomalies and climate change, food contamination (from agri-chemicals, bacteria and other pathogens, and bio-terrorism), and inaccessible and unaffordable food.  To combat these factors, to make food accessible, affordable, and secure, Nordahl proposes a  system of "fresh produce grown on public land, and thus available to all members of the public --for gathering or gleaning, for purchase or trade" (page 4).  But such places exist already you might say in the form of community gardens.  Nordahl argues that the conventional community garden while operating on publicly owned land is "maintained as if [it] was private" (page 89).

In Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, Nordahl describes the challenges to a public produce model.  Among them are land use policy, maintenance and aesthetic objections, and food illiteracy.  He also offers solutions, mostly cases of elected officials, planners and policymakers, and designers who have implemented "public produce" projects.  The Chicago City Hall apiary is an example.  Nordahl tells us in 2003 then Mayor Daley invited two beekeepers to construct and manage an apiary on City Hall's green roof.  The bees produce two seasonal honeys which are sold throughout Chicago and via the internet.  (I could not find price information.)  Nordahl offers this case as an example of the strong role an elected official can play in food production on public land.

Foraging olives, Berkeley
Back on the ground, Nordahl looks at public policy in three Western cities.  San Francisco and Berkeley do not permit the planting of fruit trees in the public right of way while the City of Portland, Oregon at the time of the writing of the book was "seeking to codify the acceptance of fruit trees for their use as street trees" (page 54).  (By the way, we foraged from many fruit trees growing in the sidewalks when we lived in Berkeley.)

One of the excellent contributions of this book is Nordahl's discussion of maintenance and aesthetic objections to (permitted) fruit tree planting in the public right of way.  It is one that we heard from citizens and public officials and staff in most of the cities in which we have lived.  People argue that food-bearing trees and edible gardens are "messy and difficult to maintain....a bit unkempt, or...downright ugly" (page 91).  Nordahl counters these objections with three simple concepts.  First, to address messiness and litter, plan for the appropriate carrying capacity, i.e. match "expected crop yields to numbers of people likely to harvest the produce" (page 99).  Additional steps could include organizing volunteers to harvest produce and partnering with nonprofits to donate the harvest to food banks.  Second, use existing resources and policies to minimize maintenance requirements.  Since parks and recreation staff maintain ornamental plants in spaces wherein edibles be grown, the maintenance burden is less significant than presumed.  Also, the maintenance of vegetation in public rights of way is usually assigned to the adjacent property owner so a fruit tree in a sidewalk would be maintained by the property owner who is most likely to have planted the tree.  Nordahl underscores the maintenance difference between woody perennials and herbaceous annuals, arguing that the former "only need care and supplemental water for the first year to get established" (page 108).  And the third counter to maintenance and aesthetics objections is designing "edible landscape[s] imbued with artistry and beauty" (page 111).

A central challenge to Nordahl's public produce model is food illiteracy.  He writes,
As social creatures, we learn from others and from our environment, and what we learn is what we see....Lately our ancestors have not passed along the culture of growing food or of preparing and eating what we are able to raise in our particular environment....Before we can incorporate better food into our communities, we have to incorporate better food into our vocabulary.  Better food choices need to be taught throughout our communities, and public space could become educational in this regard (page 117).
So what does a food literacy campaign look like?  Government should take the lead.  And the campaign could rely on the media used for the war garden campaigns as well as contemporary technology such as instructional web-based videos and public access television programs.  Nordahl also proposes including instructional brochures with utility bills and offering classes through parks departments.  Food literacy should be offered in schools, too.  "Food literacy, like language, is most effective when it is taught at a young age, and many experts say that food and dietary choices taught early in life set lifelong patterns," writes Nordahl (page 129).  Non-governmental organizations also have a role in providing food literacy programs.  Take Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that creates and publishes on its website maps of publicly accessible fruit trees throughout that city.  Two final notes on food literacy.  The rights and responsibilities of growers and eaters should be clearly written and posted.  Lastly, context is important in designing an edible landscape.  Nordahl generalizes that "[f]emale ginkgo trees may be unwelcome in predominantly white suburbs in America.  Callalloo would likely be regarded as  a weed.  Prickly pear may be more acceptable" (page 127).

Nordahl concludes Public Produce with a vision of a "comprehensive network of public produce," an amalgamation of the cases he presents in the book.  The rehabilitation garden for former offenders run by a sheriff in San Francisco, the city hall rooftop honey in Chicago, the vegetable garden grown by a parking lot manager in Davenport (Iowa), fruit trees in Portland (Oregon) and Des Moines (Iowa) parks planted by parks department staff, the one community garden per 2,500 households mandate in Seattle's comprehensive plan, fruit tree maps in Los Angeles, and foraged fruit for meals trade in Berkeley.

What does urban agriculture look like where you live?

Our thanks to Jaime Jennings at Island Press for a review copy of Public Produce.


Leslie said…
Wow! Thanks for the extremely thorough review of this book. I was just sitting under a huge ornamental cherry tree in a neighboring greenspace the other day, which had set fruit and littered the ground with hundreds of stems and stones, but whose fruit was too fruit-less to eat (just stone with a tiny bit of sour flesh and skin). I was wondering why the city planners didn't simply plant edible cherries, since the ornamental cherry made a mess anyway. Wouldn't it be great if I could snack on cherries right next door, despite living in a metropolis of 3.5 million people? That would be great!
Georgia said…
Hello Leslie, I am glad you read our review. We are foragers and got our start in Berkeley. Even if cities don't want to plant people-edible cherries in the sidewalk, there are many other places in the city where such trees could be planted. For example, see Earthworks in Boston (