Looking for food, but finding much more

Looking for food, but finding much more

When I began my PhD I wanted to continue my study of the urban agriculture (UA) movement in North America. Not only did I have a personal interest in the opportunities for pursuing food justice and food sovereignty offered by this movement, but I also thought that the UA movement provides a particularly interesting research site for academic purposes. In this blog post, I will reflect on the path that my research has taken thus far. I hope to sketch out my thought process in pursuing my current research and the factors that have influenced my decisions. This kind of reflective writing is very useful for me and I hope it could also be helpful for others studying UA or the food movement.

Food and urban agriculture as ‘dense’ research sites

UA is appealing as a research site because one can examine it from many angles. It provides a tangible example of humans actively interacting with the nonhuman world,1 often succeeding in changing their natural environment, but also coming up against the real material obstacles faced in food production: contaminated or compacted soils, inclement weather, pests, drought, etc. Along similar lines, it can be theorized in terms of historical processes such as urbanization and the rise of industrial agriculture. It is also a site of production, with different forms of property ownership and social organization (public or private land, communal production or individual plots, for profit or not, etc.). Likewise, it is connected to changing patterns of food and leisure consumption in cities as the demand for local organic food increases. Like any social movement, it also has to contend with forms of social difference that affect participation, such as race, class, and gender.

These multiple angles are to some degree indicative of the wider relevance of studying food; many authors have made the argument that food provides a lens through which many social issues can be studied (e.g. Nestle & McIntosh, 2010). However, as I’ll detail below, I maintain it is important not to become too focused on food in isolation. This requires going ‘beyond food’ to connect food consumption and production to larger social structures of race, class, and gender (Passidomo, 2013).

Beyond food? Why food activists need to pay attention to land, labor, and governance

With this background knowledge in mind, I selected Cleveland, Ohio, the site of my dissertation research. As a native of Pittsburgh I have always been interested in the particular political economic situation faced by cities in the Rust Belt. I also see the availability of vacant land in these cities as an opportunity for the UA movement to capitalize on. Building on my research in Detroit (Walker, 2013, 2015), over time I have found that the particular context of Cleveland as a city with a declining inner-city population and an expanding (though nearly built-out) suburban metropolitan fringe has influenced the local food movement in particular ways.

Most notably, the more I investigated vacant land reuse, the more I came to see UA as a set of particular outcomes in a wider suite of responses to vacant land. For example, refer to Figure 1 below, taken from the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland vacant land reuse study. This realization may seem obvious – and it is especially to people who live in Rust Belt cities – but I think it also has important implications for the food movement that have not been fully thought out.

Land Bank Flow Chart 2008

Figure 1. Land bank decision-making flow chart (produced by the Cleveland City Planning Commission and printed in Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University, 2008, p. 9).

Essentially, the current stance of the food movement towards acquiring land for UA is a pragmatic one –UA practitioners will try to get access to land however they can, preferably at no cost. Unsurprisingly, the cost of leasing or buying land is one of the key factors limiting the expansion of UA and its profitability (for an example from Vancouver, see Schutzbank, 2012). Across North America, UA practitioners and supportive planners and community members have been successful in passing zoning changes, acquiring funding, and forming partnerships with institutions and city governments to access land. These initiatives have been successful in fostering the growth of UA, but like the rest of the alternative food movement, a central challenge is ‘scaling up’ to increase production and to compete with industrial agriculture. While the kind of policies being generated now are helpful in this regard, I follow Nathan McClintock (2010, 2014) in identifying larger obstacles of land, labor, and capital as central in the challenge to change the food system through UA.

Through my dissertation work, I am seeking to understand the interaction between historical forces of investment and disinvestment in the built environment, racial segregation, and the politics of urban development that pose a challenge to the UA movement. I see this challenge occurring at two interrelated scales: one, at the neighborhood and parcel scale UA faces challenges in accessing land permanently due to the imperative to pursue economic development of a “highest and best use” (McClintock, 2014); two, at the city and regional scale Cleveland is attempting to rebrand itself as a sustainable city, but as with all municipal efforts for sustainability it faces the tension of pursuing a greenwashing of its image in the name of urban entrepreneurialism that supports elites or undertaking a more radical transformation that simultaneously pursues social and environmental justice (see e.g. Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

Part of the challenge I am currently facing in the field is how to incorporate this critical perspective on UA and urban sustainability while recognizing the challenges that institutions and activists face on the ground. Cleveland has a long tradition of civic-mindedness and active nonprofits organizations, but as Randy Cunningham (2007) and Michael McQuarrie (2013) have shown, this active third sector is also a sign of the professionalization and incorporation of an oppositional and activist community organizing tradition into a corporate-led regime. As my colleague Emily Rosenman and I (2016) found when looking at Cleveland housing demolition policy, Cleveland actors have actively tried to hold banks accountable for the aftermath of the housing crisis in creative ways, but their non-local efforts were largely unsuccessful. Instead, nonprofits and community groups bear the burden of addressing the problems following vacancy and abandonment, a common situation in the era of neoliberal urbanism (Hackworth, 2007).2 It is my hope that a critical analysis of urban governance and the balance of political forces in Cleveland will help recover some of the critical energy that existed in the city before the 1970s, using UA as an entry point into building a larger oppositional political voice in the city.

  1. I use the phrase “nonhuman world” where many people would probably just say “nature.” By doing so I am trying to avoid reproducing a binary that considers humans outside of the natural world. The French academics Bruno Latour, John Law, and John Callon have been very influential in this shift (see e.g. Latour, 1993), which can generally be referred to as posthumanism (though this term has a much broader meaning, see Wolfe, 2010).
  2. I tried to avoid jargon but couldn’t help it in this case! For those unfamiliar, neoliberalism can generally be considered to be an ideology based on organizing social life around free markets, with the idea that market signals are the most accurate and efficient way of organizing social activity. Historically, this trend renews some of the central tenets of classical liberalism, but is perhaps most clearly distinguished from it by favoring an even smaller role for the state. While the concept has a complicated and often-debated history (Harvey, 2005; Peck, 2010), it is often identified with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. In the context of urbanism (the material and cultural aspects of urban life), the neoliberal turn has had profound effects, including: the dismantling of public housing and the social safety net, including the shift from welfare to workfare; fiscal austerity for local governments and the rise of the municipal bond market and other forms of financialization; increasingly aggressive interurban competition for capital and concomitant corporate welfare, etc. For a nice overview see Hackworth (2007).

Cunningham, R. (2007). Democratizing Cleveland: the rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio, 1975-1985. Cleveland, OH: Arambala Press.

Hackworth, J. (2007). The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McClintock, N. (2010). Why farm the city? Theorizing urban agriculture through a lens of metabolic rift. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3(2), 191–207.

McClintock, N. (2014). Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions. Local Environment, 19(2), 147–171.

McQuarrie, M. (2013). No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority. Public Culture, 25(1), 143–175.

Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University. (2008). Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland: Citywide Strategies for Reuse of Vacant Land. Cleveland, OH: Neighborhood Progress, Inc. and Cleveland City Planning Commission. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/93ekamu8t10elhu/2008_Re-Imagining-A-More-Sustainable-Cleveland-Report.pdf?dl=0

Nestle, M., & McIntosh, W. A. (2010). Writing the Food Studies Movement. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 13(2), 159–179.

Passidomo, C. (2013). Going “Beyond Food”: Confronting Structures of Injustice in Food Systems Research and Praxis. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3(4), 1–5.

Peck, J. (2010). Constructions of neoliberal reason. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenman, E., & Walker, S. (2016). Tearing down the city to save it? ’Back-door regionalism and the demolition coalition in Cleveland, Ohio. Environment and Planning A, 48(2), 273–291.

Schutzbank, M. H. (2012). Growing vegetables in Metro Vancouver: An urban farming census (MSc thesis). University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Retrieved from https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/43559

Walker, S. (2013). Growing ideology: urban agriculture in Vancouver and Detroit (MA Thesis). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://elk.library.ubc.ca/handle/2429/44889

Walker, S. (2015). Urban agriculture and the sustainability fix in Vancouver and Detroit. Urban Geography, 1–20.

Wolch, J. R., Byrne, J., & Newell, J. P. (2014). Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities “just green enough.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 125, 234–244.

Wolfe, C. (2010). What is posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

One thought on “Looking for food, but finding much more

  1. Please Google the land bank president Gus Frangos and his two shady creepy thieving llc real estate entities he owns.
    Quinn court properties llc
    6311 stclair llc.
    Or the story of 3421 mapledale formerly owned by Tim Donovan….. Also of Cleveland board of zoning appeals and our still unfinished towpath scandal…. This is a good example of the facts and failure of tax lien sales.
    And how things work in Cuyahoga County.


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