Eat Your City

Grist has a fun new city list out this week, and they really rolled the dice on a few of their choices. The eco-zine has compiled a list of fifteen "green" cities -- which the writers readily admit is a figure of speech. Few would argue, after all, that London (#7) is literally a green place, though its environmental efforts are notable. Half of the spots on the list are occupied by exactly who you'd expect to see: Portland, Curitiba, Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney. Mixed in with these are a number of major players with new green initiatives and enviably walkable cores (Copenhagen, Barcelona). And, certainly, examples of all of these cities' resourcefulness and creativity are given to support their election to the list (which appears to be entirely objective). But the most exciting entries are the dark horses.

The Gristies start things off with an oddball: Reykjavik, Iceland. The chilly city of the north Atlantic has apprently begun powering its public transit system (busses) with hydrogen. Even more interesting, all of its energy comes from renewable sources. Rising star Bogotá makes an appearance, with former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa's traffic-busting garnering heavy coverage.

Easily the most fascinating city on the list, however, is Kampala, Uganda. Kampala is (along with Addis Abeba, I would argue) becoming a city to watch, and its eco-efforts are only helping to build the buzz. In its explanation, Grist highlights the city's agricultural initiatives: "Faced with the 'problem' of residents farming within city limits, the city passed a set of bylaws supporting urban agriculture that revolutionized not only the local food system, but also the national one, inspiring the Ugandan government to adopt an urban-ag policy of its own."

Forgive me if the "city to watch" lable seems a bit crass...it is true that Kampala faces serious economic challenges (around 40% of residents live in absolute poverty), but that's exactly why the city's urban ag efforts are so intriguing. As it turns out, for a long time urban farms were seen as an unsanitary public nuissance. According to an article by the International Development Research Center of Canada, Kampala city administrators had to sell the perceived problem of urban farming as a solution to many citizens. The city even participated in the McGill University-led Making the Edible Landscape project, which aims to turn cities -- traditionally large-scale food consumers -- into centers of food production.

Urban agriculture is a well-documented option for increasing the sustainability of a neighborhood or individual lot. But city-wide campaigns are, I think, almost unheard of in industrialized nations. But recent talk of skyscraping urban farms in Manhattan have juiced the public imagination a bit, it seems, and one Columbia University professor -- err, Doctor -- Dickson Despommier, believes that urban farmscrapers will likely be a reality within the next 10-15 years.

But the possibilities don't stop there. Urban farms could become for the 21st Century what large, elaborate central parks were in the late 19th and early 20th. Frederick Law Olmsted famously described Central Park in Manhattan as the lungs of the city, but with new green technologies these farms could become more than lungs -- they could be the heart and brain of the city as well, collecting and treating runoff and waste water for public use and even pumping clean energy back into the city grid. If Kampala can take its rambling landscape and designate farmland zones, and New York can build towering farms, who's to say where the innovation stops. Indeed, Central Park itself set off a firestorm of park design and construction around the US and the world; what if London took that Trafalgar Square grass stunt from earlier this summer and ran with it, converting large public spaces across the city to farmland? Or if Tokyo retrofitted the upper floors of of all of its buildings to transform the city's roofscape into a massive urban garden? Imagine Los Angeles tearing down its freeways to develop sprawling agricorridors to knit long-torn neighborhoods back together, or Toronto employing a massive network of barges to form a second coastline of floating farmland along Lake Erie, or a stablized Kabul turning rubble piles from American bombings into terraced hydroponic inter-city field networks. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

At any rate, if Grist is still around in fifteen years, it will be interesting to see whether they still use the term "green city" as merely a figure of speech.

(Photo from Flickr user namayanjaj.)

15 Green Cities (Grist)

Building an Edible Landscape (IRDC)

Kampala Project Information (McGill School of Architecture)

Press/Media for Making the Edible Landscape

Skyfarming (New York Magazine)

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