Urban agriculture continues to be a hot topic. In practice, urban agriculture has been a persistent and organized activity in our nation’s cities for well over a century. And one could easily argue that places like Boston Common make “urban agriculture” an even older model.
The Panic of 1893, an economic downturn that brought distress to both urban and rural populations, was particularly difficult on Americans; there were few social safety nets for the poor and destitute. (Programs like Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – came much later). The Panic of 1893 created a dangerous social climate in America, particularly in urban areas teeming with unemployed factory workers.
The crisis brought to the fore a model of relief gardening that quickly took hold across the United States. The “Potato Patch Farms” model, also called the “Detroit Experiment,” emerged under the leadership of Detroit’s mayor, Hazen Pingree. His model connected hundreds of acres of vacant land in Detroit with unemployed workers and their families, who given the materials, tools and education to garden the unused land.
In 2013, Bill Loomis wrote an amazing piece about Pingree for the Detroit News. He wrote:
“Most of the unfortunate would be glad to raise their own food,” Pingree argued. “They are willing to work, and we ought to give them a chance to do it.”
Pingree’s idea of “ethical relief” was met with strong resistance from those who believed that the unemployed – many of them immigrants – were “too lazy” to work. Skeptics, of course, were wrong: 3,000 families applied for the 975 allotments available the first year of the program (1894). The program grew during the next two seasons (1,546 families participated in 1895, 1,701 families gardened in 1896).
The city’s agricultural committee kept records of the investments made into the program and the value of crops harvested. In 1896, the value of food produced in Detroit’s potato patches was greater than the money provided to needy citizens by the “poor commission.”
The idea quickly spread to other urban areas: New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle were among the nineteen cities sponsoring vacant lot projects on some scale according to an 1898 report. The model Pingree developed in Detroit was particularly innovative and visionary for its time. These programs clearly provided a rationale for the cultivation of vacant lots – “slacker land” – during the Liberty/Victory Garden effort in World War I.
To this historian, today’s economic climate still feels a bit like 1893 … income inequality and persistent poverty are particularly troubling. And urban agriculture is once again at the fore as a practical, necessary and welcome addition to the food landscape.
Today, Detroit and many, many other urban areas, faced with issues created by depopulation, high unemployment – and wanting to improve ready access to healthy, affordable food – are using urban agriculture in innovative ways to provide solutions. Through their work, these urban producers are creating resilient, healthy food systems in our nation’s cities.
To learn more about the history of food cultivation in American cities, read Laura Lawson’s City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Published in 2005, it remains one of the most important historical studies of the role of urban agriculture in American life.
Here’s a link to the 1898 Charities Review report on vacant lot cultivation. It provides a fascinating primary source look at what was occurring on the urban agriculture front in the U.S. during the 1890s. There are invaluable descriptions of activities, programs and methods used in many American cities during those years. Many of the challenges – including securing land – remain the same, more than a century after this report was written by philanthropic leaders.