Urban Gardens as Infrastructure of Democracy?

Matt DelSesto:  While sustainability is sometimes applauded unquestionably—for example, the appearance of urban gardens, municipal rezoning for urban agriculture, farmers markets or green business practices—the Pragmatist framework proposed in Designing Urban Transformation encourages us to ask deeper questions about sustainability and the future of our cities.

It seems that each day our cities are becoming more green and sustainable:  governments promote sustainability agendas; researchers add to lists of green best practices; and businesses market their environmentally friendly products.  At the center of this sustainability wave is the urban agriculture movement, which is increasingly noticeable in the material form of cities.  Urban gardens grow from vacant land, farmers sell produce in public space, and trendy organic restaurants are multiplying.  A major argument of research that I cam currently completing in the Graduate Program in Urban Practice at Parsons [i.e. Remaking Urban Society:  Gardens as Infrastructure for Democracy], concludes that this “sustainability wave” is failing to fulfill its potential.   In practice, sustainability has failed to fundamentally change the structures that serve our daily lives.

For example, sustainability initiatives are revealed to be superficial through the “designing for consequences” framework described in Designing Urban Transformation because they often fail to make any substantial difference in the lives of people who most need healthier food and environments—the urban poor.  Or, through the lens of “urbanism as a creative political act,” it becomes clear that sustainability is not fundamentally challenging the business-as-usual politics that dilutes potentially effective action.

To shift sustainability practice based on insights in the book, rather than try to define and categorize sustainability with endless systems of metrics, we can ask:  What can sustainability be?  For example, in what ways could urban gardens become an infrastructure for democracy?  Or how might gardens actually be design strategies to remake urban society through coordinated civic action?   The good news is that we do not need to start from scratch to answer these questions.  There are a number of emerging practices and organizations that have begun to investigate precisely these questions in our evolving 21st century cities.  MD

The Boston non-profit organization, The Food Project, recently built a 10,000 square foot green house that also functions as a public space, where events and education workshops are frequently hosted with neighborhood residents.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The Boston non-profit organization, The Food Project, recently built a 10,000 square foot green house that also functions as a public space, where events and education workshops are frequently hosted with neighborhood residents.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The green house in the first image above was constructed as part of a larger neighborhood civic initiative to engage residents in the transformation of public space, including the mural in this image, which is down the street from the green house.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The green house in the first image above was constructed as part of a larger neighborhood civic initiative to engage residents in the transformation of public space, including the mural in this image, which is down the street from the green house.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.