Farming happiness in urban areas

By: Johanna Laukkanen

Farming in the city

There is nothing new about the idea of growing food within cities. For decades now in Helsinki it has been a hobby for a small amount of people – mainly for those who can afford to rent a plot and have time to take care of it. But something interesting happened in the summer of 2009, that pushed the ideology of urban farming into a new direction. A bunch of urban activists of the environmental organization Dodo set up a small garden in the abandoned railway depot in Pasila. Most of the farmers had no experience in farming but still they managed to grow different edible plants in this peculiar garden in the middle of the most industrial settings one can imagine. They were the pioneers of guerilla gardening in Helsinki.

From this single event the idea has spread accross the city and taken many forms. Guerilla gardeners have formed independent groups to execute their farming experimentations to prove that it is possible to grow good quality food in urban settings and that the responsibility to make the city greener is ours to take. They have proved that growing food and making the city greener is also fun and brings people together. The thing that differentiates guerilla gardening from the traditional communal allotments of the city is that it does not require large sums of money. It is open for all.

Urban farming ideology addresses many wicked problems such as climate change and environmental problems in agriculture. It raises discussion about the need of a heavy transportation system of food and about the usage of fertilicers in industrial farming. Urban farmers’ actions have done their bit in raising discussion in politics, too. Some of the city politicians aim to follow the example of the Toronto Green Roof Initiative and see that roof tops and other unoccupied urban areas would provide a perfect place to grow food and create new green dimensions for urban living. The current system of urban living could be on the edge of a big change.

”Family that eats together, stays together”

In the Systems Thinking course our group was set to sketch the ecosystem of urban farming and to think about its potential in changing the world. A lot of scenarios and matrixes that connected urban farming and wicked problems such as climate change were drawn. But one of the most interesting and broad topics that came up was no less than the potential of urban farming in cultivating happiness and health – the very parts of both social and cultural sustainability.

There is a lot of research on what makes people happy. In most of them, happiness is closely connected to the fulfilling of different human needs. The most classical approach to human needs is the Maslow hierarchy. On the bottom of the pyramid there are the basic needs such as food, shelter and physical safety. But meeting these needs is not enough for humans to feel happy. People strive for relationships with eachother, feeling accepted. We strive for a sense of belonging.

In a sense, urban farming is working on all of these levels of needs. It is providing people with one of the most basic needs: food. But the more one thinks about the current urban farming and about future scenarios around it, the more obvious it becomes that the real pros of the ideology and actions lie in the social aspects and cultural sustainability. Urban farming has shown to create and stregthen social relationships, and will propably do even more so if the government and city council decide to put forward an agenda to spread the idea. People come together to do something important and creative, and in doing so, have the feeling of up-lift. Maybe some day the old proverb could have a counterpart in the next level of the societal system – ”a community that grows food together, stays together.”

Get dirty!

One of the most essential qualities that separate humans from many other species is our need to create things and to modify our environment. As a child, I remember my favourite action being building huts. With the kids from the neighborhood we used to put together all kinds of things from treehouses to iglus. The most curious thing about these activities was that after the consturction work was done, no-one seemed to be keen on actually playing in the huts. It was all about building, experimenting, modifying – about the process. I can remember how happy I felt to be able to build something. Something, that was actually of no use.

No matter how information based our world is, almost everyone has at least some points in life where they feel they just need to do something with their hands. When growing up, some people seem to suppress their interest in this kind of experimenting and way of expressing themselves. This is perhaps built-in to the system that we call adulthood, but it might be also because of restrictions in the environment we live in. In many sense urban environments appear almost depressingly ready-made. They don’t offer too many chances for experimenting, interfering, surprising elements. Urban farming has a great potential to change that.

Modern urban farming is offering people a chance to define their own environments and through that maybe also to stregthen the feeling of being a part of the urban ecosystem, more than just anonymous citizens using an anonymous space. It is also evident that people who feel connected to their environment are taking better care of it. From these grounds it can perhaps be concluded that the greatest potential of modern urban farming lies not maybe in the actual potatoes or carrots that are being grown – but in its abilities to connect people with eachother and with the environment they live in. The state of the world can be visualized in diagrams and discussed over in the news again and again, but what actually might work best is to get some soil under your fingernails.

References and readings:

http://www.majorhospitalfoundation.org/pdfs/View%20Through%20a%20Window.pdf
http://nhsforest.org/evidence
http://lifeisartfoundation.org/urban-farm
http://ase.tufts.edu/polsci/faculty/portney/gittlemanThesisFinal.pdf