City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

Urban Agriculture

August 5, 2009 2:50 PM

A couple of weekends ago Dianne and I took the Regent Neighborhood Association's annual garden tour. It's a way for the RNA to raise a little money and it's a way for neighbors to check out each other's yards without getting arrested.

There were the usual beautiful flower gardens, but what really struck me this time was all the food being grown in the small backyards of our old neighborhood. And not just food but livestock also. Many of my neighbors are taking full advantage of the Madison ordinance allowing for backyard chicken coops. (For a robust list of puns associated with this check out a previous blog entry, "A Game of Chicken.")

It turns out that "urban agriculture" is all the rage among progressive planners and architects. When I was in Denver in June for the Congress for New Urbanism this is what all the buzz was about. The CNU will be here in 2011 and we're building the entire conference around the theme of urban agriculture.

Here's the basic idea. We all eat, most of us at least three times a day. So, it turns out that the biggest contribution any of us makes to energy use comes not from our air conditioners or even our cars but our decisions about where all that food comes from. Food grown with energy intensive fertilizers and cultivation and then shipped long distances to our tables uses a lot of energy. Food grown closer to home uses less.

When you consider the fact that locally grown food is likely to be fresher and contain fewer chemicals and preservatives needed for the long trip and you combine that with the concern over widespread obesity and other health problems, it makes a lot of sense to get as much of our food as possible locally. And what's more local then our own backyards? Even a tiny backyard like those in my neighborhood can yield an enormous amount of food. If your yard is too shady you can always rent a plot in one of the city's community gardens. And for those who don't have the time or inclination to be gardeners Madison is rich with community supported farms that will deliver to your neighborhood and there's always the farmers markets which you can find now in most parts of our city.

But here's the thing. My neighbors will do just fine. Not only will we garden our hearts out, we've got a little coop a few blocks away and four food stores within about two miles. But Madison has real "food deserts," where there is no easy accessibility to food of any kind much less to fresh, locally produced food. To make things worse these food deserts tend to be places where people have low-incomes and little access to cars.

What I'd like to see is a comprehensive city strategy that gets good quality, healthy and affordable locally produced food into the hands and the kitchens of people who really need it. And if they can grow some of it themselves and learn how to make good meals from it that would be even better. We already have a very active community gardens program run by the Community Action Coalition and funded in part by the city. Wisconsin has a long and rich tradition of UW County Extension programs to bring ag expertise to the masses. And the Community Development Block Grant Commission just recommended a new program using Federal stimulus dollars to strengthen the connection between growing our own food and the people who live in those food deserts, which the Council approved last night.

Set in the heart of some of the richest agricultural land in the world, Madison is well positioned to be a leader in urban agriculture. But our progressive tradition should also make us a leader in using those advantages to improve the lives and the health of everyone.


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