Sunday, February 24, 2013

Century of the City: Denver Urban Farming

By: Colin Day, Sustainable Building Associate

The 21st century will likely be, amongst other things, the century of the city. And the nature of cities, so to speak, is changing.
With a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050, the world’s cities can expect to experience an increase not only in size and density, but also in numbers. With more than half the of world’s population already living in urban and semi-urban environments, and with that percentage ever increasing, a picture is painted for the future of the city that is at worst chaotic and dystopian, and at best… well, it’s hard to say. The issues facing cities will continue to increase in scope and complexity as cities grow in size and numbers.  It’s safe to say that cities must transform under the pressures of the current and projected patterns of population growth, pollution trends, transportation trends, global climate change, poverty, malnutrition, public health and safety- to name a few.

Enter stage right: catchphrases like green products (building materials, clothing, lunch boxes and other manufactured goods), green lifestyle philosophy (living by a ‘green’ ethic), eco-friendly, natural, organic, sustainable, etc. The cultural, political and lifestyle agendas surrounding environmentally ethical decisions is a hopeful step and gives ever increasing credence to the central tenet of this movement: we’d better take care of our environment before it takes care of us.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to both human health and global security is the issue of food security.  Intensively increasing our focus on Urban Agriculture is a critical step in the right direction towards addressing this crisis, for a variety of inter-connected and complex reasons. As it currently stands, though, there is no cohesive plan in place on the part of the Federal Government to domestically address the issue of basic food security for its citizens.  The closest the government came to addressing this issue was the Community Food Security Act of 1995. It was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy [VT], Sen. Tom Harkin [IA] and Sen. Edward Kennedy [MA] and read as follows:

 To authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to make temporary assistance available to support community food security projects designed to meet the food needs of low-income people, increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs, and promote comprehensive, inclusive, and future-oriented solutions to local food, farm, and nutrition problems.

Unfortunately, the last major action taken on the bill was a referral from the Senate to the Committee on Agriculture where it was never heard from again.  What the bill aimed to secure seems sensible enough: basic nutrition and food security for low-income communities and self-reliance for all communities.  Sadly, obtaining adequate nutrition has become increasingly difficult for the nearly half of the world’s population.  Even for those of us who can afford to feed ourselves sensibly with a balanced diet of healthy foods, nutritional choices have become the focus of increasing scrutiny.  Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides and herbicides, growing conditions of plants and animals, the feed and slaughter of the latter, farmed vs. wild caught, organic vs. conventional, local vs. shipped and so on are all choices that we may consider when purchasing food. These choices seem trivial to many consumers, who are providing for large families with limited resources, and indeed they must be.  What many might call a ‘first-world problem.’  These choices can seem cultural and political, and indeed they are. But they are also critically important:  there is a lot at stake in the games of food and security.

I recently met with an old high school friend of mine over dinner and drinks in Denver.  His name is Arthur Ortegon and he, along with a woman named Kendra Sandoval, run a small but important office for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. The office sprung from an initiative in Mayor Hancock’s winning campaign and is called Denver Seeds. The work that Denver Seeds does is laudable and the scope of its vision is rare. I hoped to pick Arthur’s brain specifically about Urban Agriculture in Denver, and proceeded to do so for two hours.  On the way home, I was so overwhelmed by the range of our discussion, by the sheer enormity and complexity and morass surrounding our culture and environment that I lost track of specifically what it is that Arthur and Kendra and Denver Seeds actually do.

The issues and complexities surrounding Urban Agriculture, I realized, are much, much larger in scope than I wanted to believe. On a basic level, Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture (UPA) is agriculture in and around an urban environment. This means not only the raising of fruit, vegetables, animals and bees, but also the processing of raw materials and production of goods in situ.  Sounds easy enough so far, but not so.  It is actually a very complex system to put into practice in many contemporary cities because it aims to address a wide variety of issues on a local, regional, national and global scale.

This isn’t the agriculture that the Persians pioneered over 10 thousand years ago or even the agriculture that our parents and grandparents practiced 60 years ago. It is a result of mechanization, standardization, transportation, urbanization, industrialization, legislation, zoning, and a whole variety of other developments in food production. UPA in the 21st century must address not only food security, but also neighborhood development, unemployment, infrastructure, education and community outreach, environmental sustainability and its associated land use policies and so on.  The Community Food Security Act of 1995 aimed to address some of these issues.  For this bill to have been shelved without even looking at the whole picture makes one wonder - what would it take to get these increasingly relevant issues to be addressed?

As is often the case, many of the issues involved boil down to one common factor:  money.  If increasingly large and complex economies of scale got us into this mess, then maybe economies of smaller scales can get us out.  Arthur told me that the question of consistent funding and of the health of the economy in general is the big sticking point on this issue.  As of yet, many cities, including Denver, lack consistent sources of funding to initiate and support UPA programs.  Surplus money is most often used on issues of seemingly greater concern, like education or infrastructure. So in essence, UPA needs startup capital.  The question for investors of any kind then is what’s the return?  It could potentially be huge, but it’s very hard to tell.  Arthur told me, for example, that in 2008, the Denver area spent roughly $6 billion on food.  Out of that, only 10% was spent on the local food economy.  The other $5.4 billion was spent on products produced elsewhere, likely on corporate chain-restaurant food, agri-business products and processed foods.   He pointed out the local multiplier effect as well.  This is the theory, supported by a number of studies, that money spent on locally produced goods and at local businesses is likely to stay circulating locally.  This means that the $4.00 you spent last fall on butternut squash at the farmers’ market will hypothetically make it back into your pocket eventually.  Not once or twice, but three and a half times on average.  It can seem somewhat abstract, but this means that the $600 million spent on food in Denver in 2008 actually had the economic impact of more like $2.1 billion for the local economy.  Even though that is a handsome figure, what happened to the other $5.4 billion, which actually translates to a possible $16.2 billion of local economic activity?  It mostly walked away and won’t be back for a while.
It’s safe to say that Denver will not transform into a 100% local food economy any time soon, if ever.  Many would argue that such a scope of localization is not only impossible, but even undesirable.  After all, there are many food products we consume that cannot realistically be produced locally.  Coffee, chocolate, salmon filets, mangoes and Chianti are all good examples.  Even though that’s somewhat of a simplification, the point is that many things we now take for granted would be unavailable under a system of full localization.  More than that, such drastically reduced imports would be economically and culturally harmful in their own ways.  But that is as much a question of natural resources and climate as it is of processing, packaging and distribution hubs.

Therein lay the middle ground that Denver Seeds seeks to promote:  keep more money in the local economy at a +/-350% rate of return, but not all of it.  In the meantime, jobs, goods and services are created and communities are strengthened by self-sufficiency, individuals are strengthened by fresh and vital produce, and ecosystems are created in which soil, air and water is renewed.  It seems too good a future not to pursue it with all available resources.  But it’s not easy.

Nevertheless, to date, Denver Seeds has completed a variety of projects, which at very least will serve as important prototypes for future improvement and, ideally, will become critical and proven forerunners in a much more integrated and official Denver food system.  Arthur described the approach to economic integration as the “Sustainable Triple Bottom Line”. The triad indicated is the economic, environmental and social sector connection, in which improvement of one indicates improvement in all. In the economic sector, job creation and local economic drivers are created. In the environmental sector, the improvements to natural resource management, the built environment, and water and air quality are considered. In the social sector, communities are built and/or strengthened, with healthier and better performing students and residents, and in which community ideals of food safety and health are promoted along with better eating habits. Community Investment is the banner under which Denver Seeds promotes its goals. The aim is the growth of existing organizations, markets, jobs, and food, and is accomplished through outreach and education. The goal is to engender behavioral and cultural changes through education from childhood onwards, thereby enabling healthier and more localized communities.
A more practical rubric is designated as an on-the-ground, viable economy “Fostering Jobs From Plant To Plate”, as another catchphrase of Denver Seeds reads. This is a five-tiered cycle that effectively deals with both the Sustainable Tripe Bottom Line and Community Investment. The first tier is production. By bringing nodes of production for locally produced goods, economic growth is created as well as food safety and traceability. The second tier is distribution. A specific local network a group of local networks may be utilized and/or created to deal with dependable local food distribution, again increasing food safety and additionally decreasing carbon footprint. The third tier is processing. Processing and packaging locally creates growth in the job sector, also potentially decreasing carbon footprint in the event that packaging material is also produced locally. The fourth tier is food access. This is a marketing component of the local cycle and it is also a practical reality for many. The areas that are most food insecure (some call these food deserts) also generally have limited means of transportation and higher levels of poverty, obesity and diabetes. Assuming these nodes could be developed under this plan would have a positive health impact on the population, environment and economies of these neighborhoods.

The final tier is post-consumption. Considering this cycle as a cradle-to-cradle endeavor would ensure availability of high quality compost, with its beneficial effect on soil health. This would likely produce jobs as well and decrease the overall waste byproduct of the system by using outputs as inputs wherever possible.

The best example of Denver Seeds that will be completed in 2013 is, arguably, The Veterans to Farmers Greenhouse located at 27th and Arapahoe within “Sustainability Park”. This 12,000 sqft greenhouse facility, which is a collaboration with Circle Fresh Farms, aims to have an attached market, which will also serve as a vocational training center. Also, at the Denver County Jail, an aquaponics and greenhouse system will be installed to feed inmates and eventually sell produce.  The Blue Bear Farm at the Denver Convention Center supplies produce for the facility’s kitchen and educational opportunities for children. On the drawing board is the DIA Agro Park, which would serve a similar role for the airport and could be, ostensibly, much larger in scale and impact. These examples may not seem that forward thinking to those who deal with land use issues and concepts of urbanism, but the fact that it is being initiated at a local government level is the exception rather than the rule. If Denver Seeds succeeds in its visions, Mayor Hancock might be remembered, like Mayor Speer, as an effective green thumb, and like Mayor Pena as a champion of new urban development.

There is much that needs to be done if the type of change that Denver Seeds is envisioning is to become a reality. But the effects of the changes would be transformative for Denver in its image and in its industry. Denver was once a much more powerful agricultural hub than it is today, and could reclaim that identity in an updated fashion. It would engage offices, organizations and the community in dialogues surrounding land use, social and cultural quality of life, skill sharing and education, vocational training and community outreach, health, autonomy and economy. It will bring to light conflicts of land use, disposition and tenure, and environmental issues surrounding contaminants in the water and soil and general toxic environmental load within the city. Green projects, including but not limited to, UPA in the urban environment have proven ameliorative effects on public health and safety and environmental health and biodiversity.
With the urban population load of the 21st century that we can expect, cities will need to continuously re-engage issues of land use and health and the safety of its citizens. The dynamic and dramatic nature of this change is uncertain, but to prepare for the best increases the quality of life for residents now and in the future. Denver Seeds is a step in the right direction, and with luck and good works, hopefully it can evolve into a stride.