Sunday, October 12, 1997

The new new urbanism: Going rural

What do you do with a city with dwindling population, acres of empty lots? Here was a radical idea: Return the land to agriculture.


Imagine the abandoned factories of Philadelphia's stranded neighborhoods reawakened, producing and pulsing with people at work.

Imagine new life for those brick industrial hulks, in which a bygone Philadelphia made locomotives, hats, saw blades, elevators - now pickings for vandals and shelters for addicts.

Imagine them as Kate Smith does. The agricultural economist, raised on an Iowa farm, aches for the squandered city.

She's eyeing those huge, dark interiors left over from the Industrial Revolution. And she has an idea for them.

Harvest mushrooms.

Why not? Mushrooms are grown indoors. They require a steady supply of unskilled or semiskilled labor, and the city has plenty of that. There's a growing niche market for specialty foods, gourmet or organic.

The idea might collapse when it collides with financial and technical realities. But Smith is optimistic.

"The one thing I know is that everyone has to eat," she says, "and the one sure market is food."

Mushrooms are just one of the brainstorms of a small, unconventional group of Philadelphians - community leaders, intellectuals, businesspeople - who are thinking about the future of the city, and saying "why not?" instead of "no way."

Idea by idea, they are developing a mind-stretching vision of a future Philadelphia. With a nudge here and a nudge there, they're tilting the very notion of "city" to dizzying angles.

They are imagining a Philadelphia that employs hundreds or thousands of people in industries based on urban agriculture and fish farming, and spin-offs such as food processing, distribution and marketing.

They're imagining a city that punctures its concrete with new forests and green fields to boost real-estate values and refresh the soul. They're envisioning an educational system that emphasizes plant and animal care as a means of inculcating humane values.

"There's a very healing energy in countryside, being close to the earth and farmland, appreciating nature in your life," says Alan Hunter, a Queen Village planner who is bringing many of these thinkers together in an effort he calls the Urban Earth Project.

"Those things are missing from the urban environment," he says. "All our land has been cemented over, and we've lost a piece of something that's very valuable."

Hunter's not alone in sensing this. In North Philadelphia, activist Rosalind Johnson is the proud overseer of Pennsylvania's first accredited urban organic farm. It's improbably located on a block surrounded by sagging rowhouses a short walk from Broad Street. Several dozen shareholders, paying a yearly $550 per household, take their pick of fresh beets, carrots, collards, kale, watermelon.

"We're talking about poor people having access to food - fresh food," Johnson says. "With welfare reform, we've got to do a lot more about food security, making sure people get enough to eat."

Meantime, the Delaware River Port Authority and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School are breeding hopes for a Philadelphia fish-farming industry.

Leon Weiss, a Penn cell biologist who heads the project, envisions a large hatching operation at the Navy Yard. Young fish bred there would be trucked to fatten up in outlying farms (where there are plenty of ponds) or inner-city warehouses (in high-tech tanks using recirculating water).

The operation could produce upward of 20 million pounds of fish a year, Penn researchers say. Add a processing plant to fillet, freeze, package and ship frozen fish, and you're talking 1,000 to 2,000 new jobs, Weiss says.

"There's a very good likelihood that this could pay off," says DRPA chairman Manny Stamatakis, a businessman with interests in insurance, real estate and a telephone company. "I think there's real potential here."

The DRPA, whose mission includes economic development, has approved $450,000 for a two-year pilot project. Penn researchers have ordered two tanks from Norway. By January, a team of engineers, scientists, animal-husbandry experts, Fine Arts School architects, and Wharton School financial and marketing specialists hopes to be growing fish, zeroing in on potential markets and learning how to increase yields and limit costs.

Weiss estimates the fine-tuning will take a year. After that, the port authority will line up private companies to go into production.

"I've gotten a lot of calls from people in the business world who want to get into this now," Stamatakis says. "But we want to put together a sound strategy first."

Over on the fungi front, businessman-turned-activist Hunter is polishing grant proposals to elevate mushroom-raising from an idea to a reality. He's looking for money for marketing studies and technical analyses. A demonstration mushroom-raising operation would follow. He has a few South Philadelphia sites in mind.

"We want to create 500 jobs," says David Auspitz, owner of the Famous 4th Street Delicatessen in Queen Village and an urban-farming romantic.

"Mushrooms, fish, whatever. Mushrooms are the starting point. There might be more money in sage, rosemary, sprouts, worms - who cares? The point is, this is a legitimate way to create jobs.

"Can I give you the address of where it's going to be? Tell you how many employees we're going to have? No.

"But I can show you a big light at the end of the tunnel. And the tunnel is very short."

To Kate Smith, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the outlook for farming in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the economics of urban agriculture make perfect sense.

Farmland in places such as Lancaster County, once in abundant supply, is rapidly giving ground to suburban development. Within Philadelphia, toppled housing, torched warehouses and thinning population have left large swaths of the city flat and desolate.

Perhaps those demoralized spaces are clearings, waiting to be cultivated.

"I have a vision," Smith says as she rides past poverty-stricken Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia last summer, "of what it's going to look like - growing things everywhere, and not just weeds, but growing things that people are tending and using."

With 27,000 abandoned homes and 16,000 vacant lots, the cityscape is opening up to imaginative reconceptions. The city's Office of Housing and Community Development advocates a neighborhood strategy of suburban-style single-family homes, complete with yards and driveways, in areas once dense with rowhouses.

Philadelphia already is remarkably green, its more than 2,000 community gardens known as a national model. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is in the midst of an ambitious program to further beautify vacant lands. Fairmount Park is one of the largest urban oases in the world.

What Smith and others are talking about is a step beyond. Their idea is to look upon agriculture as a new direction for the city's economy as well as its spirit.

"It's an interesting idea," says Sister Carol Keck, director of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, a community group that has long promoted grassroots environmental activities in North Philadelphia. "I like the idea of focusing on the inner city, where people can get closer to the source of their food."

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Mayor Rendell, couldn't resist a joke. "The idea of farming is certainly an idea that grows on you," he says. But seriously, "we'll listen to anybody who has an idea about the better use of land and the creation of jobs."

City Councilman Frank DiCicco says he has asked for the state Department of Agriculture's counsel on the mushroom idea.

"I'm very enthusiastic," says DiCicco, a former president of the Italian Market Civic Association. "I don't see any downside to it."

Agriculture used to be common in cities - if you were an Aztec, an Inca or a Babylonian. Only a century ago, one-sixth of Paris was farmland - the marais, producing greens, fruits and vegetables year-round on soil enriched by manure from workhorses.

Urban farming is still commonplace in many of the world's cities. Hong Kong produces lots of its own poultry and vegetables. China grows tons of vegetables in urban areas. In Mexico City, potatoes sprout in stacked tires. In Haiti, vegetables flourish in rooftop compost beds.

A U.N. study published last year counted 800 million urban farmers worldwide, accounting for 15 percent of the globe's food supply - an "overlooked, underestimated and underreported" resource, the authors say.

City farming has made inroads in the United States, too. In Los Angeles County, nearly 100 growers sell produce to farmers markets only minutes from their fields. Many of those fields lie under electric power lines on land owned by Southern California Edison.

In Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, gardens managed by homeless people, prisoners and the poor are raising vegetables and incomes within city limits.

In inner-city Detroit, a group called Gardening Angels is reclaiming drug dealers' turf with compost and trowels at about 200 locations. One man has planted six acres of oats in the middle of the city. Kate Smith, on a tour, saw him recently. He was on a tractor.

Signs point to a flowering trend. By 2035, the amount of land and water used for farming worldwide is expected to shrink by a third while the Earth's population expands by two-thirds, according to Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network, a policy group that wrote the report for the U.N. Development Program.

As soon as 2000, "it seems likely that fully half of the human family will be city dwellers," says William E. Rees, professor and director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.

To these researchers, farming closer to where people live is only logical. Doing so would save on food transportation and refrigeration costs. City wastes could be recycled as fertilizer.

"What if sewage and garbage were prime inputs to food production?" Smit wrote in a summary of the U.N. report, bureaucratese giving way to excitement.

"What if the urban landscape were edible? What if vacant waste land in cities were productive and enhancing the environment for living? What if urban areas were increasing biodiversity rather than diminishing it?"

On the speck of Earth called North Philadelphia, Kate Smith's idea for mushroom-growing "seems to make sense, on the face of it," says John Urbanchuck, an agricultural economist with AUS Consultants, a research firm in Moorestown.

Mushrooms are "ideally suited" to become an inner-city industry, Urbanchuck says. Pennsylvania already produces 45 percent of the nation's mushrooms (787 million pounds last year, mostly in Kennett Square). Urbanchuck sees no reason the state's share can't grow even larger.

"Hell, we're importing processed [as opposed to fresh] mushrooms," Urbanchuck says, "and I believe that if we can produce a homegrown mushroom for the processing market, we ought to do it."

Which could lead to the establishment of processing plants, canning operations - who knows what?

"Next thing you know, you're making Mrs. Alvarez's Salsa and Somebody-or-Other's Italian Sauce," muses Auspitz, the deli owner. "Philadelphia used to be the heart of manufacturing for the world, and we want to bring that back. Starting with mama and papa."

Mushroom-growing is not simple. The commonplace mushroom is grown in compost, a pungent mixture of straw and horse manure or hay and crushed corncobs. A mushroom is a fungus that must be tended constantly.

"It's a very labor-intensive operation," says Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, the nation's growers group. "Mushrooms are all picked by hand. It's tough work." Workers typically get minimum wage, plus additional pay on a piecework basis.

Phelps says she knows of no mushroom operations set up in cities, though, in a couple of places, residential areas have sprung up around existing farms.

Mushroom houses must be air-conditioned because the plants need lots of circulating air, Phelps says: "You have to think about the costs of power usage."

Other problems: Acquiring compost. Disposing of compost.

In Kennett Square and other mushroom-producing locales, neighbors have complained about the pungent smell of the waste (growers prefer to call that odor "the smell of money"), which is typically spread over fields, "cooked," and collected for sale as potting soil.

Another likely problem for the would-be urban mushroom magnate is the prevalence of hazardous materials at old industrial sites. The costs of cleanup might thwart the best-intentioned developer.

"Hazmat is a big challenge," Smith concedes. "But I bet there are people out there, ready with solutions."

One possibility, used on the West Coast to grow sprouts, is to use old semitruck trailers, bringing them indoors, making them air-tight, and growing the mushrooms inside. If contamination is so severe that it threatens workers, it might be necessary to dig up the ground, place a physical barrier, and top it with "clean" material.

"Obviously, this would be costly," Smith says, "which is why a low hazmat is where I would start."

For crops ranging from tomatoes to peppers, one answer to the chancy chemistry of city soil might lie in hydroponics, the growing of plants in water and nutrients.

"You could use simple white plastic pipes and a recirculating water system," says Julia Ungar, a Philadelphia environmental consultant, describing a system widely used by commercial growers.
"Just hang your pipes at different levels and grow your produce."

In Detroit, where many lots are contaminated with mercury, lead and other industrial debris, gardeners cap the city soil with a thick bed of compost and dead leaves. They cover it with a layer of topsoil before planting seeds.

Urban fish farming, by comparison, is not so simple.

"The technology still has a way to go," says John Ewart, aquaculture specialist at the College of Marine Studies of the University of Delaware. Another problem is to find a reliable set of customers. Niche markets can be extremely volatile.

On the other hand, the overall market for fresh fish in urban centers is growing, particularly among fanciers of Asian cuisines, Ewart says. And a fish farmer can guarantee a consistent quality, supply and price year-round, all pluses for an entrepreneur.

It's not in the big city, but Delftree Corp. of tiny North Adams, Mass., has been growing shiitake mushrooms for 17 years in an abandoned 1902 textile mill.

Company president Willard Greenwald says Delftree employs about 25 workers in the northwest Massachusetts hamlet, producing 300,000 pounds a year of the specialty crop, 5 percent of the national market.

Shiitakes, dark mushrooms originally from Asia, are grown differently from standard mushrooms. They require some light instead of an enveloping darkness, and their medium is wood, not compost - sawdust in Delftree's case.

Greenwald's 125,000-square-foot operation is a complex of pipes, racks and specialized machines.

"It's taking a local dirt farm," Greenwald says with a certain awe, "and putting it under a roof."
Greenwald warned that large initial investments and low profit margins make it "scary" to enter the mushroom business. While "four or five" entrepreneurs have made plans to enter the shiitake-producing business in recent years, none has actually done it, he says.

"My theory," Greenwald says, "is that unless you're able to get lots of grant money, you cannot produce a profitable shiitake mushroom farm." Greenwald bought his operation at a fire-sale price after the founder died and was aided by local tax breaks.

Phelps, too, is wary of the economics. With mushroom prices remaining "fairly stagnant" in recent years, only "one or two" new farms have gone into business in the last decade, and those were owned by existing mushroom companies, the American Mushroom Institute official says.

"If anyone wants to go into it, I say good luck," she says.

For Smith, these aren't obstacles so much as opportunities. A lanky woman with long, straight hair, gentle brown eyes, and a trace of Plains innocence in her voice, she says she feels a close connection to Philadelphia, notwithstanding her rural Midwest roots.

"I feel I have a responsibility to make it a better place," she says.

Riding along American Street one morning, she takes in the desolation of the wide avenue, once a ribbon of industry, now a moonscape interrupted here and there by an old warehouse or factory building that has managed to escape the arsonists.

"Try to imagine what this would feel like if there were food being grown all around here," Smith says. "How the energy would change." Her dream includes education, along with production. "So that people can get entrepreneurial training, and eventually go out and start their own urban farm or business."

Smith can picture it all happening in a four-story building. "On the roof, there's water collection," she says. "There's a greenhouse on the next floor down. The next floor down, we grow sprouts and maybe have a transplanting area. Next floor, shiitake mushrooms, or maybe two floors of shiitakes. It's as much of a biological unit as possible."

At the moment, it's all in the imagining stage. "I think it will really take a great design team to come together," Smith says, "to really come up with the biological processes and the design, which nobody has come up with yet. We just have to get the team together. I think the people are here."

She hopes to spearhead such a team. She's applying for grants and considering a leave of absence - or, if need be, a job change - so she can move to Philadelphia and put the project into gear.

Driving past a forlorn North Philadelphia intersection with boarded windows, discarded tires, graffiti and strewn garbage, Smith says: "Philadelphia is so beautiful."

She mentions the first Quaker settlers, who "talked about how Philadelphia was a place of enormous abundance, wildlife and the fowl that was there. And how everything grew."

As she examines the damaged city of today, she says, she keeps that antique picture in her head and wonders what it would take for that abundant city to come back to life. She takes heart from Philadelphia's niche in history as a place where monumental things began: The Constitution. William Penn's Holy Experiment.

She says, "I really think the universe is pulling for Philadelphia."

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