Surveying the Landscape of Urban Agriculture's Land Politics: Civic, Ecological, Heritage-Based, Justice-Driven, and Market-Oriented Fields

K. Michelle Glowa1 and Antonio Roman-Alcala2

  • 1 Anthropology and Social Change, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, USA
  • 2 International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, The Hague, Netherlands

KEY WORDS: land politics, land sovereignty, urban gardens, tenure security, property


Urban agriculture (UA) has been continuously present in the United States (US), taking many forms including market gardens, home gardens, school gardens, community gardens, job-training gardens, and horticultural therapy gardens. Unlike European gardens, which have generally been more institutionalized and supported by the state throughout the 20th century, US UA has occurred with state support only in waves (Basset 1981). At the end of such waves, UA has often receded from the urban landscape as gardeners lost access to the land. Both with state support and without it, UA practitioners and advocates have utilized various strategies in order to access land to pursue their gardening goals. This chapter explores the politics that inform land access strategies and dynamics, presenting five heuristic categories—Civic. Ecological, Heritage-based, Justice-driven, and Market-oriented. These categories help us see how lineages of (urban) agroecologies intersect to generate existing UA’s land politics and agroeco- logical dynamics, and their interrelations.

We define land politics as processes of defining norms of land use via political claims and actions. We are especially interested in how utopian desires are enacted on the land and on pre-existing property relations. Through land politics gardeners recreate old or develop new socio-spatial relations, setting

BOX 8.1

La Via Campesina’s political positions about land are rooted strongly in its origin as a movement of peasants and Indigenous people mostly from the ‘developing’ world. In other words, its land politics reflect the legacies of colonial-era land and resource dispossession, as well as historical struggles for land reform through the twentieth century, more recently expanded into the notions of ‘integral agrarian reform’ (Rosset 2013). This idea that without land access and tenure there is no potential for agroecology or ‘food sovereignty’ (Rosset and Torres 2013; Mendez et al. 2016), though useful and generative, seems less taken up by many sectors of UA in the US (Roman-Alcala 2015). UA practitioners do discuss and seek to address land access, as do their rural counterparts in sustainable agriculture movements, but generally there have been less transformative proposals for gaining that access, such as interim use agreements, temporary access, public-private partnerships, and calls for access to public lands for UA uses (Glowa and Roman-Alcala 2020). Rarely do UA movements argue for land redistribution from those who currently hold private title to those who do not; even rarer are calls to decommodify land culturally, economically, or politically (as some have interpreted LVC’s land politics). Still, LVC-type global agrarian anti-corporate movement politics find some resonance and reflection in the US, and in UA specifically. In some UA, the ‘food justice’ frame (see below) has evolved into ‘food sovereignty’ and to some degree has begun to emphasize ‘land justice’ and ‘land sovereignty’ (Williams and Holt-Gimenez 2017).

direction, and foreclosing on other possibilities if only for the moment. In this sense a land politics focus asks us to consider practical questions of how gardeners access and use space, and to ask symbolic and historical questions of how relations to property and land are cultivated through and shaped by tenure arrangements. Urban agriculturalists in the US have been influenced by multiple traditions and politics of agroecology, with historical roots from inside and out of the country. One international influence has been peasant-based and explicitly agroecological food producer movements like the transnational network La Via Campesina (LVC), whose radical concepts of “food sovereignty” and “land sovereignty” point to the necessity of democratized access to land for just agricultural systems. Yet this is not a widely- mobilized framework in the land politics of US urban agroecologies (see Box 8.1 for details on LVC’s land politics). We are interested in the relation of land politics of US urban agriculture to LVC’s radical proposals, but knowing that influences on UA do not stop at LVC, we look at UA at large, seeing how varying land politics come about, intersect, and evolve.

Historically, the specific natures of urban agroecologies (for instance, whether or not urban gardeners use ecological growing techniques) have been shaped by cultural legacies, sociopolitical orientations, and larger political-economic contexts, including dynamics of land access. For instance, during periods of economic downturn or reduced access to resources gardeners frequently produce crops using as little outside inputs as possible, emphasizing agroecological techniques. Similarly, wider upticks in environmental consciousness have articulated urban gardening as part of an ecological ethic. In this chapter, we will explore the various projects and instances of UA. and their histories of land access, land politics, and agroecology, drawing out different lineages of practice. In so doing we hope to provide a fuller understanding of how UA’s land politics in the US have evolved and are evolving, and to help integrate land politics into an urban agroecology framework.

Urban Agriculture Land Politics as Urban Political Agroecology

How we define and understand agroecology creates the basis for seeing how diverse sets of land politics relate to agroecological projects in both urban and rural areas. Giraldo and Rosset (2017) warn that there is a risk in debates over its meaning that “agroecology will be co-opted, institutionalized, colonized and stripped of its political content” (1,2017). In writing this chapter we reassert the need to understand agroecologies as tied to and embedded within relationships to land, and thus as inherently raising important questions of property, land access, and sovereignty. Although not limited to urban contexts, these issues are fruitfully addressed through a combination of urban political ecology and political agroecology, focused on issues of urban agriculture.

While agroecology can be and is often treated as merely ecological approaches to agriculture, we find this approach inadequate. It is important to note that an increasing emphasis has been placed on agroecology as engaged with questions of food systems, politics, and social movements, not just individual behaviors of farmers (Wezel et al. 2009). Steve Gliessman. Miguel Altieri, John Vandermeer, and Ivette Perfecto, along with many other agroecological scholars, have led this charge since the 1970s. The field of agroecology as it has developed has had close connections to peasant-based movements associated with food sovereignty. Smallholder, traditional agriculture—particularly in Latin America—has provided both the socio-cultural and ecological basis of study for the field (Altieri 1995; Gliessman 2006; Holt-Gimenez and Altieri 2012). Agroecology is “a social movement with a strong ecological grounding that fosters justice, relationship, access, resilience, resistance, and sustainability.” (Gliessman 2012, 19); its goals are greater than simply developing more environmentally sustainable agricultural production.

Urban agriculture can likewise be an important area of study in understanding how the social and ecological are intertwined. In gardens, cultivation unfolds with cultural knowledge being passed down generations, creativity and expressiveness coming through in design and planning, food security needs being met. gardeners acting with soil microbes and cultivars to meet various goals. Biodiversity, nutrient flows, and water cycles: all play important roles in urban gardening processes just as much as meeting human needs. All these processes take place on land. Yet agroecology studies do not always directly address land, and even with social science literature on agroecology developing rapidly, agroecological science has not sufficiently developed its understanding of land politics. Meanwhile, urban political ecology is increasingly being leveraged in geography, environmental studies, sociology, and other social sciences, and offers well developed theories on land politics, but is rarely specifically applied to food and farming issues. Here we attempt to combine the two.

Bolstering our case for a land-focused agroecological lens is Gonzales de Molina’s (2017) call for ‘political agroecology’ in the reworking of agroecological approaches. He identifies that the connection between politics and agroecology is not novel to the field, stating that “many authors have demanded the need for socioeconomic structural reforms in order to be able to achieve sustainable agrarian systems (Buttel 1997, 2003; Altieri and Toledo 2011)”. For Gonzales de Molina, ‘political agroecology’ can provide both the analysis of the industrial food system, “the precise diagnosis of the crisis”, and ideas to move forward “a theory of collective action and action by the political institutions to progress toward agroecological transition” (67). In this sense political agroecology becomes both an approach to analysis and a program that advises which are the “most suitable ways to participate” in moments of socioecologi- cal change (60). We see political agroecology as a key tool in understanding how agricultural production changes through time, in relation to institutions, discourses, and ways of knowing. The continuing commodification of land is one such change that has shaped modes of land and resource access and use in both rural and urban contexts. In response to marginalization and dispossession, grassroots social movements to maintain agrarian peasant livelihoods have demanded “land sovereignty”. Land sovereignty entails community-based control over productive and political resources, as essential requisites to ensure the right to food (Borras and Franco 2012, 7). In cities in both the developed and developing world, urban movements against displacement have converged to address injustices in housing affordability, fresh food and green space access, and livelihood maintenance. Yet recent US-based food and urban movements, while increasingly engaging with some form of land politics, have made relatively “few references to global historical trends and movements around land grabbing, land concentration, and land reform” (Kerssen and Brent 2017). Scholars such as Roman-Alcala. Borras and Franco argue that we must directly articulate the connection between land sovereignty—the right of working people to control land and benefit from the its use—and agroecology in both rural and urban contexts (Borras and Franco 2012; Roman-Alcala 2013; Borras. Franco, and Suarez 2015).

Despite calls for more critical framings of the underlying land politics that have limited who and where people can garden within cities, some gardeners have worked to develop land access strategies for short-term tenure. That is, some gardeners have opted for a land politics devoid of the normative position described by land sovereignty. The approach to inquiry we take here helps us understand why and how this is so by using the tools of a political agroecological approach. In the sections that follow we explore how urban land access strategies have connected to different 'fields’ of urban agricultural ideologies and practices, asking how urban agroecologies relate to the development of power vis-a-vis land politics. As we will see, diverse UA projects and their politics of land are tied to specific histories (e.g. migration, previous lineages of social struggle) and continued processes of racialization. colonization, and state-building.

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