Food Production and the American City

In the 21st century, the thought of “barnyard” animals running wild in American city streets seems outlandish, perhaps perceived even as dirty. While pigs and horses may not be everyday sights in the cities as they were in the mid-19th century, efforts to bring local food production to the urban masses are being increasingly today pursued through rooftop bee keeping and indoor hydroponic agriculture.

During much of the 19th century, pigs were numerous and constantly present in American cities. In chapter ten of his book Down To Earth, Ted Steinberg discusses the importance of these hogs to the urban poor of the period. Steinberg cities Norwegian lawyer Ole Munch Raeder’s account of the swine

Porkers like this one were an everyday sight in American cities during the 19th century, serving both as garbage control and food supply.

in city, noticing that they wandered in larger herds, eating garbage of all kinds from the streets, leading him to call them “walking sewers”. The refuse that the pigs ingested was converted into protein that would then find its way to the dinner tables of the urban poor. However, as reliant as the lower class was on them, these pigs were not the friendliest of neighbors. The hogs would run people off of the sidewalks, sometimes injuring people or even killing children. If that wasn’t enough, they also developed the habit of defecating on city folk as well. New York City authorities began a push to ban pigs from the streets in the 1810’s. A seeming part of the rationale for the ban was to force the urban poor into the industrial system to pay for their food. Then Mayor of New York Cadwallader Colden asked “… must we feed the poor at the expense of human flesh?” His proposal to close the commons would force the poor to find jobs to pay for food. By 1819 setting pigs free in the city was a crime and by 1860, after years of hog-related conflicts and a Cholera outbreak in 1849, pigs were permanently expelled from the area below 86th Street. However, some tenement residents continued to keep pigsties and even board pigs in their rooms.

Horses also played an important role in cities in this period. The obvious advantage to horses in the pre-automobile era was transportation and production of energy for manufacturing. Less apparent to city dwellers was the role that these horses played in the production of food. Horses produced between 15 and 30 pounds of manure per animal every day, which was a major sanitation concern for urban administrators. To combat this problem, manure was collected from the city streets at night and transported to farmers on the outskirts to be used as fertilizer. The crops grown with this city fertilizer would then find their way to the city and onto the tables of its more wealth citizens. In addition, hay grown in the same fashion came back to the cities as well to feed the horses. In New York, the access to manure combined with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 gave farmers incentive to grow potatoes, cabbage, and sweet corn instead of grain. The high prices wealthy New Yorkers paid for these vegetables easily justified the price farmers paid for city manure, making the organic city a perfected cycle. However, with the advent of electric street cars in the 1880s and the automobile in the early 20th century, horses and therefore manure were driven out of the city along with the pigs.

After nearly a century of a stark separation between areas of agriculture and urban centers, as shift back toward urban food production has begun to occur in the recent years. With the movement toward “green” buildings, some administrators are taking steps to bring food production back to the cities. On the seventh story roof of New York City’s One Bryant Park resides 100,000 European honeybees that

An example of a hydroponic setup.

pollenate the building’s grass roof and produce honey. Building administrator’s installed two hives housing the bees earlier this summer. Similar initiatives have been looked into for production of vegetables in the city, including the still untested concept of “vertical farming.” Such an operation would consist of a skyscraper with floor after floor of fields, orchards, and gardens, greatly increasing areas of cultivation eliminate the costs (both monetary and environmental) of transporting produce to cities. Crops would be grown hydroponically, which means that plants receive their nutrition from a solution of essential minerals dissolved in water and not requiring soil. This method would also eliminate agricultural run-off. While some small scale hydroponic operations exist, the idealize skyscraper farm has yet to be developed. However, with the world’s population expected to reach roughly 9.1 billion by 2050, we may begin to see them spring up in the next few decades.

Despite the immense growth of American cities in the 20th century and the similar development of industrial agriculture far away, it seems that urban food production may soon become a reality once again.

Resources : Ted Stienberg’s Down To Earth ; “Worker Bees on a Rooftop, Ignoring Urban Pleasures” ; “Vertical Farming: Does It Stack Up?”


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