Slightly Overdue: Room To Grow Symposia

On February 4th, 2009, environmentalists, sustainable food fanatics, and agriculture lovers gathered in the Jerry H. Labowitz Theater of the Gallatin school to discuss the rising enthusiasm for urban agriculture in New York City. The symposia, titled “Room to Grow: Envisioning Urban Agriculture at NYU,” featured a power point presentation, a panel discussion, complimentary organic and local food, and a closing breakout session. The NYU Community Agriculture club handed out seedlings in “newspaper pots” for participants to nurture until the planting ceremony of NYU’s first community garden to be held in April.
Equipped with the Gallatin Dean’s Award and a degree in Ecological Design, ’08 Gallatin graduate Adam Brock presented his research on the innovations of urban agriculture. The presentation was aimed at the attendees’ search for local, sustainable, and organic food in an urban setting. He discussed the possibilities of vertical farms, literally vertical greenhouses, to host vegetable and flower varieties ready for immediate consumption by New York City residents. Aside from the epicurean advantages, Brock listed a few others – lower “food miles,” waste reduction, storm water absorption, civic engagement, and greater air quality. Brock presented other cities already on the urban agriculture bandwagon, including the Milwaukee, Wisconsin based greenhouse-farm Growing Power.
Brock then moved into a discussion of the possibilities of urban agriculture on the NYU campus. He showed a slide of all the viable land and rooftops, which proved to be larger in number than one may think. Ideally, NYU could host a greenhouse of vegetables and herbs to directly supply the dining halls with fresh produce. Brock mapped out a proposed budget, which demonstrated that output from the greenhouse would break even with the cost to build it within a few years. However, the greatest problem with starting a greenhouse on the NYU campus is not funding, but finding permission to use available rooftops and land.
After the presentation, a panel discussed the possibilities for agriculture within New York City. The panel included Jennifer Berg, graduate Food Studies professor an NYU; Annie Myers, Gallatin student; George Rais, urban agriculture enthusiast; and Andrew Faust, ecological designer. Coordinator for the NYU Sustainability Task Force, Jeremy Friedman, moderated the discussion. Rais argued for a utopian ideal of planting trees, vines, and shrubs with edible fruit for pedestrians to benefit as they walk to class and work. Berg and Myers contrasted Rais’s ambitious idea with already existing community supported agriculture organizations, such as the Added Value farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Berg also suggested resource issues, such as her own struggle with finding water for her project at the LaGuardia Corners garden on LaGuardia Place by the Kimmel Center.
The audience was invited to ask questions after the forty-five minute discussion. Audience members participated with tough questions about funding and city council resistance. Zoe Abram, the co-chair of the NYU Gardening Club moved the Q & A along swiftly because audience enthusiasm was running the symposia behind schedule. She thanked Brock, all the panel participants, and also pointed out important organizations in the audience such as bloggers No Impact Man and Eating Liberally, representatives from Just Food and World Hunger, and community farmers from the LaGuardia Gardens and Added Value.
Audience members were treated to complimentary fresh, local, and organic food before the breakout sessions intended to discuss other options for community agriculture within NYU and New York City.
I found the enthusiasm of Brock, the panel participants, and audience members a refreshing drink from the stale conversations of over-priced Whole Foods. Considering my own struggle to eat ethically, locally, and sustainably in an urban setting, I found the idea of urban, vertical farms especially encouraging. I also appreciated Brock and Berg’s realistic understanding of the time and money needed to support a functioning urban agricultural system – they didn’t preach any elitist, utopian ideas of window box farming. I left the symposia feeling recharged about eating sustainably in an urban setting and with a greater list of resources of where to find and read about local and sustainable food.

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