Evo Devo of Trends: Urban Gardens

by Kim Frye

Seeing what a conversation starter it was when evolutionary biology was used as the model for the study of ideas in Richard Dawkins’s work on memetics, I am going to use developmental biology as a model for non-discrete cultural units: trends. Although I used Evo Devo in the title I should be clear that I am really discussing only development (not so much the evolutionary part; the phrase “Evo devo” just makes for a much catchier title than does “ontogeny”). There’s a crucial rite of passage every trend must pass for survival comparable to what biological entities experience with the transition from reproductively immature to reproductively mature. In humans we call this transition puberty; for a trend it’s called the backlash (#disco and #facebook for two of the largest backlashes since the popularity of therapeutic electroshock) and it is when the popularity of an idea or behavior really gets it’s stripes, sea legs, the whole kit and caboodle (#cliches) and starts to proliferate and expand it’s habitat.

One idea that is probably not going anywhere is summed up the Urban Agriculture movement. For the sake of being concise, when I use the phrase “urban agriculture.” I am specifically not referring to small or medium-size farms outside of city limits. I am specifically referring to very small scale agriculture (more on the garden side, less on the farm side) completely in the city, off the train line, near other land-uses, within the city. And I very much mean food production. The cultural interest in food production is not new; you can see it in the back-to-land movement of that late 1960‘s and 1970‘s with a quick flip through one of the Whole Earth Catalogs. Even one of the tenets of the SLA (the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst) was a sentiment against the bourgeoisie behavior of housewives who maintained and propagated house plants, which back in those days was usually horticulture removed from agriculture in a collection of spider plants and asparagus ferns hanging in macrame plant holders, likely decorated with large wooden beads.[1]

In Chicago we have our own current manifestation of urban agriculture represented by places like City Farm and Eden Place, a focus of co-blogger Barb Willard who started this particular urban ag blog topic. Co-blogger Hugh Bartlinghas also continued the conversation with his post on what he calls “gastronomic urbanism.”

We now recognize the lack of greenspace in general as an urban blight; it’s now arguably a no-brainer currently that people prefer grass and trees to dreary landscapes of pavement and cement. Familiar images of deteriorating urban environments are exemplified from the historical images in Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Larson’s Devil in the White City, to more recent images of the notorious Cabrini Green housing project (#GoodTimes). The filth of physical urban landscapes has long been connected to the behavioral filth of urban living. Recent work by Frances Kuo in The Role of Arboriculture in A Healthy Social Ecology uses hypothesis-driven research to connect landscape with behavior. But back to urban agriculture: what better way to increase green space than to install sources of free food, educate the masses own food production, reconnect the modern urban psyche with the land, teach those proverbial men how to fish for themselves. However, before we stamp urban agriculture with the happily-ever-after stamp, let’s discuss a very real backlash event that is already gaining momentum.

A new kind of crime is cropping up (pun intended) and it is the theft of garden products from community spaces (i.e. public land). Gardeners everywhere across time and space have dealt with theft committed by deer, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, raccoon, and even snails, slugs, pathogenic fungi and bacteria if you want to carry the argument really far. The latest trend is garden theft committed by fellow homo sapiens, fellow creatures who are supposed to agree that like the Little Red Hen, those who put in on the growing of a garden should be the ones to enjoy the garden’s bounty.

My own community garden experience this past summer in Chicago supplied evidence for human-committed theft of produce and even of entire plants. A mention of this to my mom one evening on the phone sparked her to notice an article in Ohio newspaper the Columbus Dispatch. A quick Google search digs up plenty of examples around the country: NYC, Boston, California, Denver. There is a kind of consensus in these discussions, for now most community gardeners are content to shrug it off and choose to assume the theft is committed by hungry people who need the free food source – a Les Mis style ethical quandary. A problem who’s solution may be to put up fences and other barriers that could slowly erode the sense of community space that the garden was supposed to foster in the first place

We will see more of type of crime as the urban agriculture movement matures. When accounting for production loss, one of the most successful strategies in agricultural history is higher yield. If you grow enough food to expect the loss to wildlife it somehow works out. Can this translate to human-caused theft? One thing we know about humans is we are an excessively populous species with a penchant for taking behaviors to extreme. Unlike humans, deer and squirrel do not escalate their crimes to the degree of capitalist organization for and profit. I don’t think we’ll ever see a tetrapod mammalian mafia knocking off and controlling distribution of garden produce. Humans on the other hand…who knows. It’ll be a constant battle but it’ll be more development for the urban agricultural movement as the movement continues to deal with the current backlash. I‘m rooting (yes, I like the plant puns!) for the movement to outlast its malaises.


[1] I also want to point out that one of the SLA’s terms while holding Hearst captive was a demand for the Hearst family to distribute $70-worth of food to all Californians in need.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Evo Devo of Trends: Urban Gardens

  1. newacademy

    As one who has been gardening wherever I’ve found myself since the spring of 1951, in urban, rural or suburban settings, I really appreciate the point about garden theft. Little boys—they’re the worst. Check out “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden” (Minn. Hist. Soc. Press, 1987), a delightful book based on interviews with a Hidatsa woman who recounts the traditional gardening practices of her people. They built watching platforms, which were staffed by women who watched over fields day and night and tried to keep various animals away from ripening crops. Among the worst of these were small boys, as she notes:

    “Boys of nine to eleven years of age were sometimes rather troublesome thieves. They were fond of stealing green ears to roast by a fire in the woods. Sometimes….we had to guard our corn alertly.” (p. 31)

    • Fascinating historical roots of this problem! I had no idea how far back this type of theft went, yet now upon thinking of the subject it seems so obvious.

      And the Hidatsa idea of human guards renders scarecrows to seem like such a lazy and worthless attempt! In my experience this past summer, one suggestion cam up that may be a modern version of the Hidatsa guard defense: webcams. I get the sense that my fellow garden participants do not really want to know who commits the crime. I suspect it’s easier to just leave room in the imagination for the idea that the thieves are in need. I also suspect that attitude may change if the pilfering becomes more advanced!

  2. Hordeland (@Hordeland)

    Very well presented… And it begs the question: Do plant thieves stalk their prey? (One can never have enough plant puns!) Any budding urban gardener will likely see these issues crop up as their interests mature. Let’s hope that plant theft does not turn their dreams to seed…

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