Tomatoes or Dollars?
Self-analysis from within the Farming Concrete Research Group
by Sophie Lubin
By far one of the most interesting parts of our Farming Concrete project to me is the question of money. In my street-roaming, scale-distributing, and countless conversations with garden members around the city I find myself always coming back to the same topic—to the question of money and how it relates to these gardens. Someone always asks:Why do you feel the need to attach a monetary figure to our community garden? Why can’t it just be valued for what it is, irrespective of money or pounds of vegetables grown? And for that matter, why are you only interested in those gardens that grow food? Are you implying that flower gardens in the middle of a city are less valuable?
These questions, whether out loud or in my head, float around in the air; and I’ve found I’ve taken them to heart. It’s an important topic for us researchers, for garden members and participants, and for the city as a whole; and it’s important that we speak about it here.
The Farming Concrete team recognizes how tricky it is to attach money to the intangible, and oftentimes immeasurable, wealth that community gardens bring to the city. Yet we forge ahead in our project because we believe that in doing so—in doing this project—we are providing gardeners, project supporters, researchers, and city-council members with the tools required to holistically protect, preserve and promote the gardens of the city.
The (some might say, sad) fact is that our world is directed by money—at least when you get into the corporation, bureaucratic, litigation side of things. I support and participate in projects like Farming Concrete because I believe that, in cases like this one, working from within the system is more productive than attacking it from the outside. If we want to see change in our society, it seems logical to use the tools we have, to speak the language of the society we are trying to change.
Our goal, ultimately, is to show that community gardens and urban agriculture are a legitimate use of land in cities. We recognize that to do this, we need to have the same kind of data that competitors have—like, say, the Housing Department. We want to protect already existing community gardens and promote future ones; and so we need to have at our disposal the kind of data that gives legitimacy to our claims in the actual world. Certainly, we cannot put a price tag on the shaded bench under a tree, the respite and quiet that community gardens offer, the flowers of a space, the ecology, biodiversity, and health benefits of fresh produce—and that’s fine, because we wouldn’t want to. But how do we protect and promote these gardens when the bulldozers come to build new high-rises? How do we get a garden funded and built on an empty lot instead of another apartment building?
While we cannot monetize those intangible things like community development and shaded benches, one of the few things we are able to measure in monetary terms is the food that community gardens grow. And so we are.
We are weighing produce, and we are mapping gardens, and we are determining how much food is actually grown inside this city. And in doing that we give weight and power to the intangible benefits of community gardens. In having the poundage and dollars for vegetables, we will be able to say: not only do community gardens offer a space for neighborhood development, quiet serenity, shade and respite from the city; they also are responsible for producing xxlbs of food, which is worth about $xx, feeding xx number of people in a single harvest.
Because it is with that kind of raw data that we are able to combat the bulldozer, and prove, again factually, that community gardens are valuable—not only in those conceptual ways—but also in very real, very useful, very healthy food-producing ways too.
In working from within the system we are certainly not trying to assimilate community gardens into the structure of the corporate world. We are merely speaking the language of money because we see that money is what gets things done. Community gardeners have spent decades fighting for their rights; and we are in no way aiming to change any of that. Rather we hope that, by attaching money to the food production of community gardens in New York City, we will help to translate the efforts of past years into longer term, broader protection for those gardens, rooftop farms, school gardens, emergency food systems and the like. Our hope is that these efforts will unite the community farming force, as well as give more clout to urban agriculture as it progresses in the coming months and years.
So, to answer those questions: No, we do not think that flower gardens are less valuable than food producing ones—we simply cannot quantify the flowers, or the shaded benches, or the community growth. And of course it would be wonderful if everyone supported the protection and promotion of community gardens in urban areas simply because they are good for the community. But in real terms, in terms that will hold up in court or council meetings, we have to have data to back up those claims. So yes, we are attaching a monetary sum to the pounds of food grown in NYC. And yes we think that having that figure will help us and help future groups when they work to improve community gardens all over the city. But we certainly do not argue that money is the be-all; nor we think that the shady bench in the garden that grows no food is any less valuable than the plot growing tomatoes and peppers.
We are just working within the framework of our society—speaking the language of money so that those who are directed by money will perk up their ears and listen to what we have to say.
In simple terms: we are using the tools that we have, to collect the data that we need, to show anyone (lawmaker, activist, board member, CEO, farmer alike) how supremely important community gardens are to our busy city and all its citizens.