The Final Mile concluded in March 2016 with a panel discussion at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea. Part of the inspiration for the Final Mile was the swelling interest in food evident through the proliferation of farmer’s markets, food festivals, celebrity chefs, and food selfies. Every new development currently being built or proposed in New York has some food component such as a food hall or market or other unique dining experience. Yet with all of this interest and focus on food, nearly 3 million New Yorkers are still without adequate access to fresh food. Over the course of the series, OHNY visited nearly 30 different sites, from food incubators to urban farms, to food halls and distribution markets. As a whole, the Final Mile looked at how food has shaped the physical city over time and to begin to consider how the surging interest in food may continue to shape the city in the future.
To round out the series and to specifically tackle the question of the future of the city and its food system, Open House New York invited four panelists to join executive director Gregory Wessner in conversation. Panelists included: Kathleen Bakewell, a new York-based landscape architect, founding principal of Brook Farm Group, and executive director of BioCities; Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist who studies food systems and policy and the current director of the Food Studies PhD program at NYU; Adam Lubinksy, managing principal at WXY Architecture and Urban Design; and Ray Figeuroa, a long-time advocate for community gardens and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. What follows here is a selection of excerpts from the discussion.
Gregory Wessner: One of the things that became painfully obvious during The Final Mile-which we also heard in the series on manufacturing that Open House did in 2014-is that there is a hyper-intense competition for land in New York, especially for the kinds of services that are necessary to meet the city’s basic needs like commercial kitchens and food distribution facilities and warehouses. Land in New York is inevitably used for housing-even in areas where it is expressly forbidden by zoning-because housing will always deliver the greatest economic return. I don’t know that there is an answer to this question, but even if we all agree that we need more housing, and more affordable housing, how do we reconcile all of these needs competing for a limited amount of space?
Ray Figeuroa: Sure, let’s take a stab at it. I’m thinking of a grandmother up at Brook Park who says, “I’m so grateful for my plot where I can grow my squash and my beans. When rent is due, at least it takes the edge off of me in terms of providing for my family.” You can go around to any number of neighborhoods–I look at East Harlem, I look at the South Bronx, well over 50% of folks are rent burdened in these areas of the city, as I’m sure they are in similarly situated communities in Brooklyn and other parts of the city. About a quarter are extremely rent burdened and when you are rent burdened, you become food insecure.
We gardeners understand and appreciate affordability of housing. We think that there are enough creative minds. With two community development organizations, the New York City Community Garden Coalition and Brook Park, we just submitted proposals to the Economic Development Corporation, to do housing development that incorporates urban farming and community gardens.
Adam Lubinsky: I think one of the ways in which the de Blasio administration is starting to address the issue of affordability, and one of the solutions, is to look at more of what we call density: how do you get more out of your city? Some of that means building up, but also increasingly that means figuring out how to mix different kinds of things together. That may be where people live, and that may be where people work, and that also may be where people garden. A lot of it is both a design and planning challenge.
I think that we’re coming out of an age in which we felt like places of work, places of residence, and places where you shop needed to be separated because there was a lot of noxious production. There still are questions about how best to do this, but I think we are definitely starting to think about ways to mix certain places of production where people live. Creating spaces for gardens–there’s a production side to it, but these spaces also create incredible community capacity. Integrating those community spaces is part of it.
Kathleen Bakewell: To add on to what Adam was saying, I think we are getting more and more creative about the surfaces we’re looking at; some people are talking about vertical gardens. Rooftops, all rooftops, are now open to being claimed for green and open space, not just for food. I marvel every day when I look around the streets and I see thousands and thousands of private cars sitting there empty. To me, that’s another opportunity. That’s a lot of space, maybe not for gardens per se, but claim it for something else and give space to gardens. There’s still a lot of potential that hasn’t been tapped yet. I think we have to keep scraping away at it, going more dense, and looking for all those tiny spaces, or even larger ones.
Carolyn Dimitri: I’m a runner. I go up to Central Park to run and I see all of those empty apartments. A housing policy that allows people coming from other countries and bidding up apartment prices puts a lot of pressure on people who want to live here. In Copenhagen you’re not allowed to own an apartment unless someone lives in it. I know that Denmark is often held up as having this “terrible” socialist way to live, but it’s a very dense city and housing prices are significantly lower than New York. I think that would relieve a lot of pressure on the world, but it might also be considered un-American.
GW: Carolyn, you brought up the point earlier that it’s not going to be very easy to make changes to the food system because maybe we all like the idea of really good food, and we’re willing to pay a lot of money for it. I think it’s a really important point to bring up because we do have an urban population that is supported and made possible by an industrialized food system. The alternatives are not of a scale to regularly feed 8.5 million people. Before the panel, Kathleen, you were saying, “This system grew up over the past 150 years,” which you said was not a long time. Looking forward 150 years, how do we transform this system?
CD: I have a lot of opinions on that and I think about this a lot. I think we have social goals. We want to feed people. We want the environment to be of high quality. We want to take care of our agro-ecosystems and our ecosystems, so I think the problem is right now our food system and our federal policy supports cheap food. It really overlooks these other aspects of life that are related to food. We want the agro-ecosystem to be able to produce for generations to come. To me, it’s more of a hybrid that we need some industrialized food, but we also need some organic food and we need some food that’s grown with more organic practices. I tend to think that if somehow we could end up with some portfolio of food production systems, that that might actually meet the needs of society. I don’t think voting with your fork is really going to be sufficient to force that, but I do think that policy and regulation could put us along that path a little bit faster.
GW: In terms of the food system, what do you think is New York’s single greatest challenge and what is its single greatest advantage?
KB: I think people are the single greatest advantage. The brilliance that we have in this region, it’s really mind-boggling. The greatest challenge, I guess, is the pressures on land and entrenched attitudes about how to use land.
AL: Land pressures really, really make things a major challenge here. I think the attention paid to what we eat is increasing and that the desire for organic food, local agriculture, and local production in cities is only going to grow. It’s grown in other places in the world and that will start to have an impact on the city. Since the city is going to get denser, I think people are going to care more about the quality of the environment within the city and that will have knock-on effects to how we approach food, how we approach industry. It’s a good time to be an urban planner because these systems are going to need to be controlled and looked at more carefully.
CD: I’ll bring up a slightly different point. I think the biggest challenge really is the huge income inequality in the city. I think that makes it really difficult to steer policy or for the market to provide what citizens really need. I think the most positive thing is the people. I haven’t been in New York all that long, just six years, and I’m amazed at how people in New York City love food. It’s really nice to see.
RF: I want to concur with Kathleen that the greatest resource is people. In the communities where I work, in the South Bronx as well as citywide, most community gardens are found in low-income areas of the city. Community gardens have served as vehicles, as hubs, for community organizing and for civic engagement. When you have food, when you’re moving food in a community, you’re able to organize in that community. Community gardens are highly visible, so folks in the community can see something good going on and really, really get excited about that and want to join in those efforts.