Breaking Through Concrete by David Hanson and Edwin Marty was recently released by the University of California Press. We’ve been hearing great stories for some time about the urban agriculture movement across America, and you’ll find many of those stories, gorgeously accessorized with photographs by Michael Hanson, in this lovely and useful book. I had the privilege of writing the forward, and so to give you a little “teaser,” here’s what I had to say about Breaking Through Concrete.
Forward by Mark Winne
As a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, I acutely felt the tension between urban development and the fleeting remnants of a pastoral landscape. Living at the retreating edge of the Garden State’s former agrarian glory, I often wondered how Mother Earth could survive the onslaught of macadam, concrete, plastic, steel, and rubber. I would eventually find a kind of perverse solace in those hearty blades of grass and indefatigable dandelion shoots that muscled their way through the fissures in roadways and parking lots. They told me better than any science textbook could that no matter what abuse humankind may heap upon our planet, nature will not only survive, it will one day triumph.
But rather than wait (or in our bleaker moments hope) for some kind of Armageddon to wash away our mess, the satisfying and edifying stories told in Breaking Through Concrete make it abundantly clear that not only is it nature’s will to survive that matters, it’s humanity’s need to allow nature to flourish that may matter more. Urban farming, gardening, and growing – or whatever you want to call the phenomenon that is turning conventional food production on its head – is catching on faster than veggie wraps. Turning over manicured sod at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, removing rubble and covering old parking lots with compost in rust-belt Detroit, or raising growing beds on Brooklyn rooftops the way a community used to raise barns are the stories of the day.
Skeptics of course abound. Spokespersons for Big Farming and Big Food have turned their noses up at these so-called “urban aesthetes” and “utopian farmers” whose acreage is so small it can barely support a rototiller. But with a billion of the globe’s people hungry, a billion undernourished, and another billion obese, conventional and industrial forms of agriculture have hardly earned bragging rights. Urban food production may not feed a hungry world, but as Breaking Through Concrete amply demonstrates, it certainly can feed a hungry spirit and a hunger for both nature and human connection. And as the world becomes less food secure every day, growing food in unconventional places will no longer be thought of as a nicety, like a flowerbox of petunias slung from a brownstone’s windowsill, but as a necessity born out of the looming realization that there will be 9 billion of us to feed by 2050. At the very least, one can think of urban farming as an insurance policy with a very small monthly premium or a hedge fund with no downside risk.
As a child of the sixties, my world view was shaped as much by the devastation of the moment as it was by a wild, fantastical notion of the future. While Joni Mitchell may have told us, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Breaking Through Concrete reminds us that we can also rip up the parking lot and liberate paradise.