Gathering “Wild” Food In the City: Rethinking Foraging In the Urban Ecosystem

Urban ForagingPublished today, these exploratory studies point to the importance for planners, managers and scholars to understand urban green spaces as not only providers of services, but also providers of material products.

In the USA, influential landscape architects of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Frederick Law Olmsted and his student Charles Eliot, advocated the creation of networks of urban parks connected to each other and, through river corridors, to green spaces beyond the boundaries of urban settlements. These planners argued that public spaces with large amounts of vegetation were essential elements of healthy, functional cities.  These new landscapes emphasised aesthetics, relaxation, recreation, and refuge, reinforcing emerging notions about which human–nature interactions belonged in the city and which in the country.

Productive practices were defined as rural and, therefore, inappropriate inside the city and city parks. Thus, cities such as Columbus, Ohio materially and discursively erased subsistence gardening and rules prohibiting foraging in parks became commonplace (McLain et al.) Further, development and maintenance of the great urban parks demanded centralization and professionalisation of their care. Decision-making powers and management authority were vested in municipal governments and professional park managers.

With the popularisation of the concept of sustainable development in the late 1980s, Grow Riversideplanners saw the need for community involvement. They began to experiment with green space policies that explicitly seek to integrate social, economic, and ecological concerns in urban environments, recognizing and incorporating interstitial, raw, or ‘feral’ lands into park creation and protection. Such places, including the street trees and other vegetation that characterize these spaces, are important for meeting the community and ecosystem needs of low income urban neighbourhoods that do not have large expanses of undeveloped land or existing parks. These shifts in the conceptualisation of urban nature and human roles in it have, to some extent, created openings for the return of productive practices such as farming, horticulture and bee-keeping to public green spaces. However, urban foraging has received little attention in by planners of urban green spaces

Today, foragers in this unique study In Baltimore, Seattle, NYC and Philadelphia ranged from less than 5 years in Baltimore to more than 80 years in Seattle.  Income levels varied widely ranging from less than US$10,000 to more than US$250,000 and ethnic and racial diversity is common.  Foraged products consisted of whole plants (or fungi) or were derived from a variety of native and non-native species, above- and below-ground parts: bark, flowers, fruit, leaves, roots, stems, etc. Prominent among the non-native species are many edible fruit and nut species including common apple (Malus domestica), Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), European or sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), European plum (Prunus domestica), and European pear (Pyrus communis). Edibles, including berries, fruits, nuts, greens, and young shoots, were by far the most frequently mentioned type of product in each study site.

In some cases, foragers’ ethnicity and/or place of origin appear to condition which products are foraged. For example, Chinese immigrants sought ginkgo nuts (G. biloba) in Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia; African-Americans in Baltimore and Philadelphia foraged young pokeweed shoots (Phytolacca americana); and American Indians in Seattle harvested evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) and nettle leaves (Urtica dioica). Managers in the Philly II study also describe talking with foragers of Italian, Hispanic, and Eastern European origin, many seeking prized species for family recipes (e.g. morel mushrooms (Morchella  spp.) and greens common in Europe) or carrying on traditions of foraging practised in their sending countries (e.g. harvesting mushrooms).

Most conservation practitioners interviewed in these studies had a negative or, at best, ambivalent view about the desirability of allowing or encouraging foraging, particularly in parks or natural areas. Of the four cities, Seattle and Philadelphia are the furthest along in rethinking the role of foraging in urban green spaces. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department is actively seeking to rehabilitate former apple orchards in city parks, trees that it had neglected for decades. In 2012, the city approved the establishment of an experimental food forest in a neighbourhood park, and the Parks and Recreation Department recently updated its regulations to permit foraging, provided that quantities harvested are small. Philadelphia has followed a similar path and is supporting efforts by the non-profit organisation, Philadelphia Orchard Project, to establish public orchards in sites throughout the city, including revitalization of the Woodford Orchard in East Fairmont Park. The re-establishment of fruit picking in Fairmont Park brings the city back full circle to the late 1800s, when the park’s commissioners welcomed thousands of school children every Nutting Day, a local holiday at the time, to the park to harvest chestnuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts (Gabriel 2011). At the same time, Philadelphia seems quite hesitant to expand foraging beyond these forms of agricultural produce harvesting, with other types of foraging prohibited on park lands.

Published today, these exploratory studies point to the importance for planners, managers and scholars to understand urban green spaces as not only providers of services, but also providers of material products.

Free access is currently available to ‘Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management’ by Rebecca J. McLain, Patrick T. Hurley, Marla R. Emery and Melissa R. Poe at which features in a Special Issue of Local Environment.

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