An NYC Urban Agriculture Entrepreneur’s Call To Action


The video above shows a guerilla marketing art project created by the team in Horta do Monte, Portugal.

What you don’t see in this video is the community garden of Horta do Monte fifteen meters from the wall, and the inspiring history behind its rise and fall.

On June 25, 2013, the Camara Municipal of Lisbon destroyed Horta do Monte. At the time, it was the only operational allotment garden in the greater metropolitan area. Municipal leaders tore down 60 trees and over 1000 square meters of farm land because they wanted to make space for future real estate development. Not until earlier this year, after fierce protests and displays of activism, was the garden restored and parcels rented out again to interested community members.

This story, though distinct to Portugal and Portuguese culture, is not unique. There is a policy battle raging in cities across the globe regarding the intended use of underutilized and underdeveloped city property. In New York we have few incentives to encourage the development of green space, and those that exist are inadequate to induce action on the part of property owners or other relevant parties. The tax abatement for NYC green roofs brings in a measly one-time benefit of $4.50 per square foot, which barely covers project expenses, never mind long-term maintenance. Language in the Building Code for rooftop greenhouses has improved, but still offers little in the way of incentives, only Floor to Area (FAR) exemptions. And this is nothing to say of the bureaucracy one has to battle to sew a single seed in a vacant lot. Without the proper policy in place, these sustainable movements will remain stagnant as ever, in New York and Lisbon alike.

So how can we, as concerned citizens, as city dwellers who understand the myriad benefits urban agriculture brings to our neighborhoods, possibly make our voices heard?

Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from Ron Finley and take to the streets. In his TED talk about guerilla gardening in South Central LA, Mr. Finely divulges, “gardening is my grafitti, I grow my art.” Grafitti is an established method of protest that has existed as a means of expression since Taki 183, Seen, Cap, and other grafitti artists started painting New York City in the ’80’s, inspiring the documentary ‘Style Wars.’

What we have in our hands is a potentially powerful combination of activism and urban ecology, and in my work at Horta do Monte, I have taken Ron Finely’s words to heart. We must find creative ways to voice these ideas and expose these stubborn issues in sustainable urban development.

I write because I know greenhouses, urban gardens, and green roof farms mitigate the Urban Heat Island Effect (the reason why cities are 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than surrounding suburbs in the summer) by covering hot concrete surfaces. I write because every time it rains in NYC the sewers overflow in surrounding waterways, and more saturated soil prevents water from entering the sewage system in the first place. I write because 30% of New York’s trash is made up of organic waste — the same waste that could be composted and used as nutrients for freshly grown produce. I write because the average item in the grocery store travels 1,500 miles to get to the shelf, and we could grow many of these products locally. I write because I know urban agriculture has the potential to significantly increase air quality in metropolitan centers; because increased access to healthy fruits and vegetables can actually decrease the occurrence of diet-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, and improve overall public health. I write because I know Lisbon and many other cities around the world have many of these same issues, and that they have flirted with similar solutions, but that far too many promising projects have suffered the same initial fate as Horta do Monte.

And I want others to know too. I want policy makers to know and to compete over championing the cause. But mostly I want to integrate these ideas with popular culture, to engage the youth of my generation. I want to reach people who care so much about something that they articulate it over and over again in permanent paint — people like the farmers of Horta do Monte, who protest day and night until they get back their own little patch of dirt. The people who have so much passion that it spills out onto the walls alongside the streets on which they walk. This movement must be grassroots and it must reflect the creativity of the community in which it moves. Otherwise, it will never have a chance to grow and achieve full impact.

I can only hope that in 3-4 weeks, my moss paint will grow as well, taking on a dynamic life as it spreads its message, and then decays gracefully and necessarily back into the earth.