A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published October 4, 2017 in Civil Eats.
It’s a chilly spring morning in Milwaukee; rain falls softly from a pigeon-gray sky. Yet here, in a parking lot in a rundown section of town, a couple dozen volunteers have assembled for the Victory Garden Initiative‘s (VGI) ninth-annual “Blitz.” They will spend this soggy Saturday building raised-bed gardens in yards across town — from the suburbs to the urban core. Over the course of the two-week event, they will prepare more than 500 beds, adding to the 3,000 gardens VGI has already installed throughout the city.
A few weekends later on the north side of town, more than 100 people gather for movie night in Alice’s Garden, a public urban farm. Picnickers spread out on a grassy area, surrounded by fragrant herbs and neat raised beds, while a group of girls dance to Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” As the moon rises, they will snuggle up on blankets to watch Moana on a portable screen.
This is what community gardening looks like in Milwaukee, a Rust Belt city that has become a hive of urban agriculture over the last few decades.
In addition to a multitude of backyard plots, this city of nearly 600,000 residents boasts 177 community gardens, 30 farms, and 26 farmers’ markets — more, per capita, than any other American city. Thanks to city council legislation, residents can sell produce they grow in their home gardens at farm stands and markets and are allowed to keep chickens and bees in their yards. Concurrently, a half-dozen “farm-to-table” restaurants have sprung up in the last decade.
Milwaukee’s vibrant food culture is a bright spot in a city that’s working hard to reinvent itself. Like much of the industrial Midwest, Milwaukee has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs since the 1960s. Almost 30 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty — twice the rate for the nation as a whole.
Racial tensions are palpable here as well. As the most segregated metropolitan region in the country, Milwaukee is statistically one of the worst places for African-Americans to live. Last summer, after a police officer shot Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop, the city was convulsed by the worst racial unrest in 50 years.
Despite the city’s difficulties, a number of factors have positioned Milwaukee to become a pioneer in urban gardening. First is its location in a farm state with several colleges of agriculture and public health and an active cooperative extension system, which started promoting urban agriculture back in the 1960s — before it was cool. Second, there’s its surplus of vacant lots, remnants of the Great Recession, often used as growing spaces.
Additionally, Milwaukee is home to several urban agriculture champions. Tom Barrett, who has served as Mayor since 2004, supports all things green and sustainable. And urban agriculture icon Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, also looms large in this city’s food movement. Allen showed it is possible to produce astounding quantities of food year-round in unpromising urban environments, winning a MacArthur “genius award” in 2008 and making TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2010. He now trains gardeners across the country and the world.
While some of Milwaukee’s active urban gardeners have been at it for decades, following traditions passed down through the generations, others — fed up with what they see as a broken food system — have turned to the soil more recently.
Despite their varied backgrounds and histories, Milwaukee’s gardeners share many goals, both practical and profound: They want to feed their families healthful, nutritious, affordable food; they want to reconnect with the land, with their history, with one another; and others even hope to heal divisions that have plagued Milwaukee — and our nation as a whole. Is urban gardening the key to making that possible?