The podium microphone could not quite reach Will Allen, standing six-and-a-half feet tall and in front of a sold-out lecture hall in Providence, Rhode Island. Allen, a former professional basketball player and MacArthur Genius Award recipient, was speaking on behalf of his work at Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based environmental non-profit focused on sustainable urban farming and equitable food distribution.
The Growing Power founder sailed through a nearly 1,000-slide presentation as he discussed the transformation of Milwaukee’s contemporary food system. In 1993, in one of the city’s most economically distressed neighborhoods, Allen purchased a two-acre farm and set up greenhouses, hoop houses, and tilapia aquaponics systems. By hiring and training local youth, and adding a 40-acre farm outside of Milwaukee, Allen created an intensive program that produces nearly $500,000 worth of food and services annually.
Allen credits the farm’s success to the intensity of the site design. Hoop houses can grow salad greens in frigid Milwaukee winters because of Growing Power’s high-quality compost – the piles, which reach an internal temperature of 150 degrees, trap heat along the structure’s envelope. Additionally, all storm water is caught and reused, and subsidized solar panels keep energy costs down.
Growing Power’s latest project is an experiment in architecture and engineering, as the organization investigates the feasibility of a five-story vertical farm. According to Allen, cities with more expensive real estate – like New York, San Francisco, and Boston – may need to build up in order to feed themselves, not out.
Allen believes the success of his community-based program serves as an impetus for farming initiatives elsewhere. With Milwaukee as a model, Allen has partnered with organizations and urban planners in similarly economically depressed cities, like Detroit and Cleveland, to break ground on new projects. When land is cheap, grocery stores difficult to access, and job training programs in high demand, soil seems like a hopeful place to start toward a longer-term transformation.
What kind of role do you see agriculture playing in large-scale urban revitalization?
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