It all started with a cocktail; a combination of tequila, cilantro, coriander, lime, and special hot peppers from the University of California-Berkeley Gill Tract Community Farm, a collaborative urban farming project located in Albany, CA. That evening, I was at the Exploratorium in San Francisco for the fourth evening of the 2016 SF Urban Film Festival (SFUFF), an annual event that focuses on cities and civic engagement through films, documentaries and accompanying panel discussions.
According to founder Fay Darmawi, modern cities face many challenges and possibilities and a meaningful way to communicate these issues and get people interested is through great storytelling. In this sense, filmmakers, “the best communicators in the world,” play an essential role due to their ability to frame complex, even controversial, information into compelling stories that people can understand, relate to and remember. The festival’s vision is that compelling stories can help shape urbanist ideas, practice and implementation to improve our cities. SFUFF’s theme for 2016, “Creating Just Cities,” played a significant role in that night’s featured presentation: Occupy the Farm. This 2014 documentary directed by Todd Darling, was based on the namesake grassroots collective, which in 2012 occupied and created an urban farm on a tract of publicly-owned land that had been slated for a housing and supermarket development.
As I sipped my spicy drink while watching this riveting film and admiring the bounty of luscious fruits and vegetables on stage, I realized that this documentary also tackled many relevant challenges faced by contemporary urban and suburban areas.
- The relationship between poverty and food deserts. Initiatives like Occupy the Farm promote a more just and healthy city by locally growing and distributing fresh, organic food to those who have no easy access to it.
- A debate about the nature and function of public spaces, particularly when related to the needs of a modern public university like UC Berkeley; the perceived privatization of public land and how these issues affect urban planning and design.
- Issues around citizenship, civic engagement and participation and Occupy-style peaceful protests. Put simply, the film highlighted the impact ordinary people have in creating a more just city by getting their hands dirty instead of just talking.
Occupy the Farm describes the story of the Gill Tract, a 106-acre piece of farmland that originally belonged to the Ohlone people. The University of California purchased the Gill Tract in 1929 from the Gill family under the condition that it be preserved for agricultural use and education. Over the years, much of the land was developed and repurposed. By 2012, only 20-acres remained as publicly-owned land for farming and research.
In April 2012, 200 urban farmers, mostly students and local residents, occupied the land and created a 2.5 acre farm, the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. These farmers faced many challenges from the police and university authorities, including having the water turned off, threats of lawsuits and having access to the site shut down. The “Occupiers,” however, responded with creativity, ingenuity and playfulness: at one point, a playground slide was placed over the fence and used to gain access to the site and some farmers even thanked university authorities for turning off the water. These challenges forced them to devise ways to manage and conserve water in a sustainable manner and taught the farmers how to work together.
This documentary also exposed how agricultural and crop research is executed at the site and the different institutions this research benefits. Several of the conflicting agendas and perceptions of university officials, professors and some faculty, notably Miguel Altieri, supported the Occupiers. Others played the role of mediators and conciliators- the challenges presented by climate change, drought and the management of water, and the need to increase the resilience and sustainability of cities, were all major themes.
The film was followed by a panel discussion which featured Occupy the Farm director Todd Darling; urban farmer and Occupy the Farm member Effie McDonald; Twilight Greenaway (co-Managing Editor of “Civil Eats”); Sibella Kraus, Director of Sage Center (Sustainable Agriculture Education), and Founder of the Ferry Building’s Farmer’s Market. Darling started by framing Occupy the Farm both within the Occupy movement and the growing popularity and support for urban agriculture as a means to revitalize abandoned land. Occupy the Farm was created to provide food in a more efficient manner to people who need it. When asked about her vision for the community farm in the next few years and what the most significant challenges the farmers encountered were, McDonald first expressed her hope for a partnership and a meaningful collaboration between the university and the community. However, she then remarked on the double difficulty of growing food in a context of climate change and working with people engaging in self-governing organizations to overcome these difficulties. Finally, Kraus and Greenaway discussed the role of education, communication and activism, stating that people tend to care about food, where it comes from, and its impact on their health and bodies.
In the end, it was the words of J. Keith Gilless, professor and Dean of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and who was featured in the film, that most accurately summarized the conflict: “This is the fight over the allocation of an asset: land.” While a court ruling has permitted the continuing operation of the Gill Tract Community Farm, its long-term existence is still uncertain and threatened by development. As Kraus stated during the panel, when farmland is competing for space with real estate, how should we plan for food production in urban and suburban areas in order to combat poverty, increase health, and reduce the number of food deserts in order to create more Just Cities?
The evening ended with an invitation by McDonald to support the Gill Tract Community Farm by making a donation, visiting the site itself, and telling the audience to “come and take home some beautiful vegetables and make a connection!”
What do you think of Keith Gilless’ words about this conflict being mainly about land, especially the many uses and interests competing for valuable land? What interests and necessities should cities and institutions prioritize when considering land use, especially in a context of climate change? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Save the date: The SF Urban Film Fest returns November 13-19, 2017.
Credits: Image 1 by Fay Darmawi. Remaining images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.