Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Urban Agriculture: Relevance in the Present Day - Pollution and the Need for Scrubbing

Jyoti Prakash MSc(Agri) Agronomist
Bangalore India

Urban Agriculture is a paradoxical phrase. Rural Agriculture is an accepted culture of humanity. Tillers of the land doing the traditional agriculture have always placed themselves in quiet environs, skirted by hills and valley watersheds, skirted by forests. They enjoy a vast space big enough to accommodate productive plants, shrubs and trees, and big enough to raise a bountiful harvest of grains, greens, roots and fruits to satisfy the hunger of family, draught animals and fellow citizens of the county or country. It is easy to visualize agriculture with open skies, rising mountains, running rivers, flowing valleys, oceans of forests and bowls of lakes and water-bodies that sustain the thirst of crops and animals in the hot summers. Agriculture is colossal in magnitude and occupies vast spaces. It is difficult to visualize agriculture in the restricted canvass of urban settings.

Cities are built on commercial calculations where space is sold to the highest bidder, where he lives in a confined environment - tailored boxes. On the altar of price and dollars, the flow of natural forces - air, water, sunshine - is sacrificed. Cities are also forests, roads and concrete jungles. The original town planners made provision for open areas - parks and gardens, lakes, open horizons, and walking paths. But the greed for land gobbled up the open spaces and squeezed in more boxes - buildings - and raised these boxes to the magnitude of touching the skies, shamelessly calling them sky scrappers.

Nature is always a SHE. She is the personification of modesty. She can bear changes to a degree but beyond that limit of change, when there is ugly disfigurement, Nature rebels and changes from a friend to foe.

Man has lost the vision of his status in the hierarchy of nature. He is the final culmination of the evolutionary process, at the apex of creation, which is his rightful place. This position carries a tremendous responsibility of caring and sharing things with other fellow travelers on spaceship earth. It is high time man realized his responsibility and set a harmonious attitude with the birds and beasts, the flora and the fauna. He must not continue to extend his reach greedily for all the resources to the exclusion of his fellow travelers. We think that everything exists for our happiness alone, which is unfortunately not the right attitude. In fact he is harming his own interests.

Now look at our cities. They are bursting at the seams. Materials are consumed in colossal quantities. They need to be hauled over large distances with huge drains on energy for transportation. They need to be stored over long periods in various cold storages using up large quantities of chemicals and power. Our needs are small. It only calls for a little bit of modesty in our requirements and an urge to engage us in activities of social concern and creative thinking.

Let us look at our food. There are some components which we ourselves can grow, some salads fresh for the table from our backyards or terraces, some flowers, an odd lemon tree on the premises can make people aware of the possibilities.

Look at our city storm drains that carry wastewater in huge quantities. If only we look around, we can see wonderful scavenger species like bamboo which thrive on the effluents and take out the heavy metals creating beautiful bamboo islands where many birds can make their homes and chirp and make God's own country and in the bargain produce clear water.

All of us complain about the emissions and pollution in the cities, higher levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, fixing catalytic converters and Euro standards 1, 2 , and 3. But Nature has got tall palms that are thirsty for the same gases. What is poison to man is ambrosia for trees, they breathe in the CO and CO2 and breath out fresh oxygen. Just imagine a coconut tree which would yield 100-150 nuts in a rural setting with fresh air and water with sparse population, will yield 300-350 nuts per annum in a city with gas guzzlers and unbreathable air. It is in nature's scheme of things that complimentary things exist side by side. What is poison for man is food for the plants and vice-versa. It only requires a little bit of application of our minds to take advantage of the situation and live harmoniously. It does not require a genius to allow hyacinths, fishes and turtles in our water bodies in the urban environment to make the water crystal clear and even potable instead of making landfills.

Rain does not play any favorites, it pours equally on the cities and farms. We can harvest the rainwater to meet at least drinking water requirements for the year. We make provision for all our material requirements on a lifetime basis accumulating a lot of junk. Why is it we do not think about our most precious requirements. We think somehow that arrangements will be made. We do not stop and pause. What is our immediate need? Fresh water is one such need. Mother Nature employs the sun to distil the salty seawater and bring it all the way to us. There can't be better or more pure water than rainwater, which is distilled, or icebergs, which are frozen. It is every family's responsibility to collect as much water as possible. Look to any successful civilization and you will find the houses designed in such a fashion to collect the rainwater in the central courtyard, channeled to their sweet water wells to charge the ground water.

On this subject of drinking water you will find another interesting anomaly. There are hill stations and heavy rainfall mountainous ranges throughout the world that have considerable human population. You will find these areas of abundant rainfall, which are the originating places of streams and rivulets which gather momentum gradually to give birth to mighty rivers, are invariably thirsty for water in the dry summer months. The undulating topography permits the human population inhabiting the hills to create water bodies to hold water for themselves and to support the flora and fauna in the area by charging the underground water.

In times to come, fresh potable drinking water is bound to become a scarce commodity by the way we are squandering this precious commodity. The future battles and wars between men will not be fought for land or religion but for water. That is how precious this commodity is going to become.

There is urgent need to isolate the quality water for consumption and bathing from the general-purpose water used for all our other activities. There is a need to monitor our wastewater ways. We use water to wash all the solid waste from the community. It is not a feasible proposition to use the water to solely flush out the solid wastes. Alternatives have to be developed to tackle it, instead of moving the wastes over distances.

In the past our town planners had made provisions for a variety of water bodies in the towns. The inflow for their storage used to come from storm drains which emptied all their rain harvested water into these ponds which were artistically designed with stone slabs and steps where it was the common place to squat, and bathe. Many of them were built near religious places so that the scavengers, like fish and turtles, were safe from the poachers and the ponds sported water lilies and lotus plants which apart from giving an aesthetic appeal, supported the animals in the water. Once a year they used to have an annual festival with a float, illumination and moonlight extravaganza around the pool and this ensured their annual maintenance. The whole thing was extremely well thought out and we lived in harmony with nature.

It is important that we have a new orientation for town planning. We ought to have green belts around towns so that the needs of the town dwellers for salads, vegetables, and fruits are met within the perimeters of the town itself. This has the twin advantages of freshness of the produce, and providing the much needed lung space for recycling the gaseous wastes of the town. Carbon-dioxide is the raw material for the green leaves to produce the starches, sugars, proteins and fats which are the food for animals. And oxygen is the bi-product of photosynthesis or plant food production, which again is the vital elixir for animals. Nowadays it is fashionable to go to the oxygen pubs to refresh. How about making the whole city an oxygen pub by encouraging green belts and green pockets.

This is neither new nor novel, but it needs to be replicated in more locations the world over, in towns big and small, in fact in all human habitations. We can sustain continued, healthy existence only when we tackle this problem universally.

Another important approach is to encourage gardening at homes both for flowers and kitchen requirements. It is a creative enterprise and helps all-round health improvement of the mind, the body and the air we breathe. It also educates us about the preciousness of life and the role played by animals in harmonious living. Man is supposed to co-exist with all the life in creation, and he cannot be an exclusive creature on this earth. Then he will realize that all beings are here on this earth with a purpose to enrich the mutual lives and no one has authorized man to be a big bully with a double '00' number and a license to kill.

There are oceans of species of plants that we can chose for our kitchen gardens. Let us tackle them one at a time and try to grow them in our backyard.

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Revised Sunday, March 4, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture