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Food for Thinkers: Five Borough Farm

Nevin Cohen is tilling new soil: He's designing New York City's first-ever comprehensive plan for urban agriculture.

Urban Omnibus is a smart website. It's one of the few places on the internet dedicated to examining the city (in this case, New York City) in terms of its guts: shedding light on invisible urban processes, such as the bottom-up phenomena of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, and exploring municipal infrastructure networks, like the masterplanned Staten Island Bluebelt, a network of ecologically significant wetlands. Thus, as the Omnibus' Varick Shute explains:
For us, writing about food means writing about systems; it means writing about the citywide implications of certain supply, distribution, and consumption choices; it means analyzing the complex interplay between infrastructure, land use, policy, ecology, healthy, community engagement, education, water systems, waste systems, and design. Fortunately, there is a project in the works that touches on all the many facets of what we like to talk about when we talk about food and the built environment of New York: Five Borough Farm.

So, for Food for Thinkers week, the Urban Omnibus has published a brand-new interview with Nevin Cohen, the Five Borough Farm Policy Fellow in charge of developing New York City's first comprehensive, city-wide plan for urban agriculture. As you can imagine, this is an almost impossibly complex task: somehow, sites as diverse as community gardens, compost heaps, rooftop farms, edible schoolyards, green markets, and more have to be measured and analyzed in terms of their ecological value, harvest volume, community significance, and economic impact.

It's not surprising, then, to hear Cohen tell the Urban Omnibus that, "Right now, no one has a detailed understanding of all of these activities, or hard data or tools to evaluate the benefits of agriculture as an urban land use. So what you find is city officials are reluctant to adopt the many policy recommendations advanced by advocates, or to address local food production on a citywide scale."

The entire interview is a fascinating look at how Cohen is going about developing coordinated, effective, scalable measures that will support a citywide urban agriculture, including his assessment of the particular obstacles and opportunities facing New York. How much food can the city realistically devote to agriculture, given its population density? How much of its current food supply could the city grow itself? How will the agricultural expertise required to make urban farming effective be shared? What business model will make a citywide agricultural plan economically sustainable?

The Five Borough Farm has the potential to literally reshape the city through food: Cohen's goal is find the answers to these questions and more, and then "influence City policy so that zoning, local laws, funding decisions, municipal infrastructure, and City programs all support the growth of urban food production."

Visit Urban Omnibus to read the interview in full, and learn how crop mobs, tool-share programs, and rooftops will all work together feed the city of the future. These are ideas well worth thinking about (and stealing!), no matter where you live.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Image: Five Borough Farm Graphic by Manuel Miranda, via Urban Omnibus (where you can see a larger version).

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