Urban Food Economies: Rethinking Value for ‘More-Than-Capitalist’ Futures

This project is funded by The Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory

Project team leads: Professor Katherine Gibson - Institute for Culture & Society, Western Sydney University; and Associate Professor Karin Bradley - KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm


Food grown on neighbourhood farms and community gardens in highly urbanised settings is increasingly providing food security for poor communities. In the city of Detroit USA, for example, 5,000 acres (over 2,000 ha) of land are now being gardened by individuals, community groups and urban farmers. The food that is produced is consumed directly by growers and their families, shared with others and some is sold to local consumers. This largely non-commodified food provisioning system relies upon land where access, use, care, responsibility and benefit have been negotiated by multiple communities of 'commoners' (Bollier, 2014). In Detroit, as in cities around the world, urban commoners have invested their unpaid labour and gifts of the heart, hands and mind to produce a range of values that sustain livelihoods—nutritious food, enriched soil, greened streets, social connection, healthy activity, cultural maintenance and more. But the values that circulate in these non-capitalist or 'more than capitalist' food economies are not adequately accounted for or recognised. Urban community gardens are often praised by urban planners and city officials and used in the branding of cities as 'sustainable' and 'green'. Yet, when developers or private investors want to acquire the land, there seems to be little commoners can do to protect their social investment. As innovators of a new green urbanism, their efforts are easily lost in the scramble for 'development' by local governments keen to see growth in the 'business as usual' model taking place in their municipality.

At present there is no model of urban development that recognises the value (both non-monetised and monetarised) circulating in and around urban food production sites that have been created by community action. Citizens thus have few means to push back against mainstream 'growth as good' visions of urban futures. This is evident for instance in the case of Los Angeles' South Central Community Garden, a 14 acre (5.7 ha) urban farm that operated from 1994 to 2006. After years of community involvement in growing food, the LA city government granted the real estate deeds to a property developer and, despite concerted community action, the green space was lost as a commons.  A similar process is confronting the R-URBAN Agrocité, an urban farm and community garden established on the outskirts of Paris in the Municipality of Colombes. After 2 years of operation, it is facing closure and replacement by a temporary car park (opens in a new window). In the struggle to protect the urban food commons created in LA and Colombes citizens and community groups require a robust alter-model of urban development that can speak to politicians and policy makers. Hard-edged tools are needed to communicate the value of urban community food economies in policy-relevant terms.

Through this project a workshop is being organised, bringing together a trans-disciplinary group of community and scholar activists to:

  • rethink values associated with community based food production
  • devise alternative indicators of value
  • model diverse value flows in 'more than capitalist' urban food economies, and
  • develop a larger collaborative research grant proposal to a major funding body.

The workshop will aim to unsettle the metrological orthodoxy of techniques like cost-benefit analyses and financial return on investment that govern city development. First, indicators of ethical economic, ecological and social value will be formulated based on the embodied experience of those involved in urban gardening practices in Detroit, LA and Paris. These indicators will be used to estimate a Community Economy Return on Investment (as opposed to the mainstream ROI) that captures diverse values on their own terms and communicates them in an easy to use way.

A diagram showing Community Economy Returns - Community Economy Investments = CEROI (a different future)

The systematic application of the CEROI in this cross-national workshop will be an important means for advancing this metric, given that its current application is largely by community groups in ad hoc settings.

Second, the workshop participants will engage in exploratory scenario modelling to test out the widespread impacts of 1) speculative withdrawal of land from commoned urban food provision, or 2) expansion of commoned land. We will attempt to simulate the dynamics of complex commoning systems in which collective behaviour is guided by ethically negotiated interactions and cooperation. Part of the challenge of this exercise will be to capture changes in subjectivity and capacity as commoners become more active citizens. The data input for the scenarios may be descriptive, photographic or audio-visual, as well as quantitative.

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