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


Travelling in Asia - Urban Agriculture Journal

By April Richards

(Editor: April returned from China early. She intends to go back to Asia next summer and we hope to hear more from her then.

April's Introduction

Beijing, People's Republic of China, May
26, 2000

Beijing, May 27, 2000

Beijing, June 27, 2000

April's Introduction

Urban Agriculture has been an important part of my life for many years. I did not know until recently that what I so dearly loved had a name and a plethora of dedicated individuals studying and practicing it as such. See, I've been gardening since I was perhaps eight or nine years old. Like many people I grew up helping my parents and grandmothers tend the tomatoes and the peppers, the bush beans and the black raspberries. Grandma Cannon often hid cherry tomatoes amongst her peonies and Grandma Richards couldn't have been prouder of the onions she grew in her backyard every year, those and the gallons of cherries we picked from the ancient tree in her yard.

When our own garden was over-brimming, Mom and Dad expanded our bush bean plots into the yard of the deserted house to the north of ours. We contacted the owners and pretty soon had another 40 square feet with great southern exposure to tend. I watched and helped my family can countless pints of our homegrown delights and waited excitedly for the first jar of each new batch of jalepeno or strawberry-rhubarb jam.

We lived in a small town in central Iowa and many of our neighbors had even grander gardens than ours. The Ewests, a family of six who lived next door, grew cabbage, strawberries, zucchini, potatoes plus everything that we grew and then some to feed their family. They were dedicated Urban Agriculturists and didn't even know it. I can assure you they placed a great deal of importance on their vegetable plots, but it was more a simple fact of life than something out of the ordinary or revolutionary for them. To grow our own food was as natural as breathing. I never dreamed that I would some day come to know a world filled with people who had never known the joy and satisfaction of nurturing their very own plot of land, however small.

What I found though, as I ventured out into the wide world, was that not only are there vast expanses of cities where concrete covers the earth at every turn, but in rural areas as well people are denied access to even the smallest plots of land because of political maneuverings or the greed of a few. I began to study the policies and practices that made this world into a place where such disparity is common. "Something is amiss, how can this be right?" I kept asking. I looked to economics and saw the basis of every turn the history of humanity has made. I peered deeper into economics and saw the philosophies of a few determining the lives of so many. I listened to the critics of the World Bank, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund and learned so much about the depth of the problems we face today that at times I thought my head might explode. I read up on sustainability, joined AmeriCorps (domestic Peace Corps) and set out to try and protect something. Anything, everything alive or giving life that was threatened that I knew about I worked, prayed, wrote, sang, and walked and talked to protect. I burned with the desire that is innate in the young and the young at heart, the desire to save the world. From what exactly, I had only the vaguest inkling.

It has become widely accepted amongst those who give a damn, that people are going hungry, ecosystems are being severely abused, species are going extinct and humans in all their wisdom have on a large scale failed to slow down the forces within their control that contribute to this misery and devastation. I accepted this and struggled with it for years. I wrote letters to public officials, I worked for conservation organizations, I marched in rallies and practiced my disillusionment on anyone who would listen. But still, nothing changed for me, my heart still ached to really be doing something to somehow make things better directly, by my own hands. I wanted to see the results of my labor. All the paper pushing in the world alone could not bring this to fruition for me. A friend with a couple of decades on me in terms of working for social change taught me his philosophy about how "The fight against the machine is just another way of keeping entangled in the workings of it. As long as you dedicate all your efforts to struggling against the machine you have nothing left for creating an alternative to what you are trying to destroy. Even if you succeed in destroying it, all you will have created at this point is a vacuum that will be filled by social habit, unless the alternatives are solidly constructed and ready to be put into place. It is better to create ways to abandon the machine than to fight it."

With this in mind I began my quest for answers again. This time instead of searching for failures of the system to attack and battles to fight, I sought successes to be learned from. I began to see that happiness and success on a personal as well as a societal level could not be won in a war against threatening forces, but could only be grown through patient and careful practice. Learning to support ourselves with locally grown food is one of the simplest and most elegant avenues to pursue in this respect. Pollution reduction, increased nutrition, exercise for improved physical health, greater economic independence and the conservation of natural resources are just some of the benefits to be gained from localized, or urban food production. For me Urban Agriculture has become not only a metaphorical answer to the perils of humanity, but also a tangible solution to the devastating environmental and social problems that we face every day.

As I have opened my eyes and my mind to the proliferation of Urban Agriculture around the world, I have found hope for the future. My adventures chronicled here are dedicated to digging into the depths of UA in as many places around the world as I can, and relating the experiences of people I meet along the way. Digging into the dirt literally and figuratively - checking out urban farms and discussing the development related discourse surrounding UA and how it relates to what I see and hear.

I will start my in-depth reporting in Beijing, the People's Republic of China. From there I travel onto Mongolia to witness how Urban Agriculture has fared in light of this last year's devastating drought. As of right now, I have my fingers crossed on getting into Russia, but I hop on the plane to China tomorrow and the company I was arranging Russian visa support through seem to have dropped off the face of the earth with my paperwork. Somehow, someway, I am hoping to arrive in Berlin in time for the International Symposium on Sustainable Agriculture, July 7-9.

I will be checking my e-mail en route, and hope to hear from all of you out there who have an interest in what I'm doing. I look forward to your questions, comments, advice and/or any suggestions you offer up. I will post my replies at this site, unless otherwise requested. As I am not yet certain of what to expect in terms of e-mail accessibility in some of the areas I will be traveling through, I must warn you that I may not reply right away. Never fail though, I shall reply to each post as promptly as I am able.

Beijing, People's Republic of China

May 26, 2000

I arrived in Beijing yesterday after a 12 hour flight from San Francisco, California. As I flew over Tokyo I noticed what Norton Ginsburg and Terry McGee found in their research on the great metropolis' contemporary agricultural practices in urban areas as told by Gil Latz in his article, "The Persistence of Agriculture in Urban Japan" from the book The Extended Metropolis: Settlement Transition in Asia. They researched the proliferation of UA in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures and found that some 12,500 acres there can be defined as arable land. As of 1985, nearly four percent of the greater Tokyo metropolitan labor force, over 670,000 people, was involved in agricultural work to one degree or another. From the air, the mix of urban settlements and agricultural production could be clearly seen. Rice paddies appeared to be newly planted, as the green shoots had not yet grown enough to hide the reflective pools in which they grew. The land below the plane looked as if it were covered with a patchwork of mirrors sewn together by thick bands of houses and roads.

My first morning in Beijing was spent walking around the neighborhood of Haidan on the northwest corner of the city. Following the oncoming streams of bicyclists toting baskets full of fresh produce to their origin, I found two separate open-air markets. The stalls of these markets were filled with green peppers, scallions, lychee, melons, bok choy, daikon, celery, various dried beans, sunflower seeds, eggs, wheat noodles, live fish, chickens, ducks, and butchered pork amongst other things that I have yet to identify. During my journey to these markets, I explored the back alleyways of Haidan and discovered small, carefully tended gardens filled with young onions, sunflowers, a few grape arbors and pepper plants of some variety. The largest of these gardens covered approximately 100 sq. feet and the smallest was around 10 sq. feet. While there was a great deal of open land in the form of courtyards in between the high rise apartment buildings; the majority of it was hard packed bare ground. Along the fences or walls of these courtyards were numerous flower gardens filled with roses, dahlias, hostas and unknown seedlings. A number of the larger plots appeared to be junkyards of some sort.

In the open-air markets, the produce was very fresh and obviously could not have come from very far. I saw a number of bicycles with large carts hauling daikon, celery and scallions, but have yet to discovered their origins. My professor arrived last night and he tells me that the market gardens for the most part are on the edge of the city. In the coming days, I hope to track them down.


May 27, 2000

As I am currently in the company of the Humboldt State University Geography Department Northwest China Field Studies Program, I spent the majority of the day touring the grand attractions of Beijing- Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the large department stores on Wangfujing Road. All of which are located in the heart of Beijing. Along our route, I was able to observe the back alleys to the crowded courtyards of Beijing's central residential areas. The majority of the houses in the center of the city are not the high rise apartments with sprawling courtyards of the outer city (Haidan) but are instead rather cramped, one room, single-story brick buildings characteristic of "old" Beijing housing. Peeking down the gateways into the twisting walkways of these honeycombed dwellings one can see flower pots filled with pepper plants or onions. I noticed that the many of the onions grown in pots like this had been trimmed over the weeks for their young leaves- scallions in a sense- and continued to grow and send up new leaves as the older ones were cut off. The pepper plants are too young at this point for me to be able to determine their variety. I saw quite a few grape arbors in this area, more than in the Haidan neighborhood.

It looks as if I will have to wait until our return to Beijing at the end of June to investigate the market gardens I am told exist on the edge of town. Perhaps that will be to my advantage, as my language skills will have increased substantially by then. I am learning so many new words and phrases every day- yet I have a ways to go toward communicating freely about Urban Agriculture.


June 27, 2000

As I have spent the past 2.5 weeks in predominantly rural areas, I am not exactly sure what I have to say about my observations in terms of urban agriculture I have seen a good number of areas that are for the most part very "rural" and isolated but have a somewhat high population density with respect to the traditional "western" view of population density. These areas consist of houses built close together surrounded entirely by vegetable gardens and small fields of wheat, rape seed, corn or beans (mostly fava). Imagine a typical suburbia, but instead of being spaced apart by lawns, flower beds, swing sets, pools and driveways- the houses are surrounded by food crops right up to their foundations. So, this is where I plan to draw my next installment from.

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Revised December 2, 2000

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture