Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Contaminated soil has made growing difficult for many farmers. But Artfarms thinks they can change that.
Like so many U.S. cities, Buffalo is replete with empty land. It's estimated that more than 20 percent of the city's land sits vacant. These mostly residential plots are becoming an unfortunate 21st century trademark of 20th century industrial power.
Some cities are attacking this problem by converting the empty space into urban gardens. But soil contamination makes growing edible food in the ground next to impossible. Currently, growers get around this by using raised beds, which limits how much they can produce.
That's where Brooklyn-based architect David Lagé comes in. Lagé and a team of designers would like to install sculptures that can double as above-ground growing structures. Lagé says these Artfarms will help the farms increase their yields and meet health standards for selling at farmer's markets and to restaurants.
And, he says, they could help turn the Buffalo's troubled East Side neighborhood, where much of the property is vacant, into a cultural destination.
"We hope over time that people will begin to feel like there's a new vibe there, and because of that new vibe it's possible for other people to think about doing their own redevelopment in that area," Lagé says. "If more people are coming to that area to see the art, then it's suddenly possible for someone to open maybe a small café or a bookshop or some small little thing that maybe they would be interested in doing but wouldn't do now because there's just no traffic."
Lagé has been developing the idea with local farming groups like the Wilson Street Urban Farm and residents, and says he has a lot of support. With the help of a contemporary art curator at the local Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Lagé and his team enlisted five local artists to donate artwork for the project. They've been working with city planners and the local arts commission to formalize the idea, which is planned to start out on three different garden sites. Lagé says city approval is highly likely.
Lagé hopes Artfarms will be the instigator these areas need to draw more people and resources. In neighborhoods where a plot of land can be bought for $500 or a house for $1,000 or even as little as $1, the barrier to entry is pretty low.
"It's really kind of amazing. When the numbers are that small, it's suddenly like you can become a citizen developer and start to change an area, Lagé says. "Finding the stakeholders, pooling resources, pooling ideas and getting a collective buy-in is really going to change that area."
As for urban farming itself, Lagé is under no illusions that it will be the economic solution for Buffalo or its vacancies.
"I'm not saying that it will be the end use down the road, but it’s a step in escorting it towards whatever it will be in the future," he says. "Artfarms is ultimately about providing a kind of background concept that the neighborhood can use to move forward on its own and develop its own new activities in the area."
Fundraising for the project is expected to begin in September (the goal is $100,000), and Lagé hopes to see the first set of sculptures in gardens by the beginning of the spring 2013 growing season.
All images courtesy Artfarms