The Urban Orchard Movement

Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

Urban Orchards as “positive graffiti”

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

I wanted to share this very interesting piece about the community growing movement in Scotland, which has been working to hand neglected urban lands over to local residents and empower them to turn it into orchards and gardens.  One of the leaders of this movement is John Hancox, whose group the Commonwealth Orchard Project is providing resources and training to help local volunteers plant and maintain community orchards. The author of this piece, Max J. Muir, is arguing that this new interest in community orchards and gardens is one hopeful sign in an era when citizens are increasingly disengaged from electoral politics.  Here’s an excerpt:

Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.

“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space – as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.

Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in ForresFairlieAngusGlasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs – “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.

I love this term “positive graffiti,” to describe one way people materially improve their environments, even when at times it involves challenging or ignoring ideas about “private property,” which might otherwise restrict their opportunities to take an active role in making their own communities more liveable spaces. I am also intrigued by the parallels between Scotland’s urban orchards, some on privately-owned but neglected urban spaces and John “Appleseed” Chapman’s efforts to establish apple tree nurseries on the lands of absentee land speculators on the American trans-appalachian frontier. To some extent, both present modest challenges to the status quo at moment when property law was a barrier to building strong, healthy communities.

I urge you to read the entire article, and to check out the Commonwealth Orchard Project’s blog. Scotland’s COP is another example of the ways that the simple act of planting fruit trees is helping to create a healthier, more democratic world.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Wildflowers or Apples? Can’t We Have Both?

city fruit logoA recent Op-Ed in the New York Times castigated advocates of urban gardening as “greedy,” and “short-sighted,” arguing that the recent trend of planting orchards and edible plants in cities is a threat to wildflowers and the pollinators who depend upon them.  Mariellé Anzelone is the Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, and she seems to think that urban orchardists, rather than asphalt parking lots, concrete freeways, and contaminated brownfields, are the real threats to native pollinators.  In advancing this argument, Ms. Anzelone relies heavily on an old nativist trope, describing most fruit trees as “imported,” and thus, we are to conclude, bad and environmentally harmful.  Yes, it is true that peach, pear  and apple trees–and some plum varieties–have only been in North America for four to five hundred years, as has the European honey bee, one of the primary pollinators of these trees. “Most commercial fruit trees, and food crops for that matter, hail from other ports of call,” Ms. Anzelone reminds us, and declares that “A monoculture of exotic imports offers little nourishment for our wild neighbors” as a specific variety of fruit trees will only be in bloom for a short time each year.

philly orchard project 2 colorThe problem with Ms. Anzelone’s argument that urban orchards and food forests are “monocultures” is that it doesn’t much resemble reality, and she could learn a great deal by visiting these sites and speaking with their volunteers. Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchard Project aren’t exactly planting acres of “monoculture.”  These modest-sized orchards typically incorporate a variety of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, with each variety blossoming at different times, thereby offering pollinators an extended feeding period.  The Boston Tree Party’s “urban, decentralized orchard” is really just pairs of apple trees dispersed throughout the city. Seattle’s new Beacon Food Forest, currently just 1.5 acres with aspirations to grow to a total of 7 acres, explodes with edible plant diversity.  In fact, most urban orchards contain gardens of other flowering plants as well.

portland fruit logoAdvocates of urban orchards and gardens and the champions of wildflowers are in fact natural allies, not enemies.  Both are deeply interested in the health of pollinator communities. Urban orchard organizations are staffed primarily with committed volunteers, and are not profit-driven affairs, seeking to maximize short-term production without regard to long term environmental health and sustainability.  The kinds of people involved in them share the same values and perspectives that most champions of wildflowers do.

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Instead of declaring groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective to be the enemy, organizations like NYC Wildflower Week should be reaching out to them as potentially valuable allies. Certainly urban orchardists are open to learning about and adopting new methods for making their plantings more pollinator friendly, and given the modest size and dispersion of these orchards, it is much easier to make them pollinator friendly than it is to do the same to large scale rural commercial orchards which cover vast tracts of ground. Planting wildflower verges around urban gardens and orchards, and sowing clover or wildflowers in the midst of an orchard are some simple and practical ways of providing food for pollinators over a longer season. And I simply can’t imagine advocates of urban orchards actively working to replace urban wildflower lands with “exotic monocultures.” I would urge NYC Wildflower Week to reconsider their campaign against urban orchard, and instead to reach out to groups like Fruit TreesNY, who I am sure would be eager to work cooperatively to make the city a greener, more pollinator-friendly place.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.