urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Paradox of “Growth”

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A few days ago, I came across an article on Cuba’s use of urban agriculture. I found the entire story to be quite interesting, so I’ve summarized it below: Cuba’s relationship with urban agriculture did not arise until 1990, but the story truly begins in the in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time period, Cuba exported mass supplies of sugar to the Soviet Union in exchange for cheap, subsidized oil. To make this exchange possible, the vast majority of Cuban farmland was devoted to a single crop: sugar. This intensive monoculture forced Cuba to import over 50% of its food. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990, Cuba’s sweet deal (pun intended) came to a petroleum-lacking halt. Cuba was left without oil and without the funds needed to continue its food imports.

At this point, Cuba was faced with a harsh reality: it would have to feed itself without oil. This difficult situation lead to the creation of government-run initiatives aimed at drastically expanding urban and organic farming. And these initiatives worked. From 1990-2003, over 3,000 patio and backyard gardens were started in Havana and every settlement of over fifteen houses was given its own food production capacity, either through organopónicos, community gardens or individual plots. Additionally, Cuba reduced its agriculture-related petroleum usage by 50% and its chemical-based fertilizer usage by 91%. Now, Cuba is seen as a beacon of hope for the future of sustainable and urban farming.

While I was processing all of this information about Cuba, I went up to work at the Free Farm—an urban farm located in the Western Addition of San Francisco. While there, I started chatting with a woman who had helped get the Free Farm started a year and a half ago, but had recently stopped regularly volunteering. When I asked her why she had largely stopped coming to the farm, she told me: “There used to be so much energy here. The economy had crashed and coming here was what people did. They did not have jobs and they gave all their energy to the farm. They needed the food and they needed a project that was their own. Now, the economy is moving again and people are back in offices…It just does not have the same energy.”

That statement got me thinking. In Cuba, urban agriculture emerged out of a state of crisis. In San Francisco, the Free Farm was largely fueled by manpower that an economic crash enabled. Similarly, urban farming in the 1910s and 1940s flourished when WWI and WWII demanded the planting of “Victory Gardens.” In all these cases, urban farming emerged out of troublesome conditions. This makes me wonder: Can urban agriculture exist as a permanent farming practice? Or is it domed to act as Plan B whenever things get bad?

I am very unsure what the answers are to these questions, but if I had to make a guess, I would say that as the world runs lower and lower on petroleum, cities are going to start to look a lot more like Havana. Until that time comes though, I’m afraid that I believe the future of urban farming is quite unstable.

Five Years Studying, Fifteen Paying

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For the past few months, student activists in Santiago have held marches and demonstrations to protest Chile’s weak educational infrastructure, sometimes with accompanying violence.

A couple of the issues are similar to the ones we are increasingly facing here in the States:  Student debt is growing in a depressed job market, which means it makes less sense economically to earn a tertiary degree (unless of course you put value in education for education’s sake—I do—but that’s a separate issue).  Second, the quality of education is extremely unequal, with the wealthy attending the best private secondary schools and thus gaining entrance to the handful of highly selective public universities and other top private ones; the middle class at voucher schools (private schools in which the government subsidizes costs) of varying quality with more constricted access to the best universities; and the poor at underfunded, dilapidated state schools with little prospect of university readiness or access.  A recent Economist article quotes Dr. Mario Waissbluth, an organizer and leader of the Chilean activist organization Educación 2020 calling the Chilean education system an “educational apartheid” in which “the kids from the posh suburbs study in those suburbs, go to university in those suburbs, get jobs as company executives in those suburbs and employ friends from the schools they went to themselves.” 

What makes Chile’s educational problems different, and frankly more interesting, is the Chilean reliance on private, for-profit education.  Under Augusto Pinochet, the private markets were allowed to control even education (one of the reasons was his neoliberal predilection, another may have been his desire to dismantle the powerful liberal bastions that Chile’s main universities were).  An article by the BBC (also the source of the image) notes that more than half of Chile’s schools are privately run.  Moreover, they are largely for-profit ventures, attracting international investors.  While market demands certainly require these schools to provide a certain quality of education (read: competitive product) to retain market share, I have a distinct feeling that these Chilean demonstrators are on to something.

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Possibly because the owners of four different teams are all hooked on the junk of TV revenue, they have understandably mistaken their fans for TV viewers, and forgotten that their stadia are more than expensive couches from which to watch a game; they’re our modern town halls, the last surviving places where an otherwise solitary, smart-phoned populace can gather with people whose paths they’d never otherwise cross. In New York’s stadia, Midtown meets Midwood meets Little Odessa, and we bond not only over our teams, but our ties.

Where Music Reaches its Grave

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Check out this art installation in a former funeral home in Paris. Made up of 65,000 CDs placed over inflatable mounds, WasteLandscape is a bizzare, eye-catching work. The CDs will eventually be recycled. 

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As quoted in WebUrbanist, the artists have said: “It is well known that CDs are condemned to gradually disappear from our daily life, and to later participate in the construction of immense open-air, floating or buried toxic waste reception centers. Made of petroleum, this reflecting slick of CDs forms a still sea of metallic dunes: the art work’s monumental scale reveals the precious aspect of a small daily object. The project joins a global, innovative and committed approach, from its means of production until the end of its ‘life’.” 

Read the rest of WebUrbanist’s description and review of it here