Early Explorations in Wuhan’s Urban Ag

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September 23, 2013 by Sarah S. Horowitz

Alas, a moment of downtime! It’s been a very full few weeks of moving, cleaning, more registration procedures, meeting new friends, classes, mooncakes, and scratching the surface of my research.

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Urban Ecological Design class project– making art from trash

I’m auditing two classes: “Urban Ecological Design” and “Theory in Urban Planning.” The Theory in Urban Planning class is a three hour death-by-powerpoint lecture course. The teacher reads huge blocks of text from a powerpoint, which even with 2 cups of Nescafe and all my concentrated effort I understand probably half that of my Chinese peers who unabashedly spend the class texting/tweeting/Chinese social media versions thereof. Juanjuan teaches the Urban Ecological Design class, which is also three hours long but much less excruciating. She uses teaching methods she learned in the US, which means lots of discussion and student presentations. The students seemed resistant on the first day, and even shot down a fun self-introduction activity she proposed– too embarrassing! — but after chatting with a few of the students, it seems they actually really like her style. It’s just so radically different any other classroom experience they’ve had. 

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Ecological Confucius

Juanjuan, who shares many of my criticisms about the education system here, says her only goal with this class is to make students think. Their only homework each class is to write a reflection about what they learned.

Our second class was dedicated entirely to urban agriculture. When Juanjuan asked the first day of class, no one had heard of it. Three students were assigned to present on the situation of urban agriculture in China, and I followed with a presentation about urban agriculture in the US. With a little translation help from Juanjuan, I was able to get my main points across. But the rich discussion I was hoping for afterwards didn’t happen. There was applause, and then silence. Juanjuan assured me the presentation went well, but the concepts of “food justice,” “food deserts,” and “local food movements” that I introduced are just totally foreign and frankly confusing concepts here. How urban people– Americans, of all– could not have access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables is bizarre, and how it is the poorest people who are often the most overweight is simply mind blowing. How could a bag of locally-grown greens possibly cost twice as much as a McDonalds cheeseburger? In China, local fruits and vegetables are available fairly cheaply on every other block, and the poorest people are, of course, farmers. The industrialization of the food system is seen here as a symbol of progress, prosperity, and the promise of food safety. Old ladies growing eggplants on their apartment balconies is, consequently, the antithesis of modernity. Juanjuan shared some of the written student responses with me, and there seemed to be a majority consensus that urban agriculture is an interesting idea, but most Western forms of it are impractical in China. Too many people and not enough land. And the land belongs to the state. And land sales are a (often the) major source of revenue for local governments. True facts, and as such I don’t think farming in vacant urban lots will catch on here. Rooftop and vertical farms seem to have the greatest potential.

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“Future Urban Ideal” exhibit at Wuhan Citizens Home

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Impressive! But not a nod to agriculture in the entire 5-floor exhibit

Perhaps the strangest impression I seem to be leaving folks is this: how a young, Western, educated person such as myself could get excited about farming. In the city. And then come half way across the world to study it in a place where growing food in the city is illegitimate. A paradox inside a paradox inside a paradox. What a weird journey I’ve signed up for!

Last week Juanjuan took me to one of her research sites in Hankou, the business district of Wuhan just across the Yangtze. We met with two women on the roof of an old factory apartment complex. The factory across the street was being bulldozed as we spoke.

Factory apartments in Hankou

Factory apartments in Hankou

There were a number of people growing things on the balconies as we went up. Peppers, eggplants, and string beans were the most popular.

Balcony gardens in Hankou

Balcony beans

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Potted porch peppers

City sprouts

City sprouts

Several women had made very impressive rooftop gardens on top with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce, and even a hearty pomegranate and fig tree.

First rooftop garden on Hankou factory apartment

The first woman I talked to was a Wuhan native in her mid-50s. She learned farming skills when she was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. She now works at a small shop in Hankou. She began gardening on her roof about 10 years ago after her neighbor boasted how her own rooftop garden (above) kept her apartment very cool, and her family never had to use AC. She enjoys growing food for her family and friends in her spare time because she thinks it’s healthier, cheaper, fun, and good exercise.

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Rooftop lettuce bed

The other woman I met was in her 70s. She was in very bad shape a few years ago, and could barely walk. She attributes her dramatic improvement to the fresh food and the daily exercise she gets from gardening.

The gardners

Organic fertilizer, from chamberpot to rooftop

Chamberpots–> organic fertilizer

There are five families in total that have plots on this roof, and it has become somewhat of a social hub for the apartment complex families. Kids, parents, and grandparents all hang out, eat, and play mahjong up there. Juanjuan confirmed that most urban gardeners, like these women I met, are older working class women.

Like other rooftop gardens in Wuhan, the future of these gardens are at the whims of city street officers. Technically the gardens are neither legal nor illegal, but if an official says the are visually polluting they must be taken down (or at least, hidden from view). Juanjuan has met a few urban gardeners who have gone through this. The women I talked to are pretty sure their apartment complex will be bulldozed in the next year or two, so they’ve quit investing in costly fixes inside the house and instead put their time and care into their gardens.

Rooftop and balcony gardens are just one of many types of “urban agriculture” I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months. Once I get my apartment in good enough shape, I’ll see what I can get growing here!

Happy Mid-Autumn festival!

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