Why is urban agriculture a part of so many initiatives of the urban social movement? Why grow food in a dense, polluted city? Why produce food, which takes a lot of capacity, when there's only volunteer labor?
It's not just about growing food. A farming operation is not the aspiration of the huertos urbanos; none of them emerged out of a concern for food security and none endeavor to sell their produce or run a farmers' market. Rather, food production is just one of the co-benefits of urban agriculture. Similar to the US, urban agriculture is being embraced by communities for its numerous wide-reaching benefits. These benefits include, but are not limited to, environmental education, social integration, physical activity, and habitat improvement. Furthermore, benefits can be felt not just by those directly involved but by the larger community as well.
Green space and environmental stewardship are inherent in each huerto - whether just some native plants or space dedicated specifically for fruits, vegetables, and herbs - and part of a want to make something productive, to teach, learn, grow. And urban agriculture brings people together – nobody walks through vegetable beds and isn't curious about what's growing. It's something that always needs care, that's never finished, and every year can be something new, so it's a continuous form of and opportunity for engagement.
So many of the reclaimed spaces are vacant lots, which enable the community members to have this growing space. But even projects that are sited in a vacant buildings have also sought space to garden. Patio Maravillas is a group of okupas that have been evicted multiple times from buildings they have taken over, but they have been able to maintain a huerto at another site all the while. La Tabacalera, an abandoned former tobacco factory, has a concrete courtyard that has been filled with raised beds. And Espacio Vecinal Arganzuela, while struggling to gain access to the vacant Mercado de Frutas y Verduras de Legazpi, transformed the tiniest strip of land alongside a bridge into a huerto.
Moreover, urban agriculture is another manifestation of the urban social movement's expression of community desire for ownership, for a space that's theirs, for a place to come together, and to practice what they preach - participatory democracy, non-hierarchical management, transparent processes, accessibility. These concepts are core to how the huertos urbanos function. Autogestionado (self-managed) and non-hierarchical are terms used to describe most initiatives of the urban social movement, and the huertos are no different. Community members emphasize democratic participation and management, deciding collectively on how to stay coordinated (e.g. monthly meetings), how to organize the space (e.g. what to plant, what structures to build), and how to use it (e.g. weekly bicycle workshops, a summer solstice party).
They embrace the concept of beta permanente for huerto operations (for more on beta permanente, see here), treating the space as experimental, a constant cycle of trial and error, valuing the process over the final result. In this way, the huertos function as an ecosystem on numerous levels. Ecologically, they are an ecosystem in the most traditional sense. But the experimental nature also makes it an ecosystem, figuring out what works and how to find balance in a system of moving parts, a constant negotiation of relationships between the users and the use of the space. And lastly, they exist as part of larger network of huertos within the urban social movement, as elucidated in my network map. In this ecosystem, we can see how the numerous entities are connected and function together, mutually supportive, each serving different complementary roles - community residents; collectives of experts like artists, architects, and engineers; cultural centers; and neighborhood associations.