Newsflash: Midtown Manhattan not the best place to set up an urban homestead.

by wilhelmja on Flickr Some rights reserved.

Last Week, Apartment Therapy posed a Good Question to its masses:  What are the best cities for young, urban homesteaders on a budget?  There were over 70 responses to the question, extolling the virtues of various chicken-coop friendly cities.  The rust-belt featured prominently, with Pittsburgh taking the lead and Detroit (a personal favorite) coming in a close second.  But the rapturous descriptions of Buffalo, Minneapolis (my hometown), Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even Dallas, made me want to jump in the car for an epic road trip to see what the hell these people are up to out there!

Needless to say, Manhattan didn’t feature high in the budget-friendly urban homesteading category.  There were a couple of shout-outs to Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, not Park Slope), but it goes without saying that NYC isn’t exactly teeming with inexpensive outdoor space.  That is not to say it isn’t urban farming friendly, what with upwards of 25,000 acres suited for exactly that purpose and rooftop farming on the rise.  Such is the topic of next week’s Urban Agriculture Conference at the Horticultural Society of New York.  On Friday, March 16th, the Society will be addressing the issue of urban farming: is it merely a trend? The kind that goes hand in hand with an economic recession? Or does it reflect a deeper shift in how we view our food production?  The keynote speaker will be Thomas Fox, author of Sustainable Living in your Backyard, your Community, and in the World, who will talk about the upsurge in urban farming in an historical context.  Afterward, there will be a Q&A with an impressive panel including Annie Novak and Britta Riley, discussing various community projects specific to New York City.

It was also about one year ago that the fracas over the term Urban Homesteader blew up the web (at least the part of the web I hang around).  Since then, there has been an increase in discussion about all things related to raising food in an urban environment and has had me thinking about what that term actually means. By definition, it is an alternative lifestyle. And of course, there are different degrees of urban – there is the urban of Novella Carpenter (my hero), raising pigs, ducks and chickens in her decidedly gritty Oakland neighborhood.  And the Urban of Harriet Fasenfest (another hero) in Portland, Oregon, using the confines of her city lot to sustain her family. And then there is midtown Manhattan: the end of the road on the urban spectrum.

Clearly, I find this topic compelling. What does it mean to participate in urban homesteading in the context of high-rises and limited outdoor space?  Does growing a few plants in your apartment, composting your building and making your own deodorant qualify?  I’m guessing probably not. There is not much about my life that is alternative: we are your run-of-the-mill two-working-parent family trying to subsist in the center of the largest metropolitan area in the country.  We’re busy. Manhattan is about convenience. About delivery. Some days it feels overwhelming. But despite my back-to-the-land fantasies, I love being part of this urban community and exploring ways to incorporate the values of the urban homesteaders into the laboratory of my tiny apartment and busy schedule.  I think it is about examining our routines and questioning our consumption and I am inspired by the fact that it’s a growing topic of conversation in general. How many of you are out there, working 9 to 5 and doing some kind of kooky, sustainable project the other 9-5?  Urban folk, how are you changing up your food gathering and production?  I’m not talking big projects, but small ones – and I would love to hear from you!

  1. #1 by Karyn on March 9, 2012 - 3:10 pm

    I think starting a composting program for your building is amazing! Sometimes it feels like all I can do to collect our scraps in the freezer and take them to the city composting program at the Greenmarket. My thought lately is to reduce the amount of scraps we create and compost and/or throw away. I’m reading Tamara Adler’s amazing book, “The Everlasting Meal,” on this topic right now, and it is inspiring!

  2. #2 by Helen Topcik on March 9, 2012 - 3:12 pm

    Detroit near the top of the list? Wow. I would have thought Ann Arbor would have edged out all the others… Hail to the Victors.

  3. #3 by Jenny on March 9, 2012 - 11:03 pm

    I live in Boston, and I work around 40 hours a week. We have a 15′ x 30′ plot in the Victory Gardens, from which we get a lot of our medicinal herbs – tons of sacred basil, lemon balm, etc – and grow vegetables like kale, horseradish, and hot peppers. We also have fruit: elderberries, blackberries, and apples (though they didn’t bear last year). This year I’m looking forward to implementing a lot of the space-maximizing techniques championed by people like R.J. Ruppenthal and Mike Lieberman. I want to utilize the vertical space offered by the fencing that hems in our garden, planning on trellising tomatoes and possibly cucumbers along the chainlinks.

    In the summer and fall we drive out to the country with friends to pick peaches, berries, apples, apricots and apples. We can, freeze, or preserve them in other ways at home. (We also eat a crapload of peaches for days. It’s awesome.)

    We compost all of our food waste, with the exception of bones, in a worm bin in the basement. The castings are used in our garden and on houseplants. And though we don’t compost our bones, we do use them to make stock.

    Thanks for an awesome article. It’s so important to strategize about how to maximum the tiny amount of space in New York, and to consider the efficiency of urban gardening from one city to another. I hope that you’re able to go to that conference – it sounds awesome!

    • #4 by domaphile on March 10, 2012 - 1:01 am

      Hi Jenny – Love to hear about all you’re doing! A victory garden sounds amazing… and you’re right, I think it’s all about strategy. Looking forward to hearing more on your blog!

      • #5 by Jenny on March 10, 2012 - 9:43 am


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