Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management

Rebecca J. McLaina, Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Portland State University, Portland, USA
Patrick T. Hurley, Department of Environmental Studies, Ursinus College, Collegeville, USA
Marla R. Emery, USDA-Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Burlington, USA
Melissa R. Poe, Northwest Sustainability Institute, Seattle, USA

(Received 12 February 2013; accepted 30 August 2013)

Recent “green” planning initiatives envision food production, including urban agriculture and livestock production, as desirable elements of sustainable cities. We use an integrated urban political ecology and human–plant geographies framework to explore how foraging for “wild” foods in cities, a subversive practice that challenges prevailing views about the roles of humans in urban green spaces, has potential to also support sustainability goals. Drawing on research from Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle, we show that foraging is a vibrant and ongoing practice among diverse urban residents in the USA. At the same time, as reflected in regulations, planning practices, and attitudes of conservation practitioners, it is conceptualised as out of place in urban landscapes and an activity to be discouraged. We discuss how paying attention to urban foraging spaces and practices can strengthen green space planning and summarise opportunities for and challenges associated with including foragers and their concerns.
Introduction On a mild October day, a group of six people gather by the entrance to the Schuylkill bike trail on the outskirts of Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania, eager to learn about the edible plants and fungi found along the trail. Several are members of an area “meet-up” devoted to learning about wild foods, but only three have any real long-term experience with collecting wild foods. The others have browsed during hikes, walks, and other rec- reational outings, but are keen to learn more about foods they can find in this peri-urban setting. Our guide, who is more accustomed to leading tours closer to Center City Philadel- phia, introduces us to several edible weeds in the vicinity of the trailhead, including common dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), common plantain (Plantago major), blue chicory (Cichorium intybus), and a species of violet (Viola spp.), beginning a tour of wild plants that are known for their edible, medicinal, and, in a few cases, craft or fibre uses. Typical of the region’s bike trails, our route through the county park that adjoins the National Park takes us along a historic rail line and power line easements. We move along the forest frag- ments, wooded fence lines, and open fields characteristic of the urban–suburban countryside in the Philly Metro area. Many of the plants we see (e.g. blackberry (Rubus spp.), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)) would hardly be thought of as key species of conservation concern but harvesting them is a prohibited activity on county parkland. A few – berries in particular – can be legally harvested just across the river in the National Park. In many ways, the tour represents a direct challenge to the govern- ing management regime of the area’s public parks. At a time when urban foraging is growing in recognition within the popular media, one might ask what this tour and this group’s activi- ties reveal about a practice that is often thought of as belonging to far-flung rural places? Moreover, in what ways does this tour open our eyes to an increasingly more visible, if not more common, activity in the city?
Urban and peri-urban landscapes are known to support foraging. For example, African- American basket-makers in the greater Charleston, South Carolina area, have maintained longstanding natural-resource-based livelihoods through harvesting strategies that make use of newly organised access arrangements that subvert traditional landscape meanings (e.g. entranceways to subdivisions, commercial shopping areas, and roadside and median beautification strips as harvest sites) as well as through non-sanctioned gathering in so- called fringe ecologies (Hurley et al. 2013). Likewise, previous research on urban NTFPs points to the ways that foraging may challenge existing management philosophies, through non-sanctioned harvests in parks, as well as highlighting the importance to harvest- ers of roadside vegetation and weedy species in ruderal1 landscapes such as alleyways, street planters, and other public rights of way (Jahnige 2002, Gabriel 2006, Grabbatin et al. 2011). The productive use of urban plants appears to be characterised by diverse and changing access strategies, in which foragers seek formal, informal, and non- sanctioned modes of access to the plant species on which they rely.

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