A review of “A Toolbox for Sustainable City Living” by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, with illustrations by Juan Martinez
By Lue Boileau
At this moment, I hope that many of us are considering the future of our communities as we prepare for progressive climate change; to both prevent a worst-case scenario and to adapt to what is already in progress. In any climate change scenario, either the worst or best case projection, it is clear that we must radically shift our way of living towards sustainable communities. It is also essential that we connect food justice and racial justice to our ideas of sustainability. It is urgent that we come to define climate change as a racial issue, as our communities both here and abroad experience the most unhinged destruction, neglect, and exploitation. Most importantly, we must support and follow the lead of Indigenous communities around the world, who invented sustainability and who continuously experience state violence for this work.
I recently had the opportunity to hear New York based Food Justice advocate and founder of the Black Urban Growers Conference, Karen Washington, speak on achieving food justice and Black food sovereignty. She raised the critical point that true food justice must disrupt and contradict the current food system; a system that relies heavily on the free labour and exploitation of mainly Black, Brown and Indigenous communities through colonialism, agricultural prison labour, and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program.
As Karen illustrated, any solution in regards to food justice must be one that seeks to empower and mobilize the skills that already exist within the community. We must achieve food sovereignty that is, of course, independent of government or corporate funding and non-profit intervention. This must be achievable in urban and rural settings.
In their introductory statements, the authors of A Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, define radical sustainability and the key principle of autonomous community development as “…systems that give control over basic resources to the people using them, increasing community self-reliance and aiding resistance to resource monopolies. Design criteria include; affordability; use of salvaged materials; simplicity; user serviceability; ease of replication; decentralization …. All of these criteria lead to systems being replicable. Replicable systems are capable of being transferred and adapted to other communities and locations without significant redesign” (xiv – xv). This demands a swift break from the non-profit model of community intervention.
“Any solution in regards to food justice must be one that seeks to empower and mobilize the skills that already exist within the community.”
A great example of autonomous development is the North Philly Peace Park (NPPP) in Philadelphia which grows food in what was an abandoned lot, without the permission of the city. NPPP also includes a STEM education program on the site, with the support of retired science and math teachers from the community. NPPP is an example of a Black-led project, utilizing skills and salvaged materials from the community to create food and education autonomy.
As we create these alternative systems, radical sustainability must mean recognizing “the inseparability of ecological and social issues and the necessity of ensuring the solution to one problem does not create or worsen another” (xiii). As we try to create sustainable communities, we must be careful not to replicate resource hierarchies and disempowerment. A conversation on building functional communities that include rehabilitative justice and intergenerational relationships are equally important to achieving sustainability and one that we should engage in, in parallel with creating food sustainable systems.
However, what I would like to offer here is a brief review and introduction to the hard skills offered in A Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, co-authored by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, in regards to urban sustainability and food production.
To be honest, I found this book on my shelf buried under hundreds of other books. As I found out, it was given to my roommate as a gift in 2008. Over ten years later, it contains blueprints to significant skills we need to survive and create self-sustaining, food sovereign communities, making the most of urban infrastructure.
“The key to establishing community food security”, the Toolbox tells us “is to have food coming from multiple and diverse sources. Urban farms and gardens can grow a considerable amount of vegetables while fruit and nut trees in parks, can provide a foragable community crop. Fire escapes can be home to mushroom logs and trellising vegetables. Neighbourhood microlivestock collectives can be formed, with members sharing responsibility and benefits – cleaning the coop, feeding and watering the animals and collecting the eggs. Interlocking backyards make ideal locations for collective microlivestock operations and expanded bird runs. Local aquaculture specialists can offer fresh, locally [raised] fish” (60).
The challenges of food production in urban settings are the lack of space, the amount of land that is locked under concrete and pavement in need of rejuvenation, and the lack of natural sunlight due to building density. The techniques covered in A Toolbox are those that are best suited to urban settings, but have been less covered in gardening and food production resources. The authors do not include information on basic gardening techniques, seed saving or cooking which as they mention, have been covered in many other valuable books.
Non- Plant Based Foods
In regards to non-plant based food, the key is to concentrate our energies on livestock that do not require large amounts of feed. Small birds and mammals are efficient at converting feed protein to body mass, are a convenient size for urban space and can also be helpful in the garden! We review a number of different options for small mammal or microlivestock, the most common are chickens which can be kept in coops or free run with the use of roosts. Roosts can be built with metal sheeting wrapped securely around trees or poles to prevent predators such as racoons from climbing up them. Vegetable scraps, cultivated insects, vermicompost worms and spent barley hulls all make excellent chicken feed which supports a zero-waste system. Free run chickens will also eat unwanted insects in the garden with minimal damage and their droppings provide excellent fertilizer. There are many innovations for managing free-run and roosting chickens. The authors review a number of other options for fowl, including turkeys, ducks (great at purging slugs), guinea hens, etc. but in any species suggest selecting breeds that are less domesticated and hardier especially for adverse weather such as the Rhode Island Red (chicken). In terms of mammals, the Toolbox provides a reasonable guide on keeping rabbits, and guinea pigs which are also space efficient and like fowl, can be raised in a collective in adjoining backyards. Rabbits in particular provide especially rich fertilizer through their droppings. We must always be thinking in terms of creating sustainable ecosystems and symbiotic relationships for both plant and animal life.
Edible Forests and Mushroom Cultivation
I love the idea of edible forests; creating self-sustaining food sources from perennial trees and vegetation, or a combination of perennials and annuals. When selecting tree species, the authors note that it is important to know if you are selecting a self-pollinating species or if more than one tree will be required for pollination. Trellis structures may be built around the edible forest for fruits like grapes, and vegetables like pole beans, squash, and cucumbers that take well to trellising. The authors provide an excellent guide to planting trees, understanding soil quality and the varieties of fruit and nut trees that you might select for an edible forest.
An underutilized method, and one that suits urban infrastructure very well, is mushroom cultivation. The method that is detailed is log cultivation using mushroom plugs or plug spawn. Both medicinal and edible mushrooms are covered in the guide, as well as an understanding of what kind of tree species and log to select, how and when to harvest mushrooms.
Waterways and Aquaculture
As we begin to experience freshwater drought and the continuous contamination of waterways, a knowledge of aquaculture will be particularly important. And for those of us who love and eat fish and wish to do so responsibly, we can cultivate a fascinating and intimate understanding of freshwater aquatic ecosystems and how to maintain them. Many people have heard of aquaponics, but it wasn’t until I read a Toolbox that I understood what an intricate and graceful system it can be. The authors also provide a guide to creating passive pond systems. This knowledge is extremely valuable. However, for my own reasons, I am going to focus on the recirculating aquaponic system, that is built using four 55 gallon barrels each containing its own ecosystem that supports through piping and pumped water circulation. Juan Martinez provides beautiful illustrations throughout, but this is my favourite.
In the recirculating system, the first barrel is our biofilter. It is filled with plants emerging from the surface of the water, ‘like catfish, bullrush and taro,’ which can be harvested and are all edible. The bottom of the barrel is filled with gravel, which is a great ecosystem for ‘water-purifying microorganisms.’ The second barrel contains the fish. It is very important to pay attention to the guide on the fish to water ratio, to maintain healthy fish and prevent ammonia build up. Snails and rooted plants also provide an essential function to this stage. Barrels three and four are water purifiers, containing an ecosystem of submerged plants such as duckweed and water hyacinth, as well as zooplankton, crawfish, snails and microorganisms that recycle and consume the waste from the fish in the second barrel. All elements of the aquaponic system work together to maintain healthy plants, healthy fish and other organisms.
Although vertical space food cultivation – barrels, trellises, fire escapes, and rooftops – is a way to use the constraints of a city as a strength, we cannot neglect the land. So much soil is trapped under concrete and pavement, without exposure to oxygen, natural water cycles, plant life or healthy microorganisms. As we continue to experience flash floods, pavement and its disruption to water and soil cycles will become more of an urgent and destructive problem. The authors of a Toolbox stress the importance of releasing the land, working to increase soil health, and provide a review of a number of methods of breaking, repurposing and discarding of toxic pavement when necessary.
In their words, “Growing food in a city is a wonderful way to build community, support local economies, and be rooted in a place” and this element of community collaboration and mutual support will be essential as we prepare for the next several decades of change.
A Toolbox for Sustainable City Living includes several more chapters in addition to food, covering urban sustainability in water, waste, energy and a guide to bioremediation including conversations on access to land and a discussion of sustainability and gentrification.
For readers eager for information on how to adapt to our current context, I recommend combining this reading with Deep Adaptation, A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell (an academic paper that is also available in podcast); and for Black readers, following up this work with Farming While Black by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm.
Lou Boileau is a mental health advocate and writer of creative non-fiction and short stories. She works in the areas of youth work and food justice. She is based out of Tkaronto. Her work in mental health and advocacy is from lived experience, and family support caregiving.