An edible city, or out of context future

It’s tempting to see fish and algae in place of the drones in Warsaw’s ‘Mordor’ business district. Mushrooms and insects in the underground passageways and cellars? I think at least that is already happening, wild and non-theoretical anyway.

I have seen the future. It’s not difficult at all, but what is nowadays? Just go to the internet.

 Readers may think that it will be about AI and they may have already started to check the authors’(mine that is) credentials. But there are none, so be not afraid! I wouldn’t write about the artificial variety of intelligence, as the human sort is  trouble enough. Even collective intelligence is more of a threat. In one of the paragraphs from this particular document, the subject of this piece, I found that it had been created by a “collective intelligence”. The more  I read, the more I became alarmed.

 The quotation about the collective intelligence I naturally took right out of context. But the words in the document are differently interpreted both by the authors and myself. They were proud of their wording; I understood it with trepidation. The context was different. I live in the country, having moved there because I don’t like city life. But they live and like the city life and would like to change it into a hybrid country-city version. Keep the city vibes and add a soupcon of country, but not too much so that you could actually taste it . The city village doesn’t have the manure and the “so called pests” (warning: another quotation torn out of context and more to come). It’s a place where farmers and city types could cooperate, consume and talk about post-humanity. This is the picture of the ideal “edible city” of the future.

 Note: I need to explain myself further- the quotation marks are exclusively mine. The authors, of whatever sex they are, of the report that “was the result of  a several-months-long process” (quotation was taken out of context but I feel it suits), didn’t use any ironising quotation marks whatever when writing about the “edible city”. I wouldn’t like to sneer about this remark since the report was commissioned by a renowned German political think tank and the Green City  administration of a large southern Polish city. So they are about important stuff. I’d also accept an exaggerated version of the title, wittily defining the idea of the city in which you eat what you produce. But in this case you have to put the descriptions in inverted commas which don’t have the same ring in the actual text. Later you read about quasi-magical practices and this makes me worry. Let's not criticise remarks like “the research was carried out in Germany and indicates a major fall in the number of insects”. This is another remark taken out of context, one that I found in the theoretical section of the report. This part confirmed the difficulty of transplanting the village into the city- a section that spurred me onto further reading. I would have hoped that the establishment of these edible cities would mean a rise in the numbers of insects in the country. This is obviously an important point.

 Now for the picture of the  future townies or city slickers need to put forward  (I thought this one up so we don’t need to enclose the word in quotes). I’ll quote at length as I need to give the flavour of the vision. I may not need to remind you that this too was brutally taken out of context. Here it is, below.

 “There are hydroponic farms in the city centres and crops of algae. On the roofs and industrial areas- aquaponic farms. In cellars and underground passageways- mushroom growing and insect rearing. By the side of the roads there are fruit trees and shrubs. On open and brownfield sites; in recesses, edible decorative plants. In parks we see fruit trees and medicinal herbs. Urban farms  are in open and brownfield sites and wide argroparks by the city limits. Inhabitants grow food on their balconies, in yards and on their allotments.”

 Some of this is familiar to me as once I too grew various things on the balcony (but not what you think). However, it isn't  clear to me at all why hydroponic and algae farms have to be exclusively in glass towers, and not just in industrial areas. Why can’t you build aquaponic farms in those towers as well? The vision of the business area in Warsaw nicknamed Mordor, with corpo- people giving way to fish and algae is a tempting one. Rather like the one that envisages underground passageways and cellars with mushrooms and insects. Perhaps in a few of the less salubrious places this process has already started independently- not theoretically. There’s a certain ‘retrofuturistic’ (my quotes) chic in all of this linking elements of the past with what is to come.
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But it's as if the future has become without a  fertile root base. Food is all around us. Producers and consumers can be readily found. You only have to take advantage of this fact and get things organised. In the idea of the RWS, the socially supported agriculture scheme, the risks of production are shared between the agriculturalists and consumers. The idea is simplicity itself.

 For now the farmer produces and sells. If his produce doesn’t turn out right then he must lower his prices or foot the bill. If something grows superbly  then the prices can rise and he will earn more as a result. But this is not certain, That’s just life. There are small subsidies  for each hectare to soften any financial blow but they are small. The RWS system turns things the other way around. The producer connects to the consumers who pay him an annual sum in advance after which they get what is grown, no whingeing. They then commit to a period of work on the farm itself. I’m not making this up

 Some wag would call this a return of the peasantry, but I’m not uncharitable. I can imagine such a conversation after picking up the produce “But these beetroots are rotten”. The reply: “But did you come here a week ago to get stuck into the sorting? No, then don’t bellyache”.

 Lets get another out of context quote to clear this up: “ On the basis of the RWS system a mutual understanding and solidarity can be built up between townsfolk and farmers of both sexes”. So we’re clear then.

Luckily the exchange between city and country need not necessarily be based on exchange and  trade but can have its intellectual and spiritual side too.Townsfolk can get sweet revenge  on unsuspecting and gullible farmers. It’s enough to build (out of context warning) an urban farm that can be a place of “widely understood work with people”. Work could facilitate the “themes of urban agroecology and other topics connected with values and post-humanistic and anthropological concepts”.

 Now we’ve gotcha you country types! It’s all about values, you see. Perhaps you have some animals on your farms? Do you think you are superior? Well then, let’s chat about posthumanism. You can get into a compost heap. You can participate in feminist plant workshops and we’ll see who comes out on top if you don’t sort out the beetroot by yourselves!

 Let’s take the example of the Utopian House in the city of Nowa Huta. Here, as the report's authors can testify, there’s work being done on an edible district. How is it going? We'll have to have more consultations with the community. In this case it’s a consultation in a future garden on a utopian rooftop. Yet another out of context citation “After some time, dilemmas arose. How much of the garden space for people and how much for pollinators? Does any effort to create any edible produce make sense at all? These questions were put to the farmers by guests in literary meetings on the roof of the Utopian House.”  In this way, doubts crept into the Nowa Huta project; is the produce truly edible? Wouldn’t it be better to just eat something else?The authors respect that the building of the future is in its early stages but he or she who is not against  us is for us. I doubt whether this kind of deviance will be tolerated for long. For the time being “this community model is open to a wide range of people and doesn’t require a change in identity”. I took this last gobbet from another context, but it suits me just fine.

 The report moves on to Warsaw, where this “community model” is being realised. It’s not any old model, the envisaged community has a member, a parcel of ground that will figure in any future. Two citations, again out of context. “We gave the name ‘Adamah’ to the plot to give it a more energetic aura.” The participants in the Brownfields Biennale continue, “It’s a Hebrew word that denotes the land that gave birth to Adam. From this perspective it's’ not just under cultivation or tended by man but is a fully fledged subject- feminine too.Together we will create another species, collective, of human and non-human subject in which sensitivity, mutual care, dialogue and empathy become common practice.”

 Those who have a more robust sense of humour, unversed in human and non-human interaction collectivism may ask how community meetings would be held and how in particular the companion of Adamah could communicate ‘her’ will to other members. Simple, through an intermediary. In reality  this would be a legal counsel through which a 150-year olds could decide through the offices on affairs concerning their property. This should come as no surprise. A person would be employed for this task but communication with the parcel of land itself poses other tempting possibilities. This requires another out of context quote “The executor-executrix would get to know the requirements form a wider group of members who would communicate with Adamah via ethnographic, ethnobiological, shamanism as well as using the latest technology (the support of AI).”

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So the future meets the past (retrofuturism) and the shamanic practices can be AI fodder  thanks to which the land our female friend could realise her identity. The community has its statute in the roots of the cooperative movement. Here, the membership “of those whose legal competence are limited or non-existent” applies to “ those who are heavily disabled”. If I were in Adamah’s place, I would feel somewhat peeved…

The annual founder members meeting is due to take place this autumn (we can but hope that Adamah will stop sulking by this time). Then there would be the registration in the KRS, the Polish companies  registry, which will no doubt bring the ossified system into contact with a progressive posthumanism represented by the community . This will be one to watch. I foresee a start to a social campaign to empower all allotments. Lots of legal possibilities are hidden in this dispute. If we could  establish contact with investment land then we could find out finally if the Central Transport Hub will start. The development land underneath  may want to shape up an airfield rather than being burnt. The fight to gain the plenipotentiary rights to these plots  for the CPK is indeed fascinating. Sharp lawyers would start to  tour the country and get the rights from shamans, equipped with AI terminals that could communicate the will of the most valuable assets and the most interesting development opportunities for their clients. Our system will change to conform to the developing reality. But this is marginal, there are more important matters.

  There were two places that tugged at my heart as I read the report. The first was when I got to the point  as to how future members saw their common life with Adamah. In order to get closer to what they already were, they imagined a world that they could celebrate when they would start to cultivate it together. I thought that it would not be about cultivation  of land but the creation of a “livable space”.  Something in other words, that has existed for thousands of years and that needed to be reinvented. If you can think it then you can cultivate it. If you can cultivate it then celebrate it wth the correct feast days, because the old ones obviously belong to the past world.

  Second, when I read about what was proposed in the event of a “crisis moment such as war or pandemic”. I got the feeling of threat that I had while reading the report. It was an existential threat, common to me and the authors, that each of us opposes to the best of his (or her) abilities.

  I remember the 1980s when I and hundreds of my fellow high-rise flat dwellers borrowed spades and shovels and went from our estates to the nearest disused patch of land. There we could cultivate it ourselves, eat the stuff that we grew ourselves. It was a time of great hope and scarcity, the first days of Solidarity, a time of wondering if the Soviets would intervene or not, a time of uncertainty and fear that was ended by the imposition of martial law. I had no idea as I swung my spade and planted my tomatoes that I was triumphing over my existence and the threat to it, over the future. I imagine that this fear is still present in our lives today, after the pandemic and during the war in Ukraine it has increased. But just planting tomatoes is no longer enough. You have to hide your fear under an academic staffage and shamanic practices so as not to look silly. You have to show yourself and the world that you can build  a new and wonderful future in which “there will be no fear”’ and to be able to hold your head high showing that you can make it in the world, the future and fate itself.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Jan Darasz

Main photo: Allotment gardens on Washington Avenue in Warsaw . Action "Let's bring heaven to the bees". Photo: PAP/Bartłomiej Zborowski
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