Lindsay K. Campbell's City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City’s Nature

Reviewed by Kubi Ackerman

City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City's Nature  by Lindsay K. Campbell Cornell University Press, 2017 290 pages

City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City's Nature
by Lindsay K. Campbell
Cornell University Press, 2017
290 pages

In November of 2015, a tree planted in the Bronx was commemorated as the one millionth tree of the city’s MillionTreesNYC initiative. The accompanying ceremony celebrated the culmination of this ambitious urban forestry project spearheaded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A little more than two years later, the City Council passed what was described as the city’s first ever bill focused specifically on urban agriculture, characterized modestly as “a first step” aimed merely at collecting information on urban agriculture organizations and businesses. Given the mainstreaming of environmental issues in New York City, which are inclusive of both urban forestry and urban agriculture, why was the former enthusiastically embraced at the top levels of municipal governance while the latter is still now only very slowly receiving the attention of policymakers? This is the central question of Lindsay Campbell’s book, City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York’s Nature, which juxtaposes and contrasts these two distinct but interrelated conceptions of nature in the city that rose to prominence in the Bloomberg Era. In so doing, Campbell provides insight on the complex interplay between politics and biological and social ecologies, and raises critical questions as to who ultimately benefits from sustainability initiatives.

Campbell describes the genesis of the Million Trees project as part of the Bloomberg Administration’s PlaNYC sustainability initiative, widely recognized as one of the most far-reaching and ambitious metropolitan sustainability plans at the time. The plan was the legacy of a decades-long re-imagining of the role of nature in cities, exemplified by the concepts of “ecosystem services” and “green infrastructure.” This paradigm certainly reflects a more inclusive view of how natural processes and human systems interact when compared to that of the 20th century industrial city; however, it is still a view of nature as providing services which must be rigorously quantified to be valued. PlaNYC was therefore entirely in keeping with the administration’s elevation of the role of data and metrics as the essential currency for a supposedly empirical, non-ideological approach to municipal governance. Trees, with their multiple benefits, their relatively low installation and maintenance expenses, and minimal impact on existing infrastructure (at least as compared to many other sustainability interventions), proved to be an ideal unit for quantification. The book also describes how PlaNYC uncritically adopted a neoliberal growth- and competition-based model of urban development: the central question was how - not whether - to accommodate a growing population and economy, warning that failure to do so would put New York at a disadvantage in attracting talent and capital in the global urban marketplace. Accordingly, specific initiatives such as Million Trees were adopted based on their ability to be integrated into technocratic management systems and, critically, evaluated based on their achievability and cost-to-benefit ratios. As such, PlaNYC was very much a top-down plan--public input sessions held prior to the plan’s release were widely considered perfunctory.

Campbell contrasts this focus on urban forestry with the complete lack of any initiatives targeting urban agriculture in the original PlaNYC document, despite coinciding with rising awareness of these issues in sustainability discourse. The book deftly articulates the reasons for this omission (Campbell uses responses from participants and stakeholders to good effect throughout). The renewed interest in urban agriculture beginning in the early 2000s was part of a larger movement aimed at changing the entire food system, a cross-cutting cause encompassing sustainable agriculture, public health, environmental justice, labor advocacy, air, water, and soil protection, etc. The diffuse and often fractious coalition of groups working on food systems issues were necessarily active at multiple scales--global, national, and local, with urban agriculture representing but one component of a developing alternative, local food economy. The very diversity of this movement posed a challenge for a mayoral administration committed to rationalization of methods and aims, as well as being limited jurisdictionally to what could be accomplished within the city itself. (Having worked myself on food systems planning during this time, I recall a member of the mayor’s office asking if we could demonstrate that a proposal aimed at decreasing regional distribution truck travel mileage would result in a reduction within city limits, apparently the only relevant metric of success.) Moreover, urban agriculture advocacy in New York City is associated with the legacy of the community gardening movement, which itself originated in active resistance to mayoral control -- in that case the successful defiance of the Giuliani Administration’s attempt to repossess existing gardens for the purpose of real-estate development. While trees are apt metaphors for growth, community gardens were, for some, associated with a period in the city characterized by decline--it was only the proliferation of vacant land that allowed for their initial establishment. As a result, the Bloomberg Administration characterized the goals of the food movement as aspirational, not achievable, and urban agriculture was left out of the original sustainability plan.

This simple dichotomy between top-down planning and bottom-up advocacy, however, might not provide enough fodder for an entire book. Instead, what makes the juxtaposition of these two paradigms especially elucidating is how both changed and adapted to the complex webs of influence and implementation over time and after the release of PlaNYC. For one thing, the book is not a simple critique of the PlaNYC process--for all of its shortcomings, it was a seminal municipal sustainability plan that inspired other policymakers globally, and one can hardly fault the administration for wanting to focus on ambitious but achievable goals. It could also be argued that the lack of commonly agreed-upon goals limited the impact of otherwise very active food systems advocates. But even these characterizations of the two miss the more nuanced politics taking place behind the scenes. The Million Trees project, supposedly based on rigorous empirical analyses of tree benefits, was actually from the very beginning shaped by public relations mandates, such as the desire to have an easy to understand and publicize metric, i.e. one million trees. The PR side of the initiative also touted a broad set of quality of life and psychosocial arguments for street trees which, internally to the planning agency--at least initially--were not seen as the primary impetus for the project.

Over time, however, as the initiative was rolled out and the administration absorbed some of the critiques and limitations of the top-down approach, the initiative changed to focus more on tree stewardship on the part of citizens and incorporated more community input. Campbell points out that this was partly in response to the fiscal crisis of 2008, which forced the agencies implementing PlaNYC to modify their approach, and a cynic might argue that the shift of focus to stewardship was simply a cost-saving measure to get the public to put in more labor that would otherwise have to be performed by city agencies and their partners. But the book makes clear that there was a genuine shift in the discourse, which changed and adapted over time, partially in response to the realization that many of the trees being planted would require more long-term maintenance than originally anticipated, but also in recognition of the fact that initiatives with broad public support are less likely to be cut in times of austerity. As Campbell makes clear, urban forestry consists not just of trees but also the physical, political and social infrastructure necessary to plant and maintain them. Accordingly, the rhetoric of ecosystems services and enhanced property values gradually shifted to one of environmental justice and equity, even at the higher levels of the bureaucratic administration.

Similarly, the discourse of the food movement was changing in response to increased public and political interest. The very shift from the language of community gardening, which for many participants is associated with nurturing community relations and social networks, to that of urban agriculture, which is explicitly oriented to the economy of food production, reflects the desire for institutional legitimacy, which prioritizes the ability to demonstrate impact and the potential to “scale up.” This shift also reflects rifts within the movement itself; some gardeners and other activists expressed concerns of cooptation, indicating their impression of urban agriculture as a more elite enterprise antithetical to non-profit, grassroots spirit of community gardening. The book charts the conflict of these different perspectives, and how they came to influence policy discussions across multiple levels of governance. In particular, two elected officials, then Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, saw an opportunity in the mayor’s lack of engagement with food systems, and both worked on separate policy documents, released in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Both of these documents advocated broad-based initiatives to reform the food system, which would have required substantial cooperation of agencies beyond the municipal government, expansion of public-sector oversight, and significant new funding sources, all of which PlaNYC, especially in its updated version released post-fiscal crisis, explicitly sought to avoid. Of course, also unlike PlaNYC, the Borough President and City Council plans lacked means of implementation or enforcement, which allowed for the inclusion of more aspirational discourse, and the book is at its strongest in its textual analysis of the rhetorical claims made by these documents (including PlaNYC) and how they were shaped by competing priorities of various interest groups.

Ultimately, and partially in response to this political pressure, the updated PlaNYC 2.0, released in 2011, did include a section on food. This update also reflected a more significant public input process in advance of its release, as well as the constrained budget realities post-2008. This recognition represented a victory of sorts for the urban agriculture and food movements, albeit one with no new funding commitments and few concrete objectives. As it were, the food movement had achieved a kind of apotheosis during the years covered in this book; Campbell notes that many of the most active organizations and coalitions during that time were either dormant or much less active by the time of the book’s publication, while the MillionTreesNYC initiative was an unequivocal success, at least by its own standard. But it would be an oversimplification to deem the efforts of the urban agriculture movement a failure by comparison -- both urban agriculture and urban forestry have shaped and continue to shape the contemporary city, and the food systems movement helped shift the discourse in sustainability planning broadly towards issues of intersectionality and environmental justice.

City of Forests, City of Farms fills an important gap in the literature on the governance of urban nature. As Campbell notes, “it is so often that we see the physical design of space leading the urbanist conversation, but there is much an opportunity (or perhaps more) to redesign the organizational and institutional structures that shape and manage that space.” If there is one area that I would have liked to see further explored, it would be the role of “nature” itself as an agent - there are several mentions of the importance of “non-human” actors in this story that do not get much elaboration (Campbell’s book would make a good companion title to Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World, an excellent study of the relationship between human social systems and non-human agents in forests outside the city). But overall, City of Forests, City of Farms provides great insight on what one might call the “political ecology” of cities, and helps us to understand how spatial change is engendered by, and reflected in, the relationship between bureaucratic systems and social movements.

Kubi Ackerman is the Director of the Future City Lab at the Museum of the City of New York. His research has focused on urban design strategies for resilience, with expertise in urban food systems, green infrastructure, transportation, and energy.