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August 23, 2017

For the last century of urban growth, as millions of Americans have left their rural homes and flocked to our great cities, gardening has largely been confined to the shrinking farmlands. In turn, our cities became at times bland, densely populated, and gray. In recent years, though, gardening, once a purely functional pursuit, has shifted to one that inspires a more introspective and environmentally-considerate approach. People the world over are hoping to transform their cityscapes into something more beautiful, more natural, more green.  This trend may be a response to the general bustle, rush, and isolation of many urbanites’ lives and a desire to return – pardon the pun – to our greener roots.

As more urban dwellers concern themselves with issues surrounding climate change and sustainability, there has been a rise in recent trends involving creative ways to garden in urban spaces. For example, more city dwellers are practicing their green thumb by growing potted plants like succulents, bonsai trees, and orchids in their apartments to freshen their space and invite more calm into their lives.

And to contrast the endless steel, glass, and concrete of traditional cityscapes, many large urban areas have begun to expand their accessible green spaces. This appears to be a need deeply seated in our human instinct – in general, we appear to be drawn to green spaces. A recent New Yorker article, for example, notes that the lifestyle of growing food has become a sign of upward mobility – a sign of having the leisure time to spend in the garden as a meditative, not functional, activity.

These newer trends, however, may also reflect a deep-seated passion for gardening with possible roots in human evolutionary history, including eusociality and the concept of creating campsites from which hunters could bring home meat. This is what historians believe ultimately led to the emergence of agriculture and agrarian civilizations; as humans, we are a collaborative species. Our instinct for creating campsites or “nests” in our lives may also reflect our need for carving out peaceful spaces within busy, challenging lives.

New trends in urban gardening, such as attempts to cultivate peaceful urban spaces through gardening and roof top farms, have also been adopted by many major metropolitan areas. Paris, for example, wants to increase biodiversity and help the local economy by creating 100 hectares of living walls and green roofs throughout the city. And the Swedish furniture store Ikea, long known as an innovator in the field of sustainability, has introduced DIY gardens known as Growrooms that are meant to encourage urban gardening. Our country’s capital is also getting in on the trend while emphasizing the social element particular to gardening. Washington D.C.’s residents have wholeheartedly embraced community gardens, where they grow fresh, seasonal produce.

urban gardening

Even worms are wriggling onto our urban stages as urban gardeners come to appreciate the value of microbial soils. Indeed, worm castings and worm teas are excellent soil amendments, which can be important for urban farmers to make their gardens even more beautiful and useful.

In fact, as I compose this post, I am looking over my own small porch garden, on the third floor of a typical Chicago brownstone: budding lavender; fresh mint, parsley, basil, chives; a thriving tomato plant; and bright blooms that seemingly serve no purpose other than looking pretty. My green(ish) thumb, I hope, is making some difference in the world – whether for the bees, for my family’s dinner, or for the generations to come.

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