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Kate Brown

Kate Brown

Individual Fellow

Project title

Little Gardens Everywhere: The History of Urban Self-Provisioning in the Long 20th Century

Research question

The promises of the industrial agricultural revolution have not panned out. Industrial agriculture has not ended hunger and it has contributed to a host of problems: toxic landscapes, the displacement of indigenous farmers and food cultures, greenhouse gas emissions, and a growing number of diet-related health problems. So, how did people feed themselves before industrial agriculture?

Project description

“The Self-Provisioning City” is a history that has been missed in plain sight. With no tax breaks, no regulatory structure, no founding manifesto, urban farmers in cities around the world in the late 19th and 20th century accomplished many of the goals of food sustainability reformers today. They turned the flux of minerals and nutrients cities amassed in what public health officials saw was a growing sanitation problem and turned that “garbage” into food. In later decades of the 20th century, urban farmers worked with microbes and compost-derived soils to transformed vacated, post-industrial land into productive agricultural space. Working with the detritus that modern society served up, urban farmers produced local, diverse, food on marginal land with short market chains and few post-harvest food losses in a production cycle that resulted in affordable, fresh and nutritious food. They did not expend fossil fuels in plowing, fertilizing, harvesting, packaging, and shipping food. They recycled nutrients and remediated contaminated earth, which disrupted the metabolic rift that impoverished soils and fueled colonization elsewhere. A minority of maverick scientists were among the few that recognized the importance of small holding farmers’ work in finding low-tech, sustainable solutions to feeding large, urban communities. In the past two centuries in industrialized societies, humans have engineered themselves biologically to the margins of the environments in which they live. Urban farmers and scientists’ technologies produced micro-ecologies that engineered humans to be at the center of their environments, adapted to it, belonging. The history of urban farmers and maverick scientists point toward a basic feature of human existence. With hands in soils, humans draw on a multitude of non-human allies to form communities socially, economically and microbially.

Selected publications


Czarne Press (Poland) March 2019, Actes Sud (France), Capitán Swing (Spanish).

DISPATCHES FROM DYSTOPIA: Writing History in Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

PLUTOPIA: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013)

A BIOGRAPHY OF NO PLACE: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard University Press, 2004).