Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

The following is an excerpt from Carey Clouse’s Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up, which explores ’s impromptu agricultural development after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the challenges that development poses for modern day architects and urban planners.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba found itself solely responsible for feeding a nation that had grown dependent on imports and trade subsidies. With fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides disappearing overnight, citizens began growing their own organic produce anywhere they could find space, on rooftops, balconies, vacant lots, and even school playgrounds. By 1998 there were more than 8,000 urban farms in Havana producing nearly half of the country’s vegetables. What began as a grassroots initiative had, in less than a decade, grown into the largest sustainable agriculture initiative ever undertaken, making Cuba the world leader in urban farming. Featuring a wealth of rarely seen material and intimate portraits of the environment, Farming Cuba details the innovative design strategies and explores the social, political, and environmental factors that helped shape this pioneering urban farming program.

Designing and Planning

Cuba’s food crisis highlighted many of the deeply entrenched and largely invisible structural problems within the country’s food system. Flaws in agricultural infrastructure, community-engagement process, modes of knowledge transfer, production methods, and urban planning were plainly exposed with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Architectural theorist Mark Wigley links these larger systems failures to design, suggesting that these “crises always appear as the failure of a spatial system, a failure of architecture.” In this sense, periods of extreme breakdown can also act as agents of physical change: according to Wigley, “crises produce new forms.”

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

While urban planning would ideally engage agricultural opportunities well in advance of food shortages, in the case of Cuba these efforts were applied across the city’s fabric as a response to real needs. From an urban design perspective, many of these agricultural interventions in Havana continue to remain disassociated from their physical context, lacking linkages that could be made with built elements, comprehensive signage, or other synergistic design responses. The formal implications of could be used constructively, perhaps even sustaining or branding within the larger urban planning work in Havana. This shift in thinking—from the strictly functional urban farm to the revered cultural landscape—would necessarily need to draw insight from both growers and designers. Planner and permaculture activist María Caridad Cruz acknowledges that this collaboration is a challenging yet essential undertaking, and that “inserting into the land management system is not a task to be worked out on a drawing board.” Instead, she writes, “it depends, to a great extent, on the interrelation among planners and doers, the community, and governments.” Indeed, Fidel Castro’s ability to seamlessly embed agriculture within Cuba’s political and social context has not given rise to an associated design cohesion, despite the potential to link farms to neighborhoods through physical and spatial planning. The communication breakdown between design and agricultural professionals in Cuba appears to be a missed opportunity.

From the scale of individual farm components to the much larger systems that define growing spaces, design could serve to frame and contextualize the discussion around Havana’s agricultural infrastructure. Whether formally designed or not, growing spaces affect urban identity and have attendant shaping power, becoming part of the anatomy of the city. According to architect and educator Keller Easterling, some “of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written about not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in a spatial language of infrastructure. “Design thinking at this level also scales up to urban and regional planning, where infrastructural changes might begin to have profound impacts on the larger foodshed.

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

Havana’s urban agriculture movement has been criticized as being a utilitarian and reactionary response to food scarcity rather than a proactive urban design initiative. Many of the state-sanctioned permanent farms in Havana occurred opportunistically in the decade following the food crisis, using land that was available rather than appropriate. Adriana Premat points to the informal space appropriation that growers employed in Havana, noting that “organopónicos have been built just because there was a nook here, a vacant lot there, even though they broke up the normal flow of city streets.” Landscapes that might otherwise have been slated for more conventional uses—parking lots, playgrounds, city parks, rooftops, and front yards—transitioned into a new agricultural terrain for food production.

Because food access was such a dire and immediate need in Cuba, urban agriculture was prioritized over many other important uses, including environmental stewardship, housing development, and the formation of public recreation spaces. Urban agriculture initiatives have occasionally prevented the development or retention of valued civic amenities, such as parks. This collective tunnel vision has led to a divide between agricultural advocates and other types of developers, “pitt[ing] those involved in city planning and renovation against key decision makers in the Urban Agriculture Department and the armed forces, whose primary concern was food production rather than good urban design.” Despite the regular interweaving of agriculture with buildings and other types of spaces, there is still a perception by designers and planners that food production has unfairly taken precedence over housing and recreational spaces in urban areas. This interlacing is evident in most of Havana’s neighborhoods, with the exception of the historic Habana Vieja district, where development for tourism has all but eliminated the last two decades of urban agriculture efforts.

Despite the popularity of urban farming in Havana, arguments against the practice still surface. For these trained planners, government officials, and residents, agriculture in the city is seen as an inappropriate use of public space or a stopgap measure that would prove unsustainable in the long term. One urban planner agreed that “urban agriculture is a city function, like housing, but gardens should be properly designed,” while other Habaneros simply do not view farming as an appropriate piece of the contemporary city. According to Premat, “those with official jurisdiction over the design and development of urban space rejected the notion of bringing food production into core municipalities because such activities were considered unsightly and out of place, particularly in the capital.” And as in the rest of North America, there remains a real cultural divide between the design community and the growers themselves: “Cubans are very pragmatic, emphasizing usefulness. Planners and architects are trained otherwise, and the stigma of urban farming is maintained.”

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

Urban farming has not been wholeheartedly embraced by the Cuban design community—perhaps in part because efforts occur outside of the discipline’s sphere of professional influence. This disassociation may be a reflection of the diminished role of architecture and urbanism in the wake of the 1990s economic crisis or the government’s rigid and limiting control of state-run design firms. These factors both impact the integration of design into urban agriculture efforts, preventing a more inclusive and holistic conception of the process.

Nevertheless, a number of architects and planners in Havana have taken an interest in the urban agriculture movement through personal research or have at least conceded that the informal allocation of city gardens impacts urban form in important ways. For instance, city historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, the esteemed and vocal force behind the multimillion dollar tourist industry resurrected in Old Havana, buffers unsightly food crops with flowers in organopónicos. This is a striking example of what landscape architect and scholar Mira Engler calls a “camouflage approach” to landscape design, one that denies the aesthetic value of food production. In Havana, the few examples of formally designed farms use hedge and flower plantings to mask farming from the surrounding city.

While the urban agriculture movement is widely supported by Cubans, many of these advocates today also support efforts to introduce more comprehensive planning and design into the urban farming movement. In contrast to the organic and ad-hoc form these gardens assumed during the early stages of the food crisis, people now see an opportunity to better relate the material, environmental, and social aspects of urban agriculture with other urban processes. In an effort to facilitate this transition, Havana’s city government has incorporated urban agriculture into the city’s land-management plans, adopting legislation and regulations that support and protect this work. At the popular level, urban agriculture is now so visible and useful that it has a protected role in the city, both physically and culturally. Indeed, many Cubans see urban agriculture as a valued landscape type within the city of Havana, beyond the production of food and capital.

The recognition of urban agriculture as a piece of the broader physical planning process paves the way for a more critical, integrated, and perhaps effective future role for agriculture in the city. Since 2000, urban agriculture has become a permanent type of land use in Havana’s master plan. Access to land granted through usufruct has become increasingly flexible during the past five years, opening up new possibilities for people to qualify for loans, to co-opt idle land, and to have better long-term security on their farmland. Cuba’s formalization of this city-planning strategy is a critical milestone, one that guarantees a place for this foodscape in a post–Special Period Havana. Thus the Cuban government has effectively legitimized urban agriculture—promoting it from a fringe movement pre-1989 to a valued economic driver and a central pillar of Cuban identity. This newfound status also provides other individuals and institutions—perhaps even designers—with the language and conceptual framework that they could use to effectively advocate for urban agriculture.

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

While some specific urban design strategies have been employed to accommodate farming at the city scale, most of the post-crisis agricultural innovation parallels practices deployed throughout the country. In this respect, many of the farming practices in urban growing areas appear to simply be downsized versions of rural practices. Surprisingly, the inverse situation may also be true: Raúl Castro has appealed to rural farmers to “apply the same concepts of Urban Agriculture in traditional agriculture.” However, urban areas differ radically from their rural counterparts in size and shape, and these smaller footprints support more productive and diverse crops. With dense populations and dangerous environmental pollutants, cities also require more rigorous agricultural management to safeguard the health and safety of their growing areas. Current regulations in Havana ensure that plants and animals grown in low-tech enterprises are done so in accordance with human health and sanitation laws, but little oversight ensures compliance.

Without articulating a specific design form, Havana’s current office of urban agriculture prescribes six design mandates: agroecology and sustainable agriculture; production diversity; small-scale crops for state, cooperative, and private groups; economic adequacy; preserving harmony with the urban environment; and preservation of the goals of the Revolution. The state provides design guidelines that are technical rather than formal, describing how to orient beds for optimal solar access, where and how to plant trees and shrubs, and other pragmatic farming tips. The office of urban agriculture in Havana has developed a lengthy list of target goals, which include the following objectives for urban farms: processing and distributing food; reusing material resources; improving food security; increasing the amount of food available to the poor in urban areas; increasing access to fresh food; increasing the variety and nutritional value of available food; eliminating poverty by generating income and jobs; strengthening local economies; and converting underutilized vacant land or green space for productive uses. These administrators state that urban agriculture should contribute to human and environmental health, restore traditional farming methods and medicinal plants, and improve both soil and urban microclimates. Even in the absence of formal design goals, they provide broad program guidelines and standards that could lead the state to adopt a more holistic and cohesive design language.

These design goals and physical guidelines have been made available to farmers through the state’s agricultural support network in an effort to develop a countrywide urban farming vision. Very few design firms, however, have consulted on projects that implement these directives. Two notable designers, Maria Caridad Cruz and Jorge Peña Diaz, are working to repair this divide. They teach design principles of urban farming through two different state-based organizations, which may affect change in the perception of formally designed agricultural landscapes for a new generation of students.

New Natural Infrastructures

That urban farming emerged in almost every physical context in Havana is a testament to the flexibility of the movement’s design, the tenacity of the Cuban growers, and the support of the Cuban government. These growing spaces are truly “architectural accretions, layerings of program and use, existing infrastructures made useful,” in what landscape architect Chris Reed calls the “new civic realm, one created by appendage and insertion.” This creative space appropriation also points to a new form of ecological urbanism that American landscape theorists see as a critical platform for environmental stewardship. Landscape architect James Corner’s assertion that “ecologically aligned landscape architects see cities as grossly negligent with regard to nature” may well be true, but in Havana, gardens serve useful ecological functions within the city that may begin to repair this divide. Productive urban landscapes demand the theoretical reframing of outdated conceptions around the division of nature and the city. The infusion of productivity into this infrastructure also stands to recast urban landscapes, from what Corner calls “a bourgeois aesthetic” to something far more vital. The pairing of landscapes of pleasure and of utility could link the living tissue of the city to urban needs and values, lot by vacant lot.

Havana’s urban agriculture emerged as an infrastructural response rather than a set of discrete architectural interventions. Despite its organizational legibility, the city’s farming system stems from unplanned and informal design decisions, with an aesthetic identity more in line with landscape urbanism than the disciplines of architecture and urban planning. However, designers could contribute important ideas for the development and deployment of urban gardens, and, in doing so, could improve the relevance of their chosen profession. As Havana’s economy opens up to the competing land uses of tourism and industrial production, urban farming will need to stake its claim on available land in the city.

Courtesy of Russel Fernandez/ Princeton Architectural Press

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1: Urban Farming in Cuba

Essay: Urban Emergency, Zachary Lamb

Chapter 2: Networks and Garden Typologies

Essay: Gardens of Pleasure and Survival, Fritz Haeg

Chapter 3: Support

Essay: Evolving Design Roles, Jorge Peña Díaz

Chapter 4: Designing and Planning

Essay: The Productive City, Jonathan Tate

Chapter 5: Moving Forward

Afterword

Appendix A: Monthly Ration

Appendix B: Typical Products

Appendix C: Agricultural Groups

Contributors

Acknowledgments

Cite: Carey Clouse. "Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up" 15 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=514669>
  • Fitz

    All this it is is a mere reaction to your government starving you to death in quite a literal sense. You start to grow anything you possibly can anywhere you possibly can. And then come the privileged elite architects and call it an extraordinary revolution.

  • Cubaverdad

    This “urban agriculture” is a joke on a national level. It is no solution. Cuba’s agricultural output continues to drop. Only wholesale reform of the agricultural sector with real private initiative will help production. Urban agriculture is the result of a system of poverty. In Europe in WW2 people also turned parks, gardens and balconies in to gardens.
    The so praised “ecological farming” is a result of need: lack of access to fertilizers and other.

    • pipo

      Very true…sad that people become blind to theory when it clearly does not work.
      I was born and raised there and can honestly say that the entire political system does not work.