Sunday, July 31, 2011

Urban Foraging

In our subsistence strategy lecture, we mentioned that foraging is not something limited to the hidden corners of the Kalahari, but rather a practice that continues even in industrial societies. To prove this point, the New York Times published an article on Friday about foraging in New York parks. Either due to the continuing economic crisis or hipster appeal, there has recently been an upswing in urban foraging that has prompted New York City to enforce laws against this activity. As the article explains:
New Yorkers are increasingly fanning out across the city’s parks to hunt and gather edible wild plants, like mushrooms, American ginger and elderberries.

Now parks officials want them to stop. New York’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off.

“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.
Yet, as Melissa Poe, a researcher at the Institute for Culture and Ecology points out, these arguments are not so clear cut and more often than not tangled up with cultural ideologies such as the nature-culture dichotomy and an underlying assumption that human use is necessarily destructive. She notes:
Urban foraging and gathering is a vibrant and important practice for diverse urban communities. People gather plants, plant parts, fruits, nuts, salvaged fiber, and fungi in cities to support livelihoods, provide essential foods, medicine, and materials for households. Urban gatherers also express a range of non-utilitarian motivations derived from participating in gathering, including pleasure and enjoyment, connecting with the biophysical world, strengthening social ties, and
maintaining cultural traditions. In Seattle, gathering is also be one avenue through which urban residents care for their environment, for example, many gatherers intentionally steward important species and have developed strong connections with nature through their gathering practices.

Excluding gathering as a legitimate activity presents a number of disadvantages for urban greenspace managers: 1) It creates confusion about what kinds of plant material are acceptable to remove (invasives, tree fruits, berries?) and who can legitimately do so (restorationists? educators?); 2) It criminalizes what are often otherwise benign gathering activities occurring on public land; 3) It adversely impacts lower-income and food-insecure individuals who may make use of products in urban forests to meet some of their nutritional and medicinal needs; 4) It reduces the urgency for land managers to avoid using toxic herbicides and other chemicals in vegetation management; and 5) It fails to create incentives for gatherers, who often possess sophisticated local environmental knowledge, to become involved in broader city forest stewardship initiatives.
To read the article in the New York Times CLICK HERE.

Melissa Poe's comments appeared in the E-ANTH listserve (

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