Agency and Community Resilience | Civil Eats

Agency and Community Resilience

The idea of community looms large in the current environmental debate. It offers a locus of action that complements both the national and international protocols and the individual behavioral changes that have, until recently, dominated the environmental agenda.

The practice of designing and redesigning for sustainable community development, however, still lags far behind. We are just beginning to understand what makes some communities thrive while others struggle.

For a community to thrive in a complex environment, it must strike a delicate balance between planning proactively and remaining alert to emergent, unexpected changes. This dance of prediction and adaptation is a hallmark of the human response to the complex dynamic environments in which we live and work. The capacity of an individual or community to plan or initiate action is known as the exercise of agency.

Without agency, communities and indeed civilizations can be swept away by the challenge of change. As explored in the works of writers such as Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, societies who lose the ability to perceive emergent change and adapt are likely to fail.

Brian Walker describes resilience as the capacity of a system to undergo change and still retain its basic function and structure, an ability that is partly manifest through the proper functioning of agency. A lack of agency leads directly to a lack of resilience.

Agency through Food Choices
Food is the natural system that individuals and communities interact with most often and most viscerally. As such, agency over our food systems can be a powerful locus of community resilience.

Particularly in the industrialized world, food choices have largely passed out of individual or community control. One indicator of community agency is the presence of urban agriculture. At present, 15% of the world’s food needs are met through urban production, but for the most part, industrialized countries have been fully integrated into a global food system. [1]

Despite this fading of urban agriculture in developed nations, the potential is very large. For example, a pilot study in Vancouver, Canada estimated that 32% of the land area in a 3.4 acre residential city block was suitable for growing edible crops. [2]

The Cuban Experience
The experience of the city of Havana, Cuba demonstrates how effective urban agriculture can be at providing for local needs. The fall of the Soviet bloc was a massive emergent event that threatened the Cuban economy with ruin. Before the collapse of the Soviet block Cuba had regulations against many urban agricultural activities and there was a broad social taboo against growing one’s own food.

The fall of the Society Bloc led to a 75% decline in imports to Cuba, including a 50% drop in fertilizer imports. Fortunately, within the populace there was a remainder of knowledge on how to grow food locally; and in a surprising move the central government decided to give agency to the local populace to produce their own food for use and resale. Laws were relaxed and scientists helped develop intensive urban growing methods. The 5000 or so urban gardens of Havana now produce as much as 16kg of produce per square meter. [3]

The Cuban citizenry was successful at enacting agency over their food security in part because most of the urban dwellers retained knowledge of rural living, including knowledge of local crops. North Americans do not carry such knowledge to the same degree and face other barriers, including prohibitive bylaws; the difficulty of preparing the plot initially, animal and human predation; and difficult soil and microclimate conditions.

Urban Farming Entrepreneurship
The need to overcome these barriers has led to the rise of a new sort of entrepreneur; part landscaper, part farmer, part educator. Two such organizations are Your Backyard Farmer of Portland, Oregon in the U.S. and City Farm Boy of Vancouver, Canada. These small businesses provide the set-up and labour needed to create an urban garden plot, and then maintain the crop as it grows.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Both organizations are driven by broader values of food resilience; City Farm Boy was founded to promote urban agriculture, farming and gardening as a viable and environmentally positive way to enhance landscapes and lifestyles. The founder of City Farm Boy sells excess at a local farmer’s market; he is certainly the most “local” local food grower at the market! Your Backyard farmer tends similar plots, educates residents on how to tend their own plots, and also grows for local restaurants. Both organizations have found that their customers become more engaged and gain greater agency over their own food choices as time passes. Customers begin to take part in seed selection, learn how to tend and harvest crops, and learn how to prepare new foods.

Agency and Resilience
In Walker’s article “Resilience Thinking,” he discusses how sea otters function as a keystone species, determining the regime of the near-shore ecosystems that they inhabit. If we apply the idea of “keystone species” to communities, we might say that food security represents one such keystone. The loss of local food security locks individuals and communities into a system that is environmentally damaging, socially unsustainable and physically unhealthy.

One of the ways that natural systems thrive in the face of change is through redundancy; if one species falls there is often another niche species ready to take its place. Within communities, we need the same variety of niche ideas and technologies. The Cuban example shows how a niche, in this case urban growing, can flower in a time of crisis to support community survival.

The food system is emerging as a bellwether of environmental practice. Early adopters act as “advertisers” of the new and novel. They work with farmer/educators to build knowledge and agency. Perhaps this is a key to enhancing the ability of communities to adapt in the face of rapid, turbulent change. We anticipate and plan, understanding that there will always be an element of surprise over which we have no control. Local resilience can help us weather such storms.

Originally published by People and Place. P&P publisher Ecotrust believes that our fundamental challenge is a broader understanding of the intimate relationship between the human condition and the health of all living systems.

[1] Katz, S. (2006) The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. Vermont: Chelsea green Publishing.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

[2] Levenston, M., J. Blecha, K. Schendel, & J. Houston. (2001). City farmer uses the latest aerial photos to find out how much food is grown in the city of Vancouver.

[3] Altieri, M. et al. (1999). The Greening of the “barrios”: Urban agriculture for food security in Cuba. Agriculture and Human Values 16: 131-140.

Authors Lenore Newman and Ann Dale are on the faculty of Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Local Food



Tracking Tire Plastics—and Chemicals—From Road to Plate

Can New York City Treat Its Food Scraps As More Than Trash?

Garbage bags full of waste, including compostable waste, pile up on the streets of new york city.

Senator Cory Booker Says FDA Proposal Could Worsen Antibiotic Resistance

A farmworker feeds cows in a barn.

Are Companies Using Carbon Markets to Sell More Pesticides?

a tractor sprays pesticides on a field while hazard symbols fade into the distance. (Civil Eats illustration)