Urban Foraging: Where the Sidewalks End

What’s growing in between the cracks of pavement, on the edges of your parking lot? Have you ever considered that there might be a meal available to you where your cement steps meet the courtyard?

Iain Kerr has. He, as part of the ecological research and design firm SPURSE, is dedicated to edible urban environments and connecting people to where they live, believing that if people are invested in their immediate community by way of eating what is growing around them, they will be motivated to become stewards of that community at their very feet.

Iain took the time to talk with us about the idea of “urban foraging,” how to go about it, and what to make from what you find. Get yourself set for some Dandelion Wine….



SPURSE: Mid-Winter Foraging Feast, Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, NY

1. DIY Food: Talk to us a bit about how your interest in foraging for food in urban environments began and how it eventually evolved.

Iain: There are really two answers, a more personal one and one relating to SPURSE:

I grew up in Vancouver and from a very early age my brother and I were the family pickers (we did not know the term “foraging”) -- my Dad had us out most days in spring, summer and fall picking something -- salmon berries, salal berries, choke cherries and much else... The basement would always be full of pickles, preserved mushrooms, jams, and juices. We both loved and hated doing it. It took us far off the paths and deep into the local forests. My mother is also a remarkable forager, as a young child, she was a refugee in Germany at the end of the Second World War. They survived by learning how to forage and she has always shared that passion with us.

SPURSE is as a research and innovation lab for ecological alternatives and we came to the realization early on that fundamental to any form of ecological change is connecting people directly to where they live. We all need to become knowingly dependent on our immediate environment if we want people to really sense what it is to be responsible for the environment -- otherwise it is just too abstract and we are too deeply linked to a consumer mindset.

We like to call this “being-of-the-world” as opposed to simply “being-in-the-world”. Foraging your immediate environment is perhaps the most direct manner to begin this process of transformation. From this realization, combined with our personal histories (there are ten of us in SPURSE), we developed a campaign called “Eat Your Sidewalk”. One of our favorite parts of this is our one week challenge where we work with communities to eat nothing but what you can forage where you live. This is a fun challenge, great learning opportunity and community development practice -- as well it turns out surprisingly that it is not that hard.

2. DIY Food: How do you begin to dissolve the notion that food is only available for purchase at a store, market, organized farm?

Iain: It is both really simple: look under your feet where ever you are.  And it is exceptionally difficult, since we all have such a deep seated product based view of reality. On top of this we have been taught to both fear nature (“is it poisonous?”) and think that it is best if we never interact with it (“take only photos and leave only footprints”).

These combined deep seated habits mean that it is really hard to grasp where we live and what it means to be in an eco-system. The one week challenge is really good to short circuit these habits because it is long enough to give people a sense of their own powers and abilities. One of the great outcomes of foraging is that you begin to realize that in reality nothing is a product or a commodity until we make it one, for most people this comes as a really joyous realization that is quite empowering.



3.   DIY Food: Is urban foraging trash picking? What is it really, and what isn’t it?

Iain: Well -- there is no reason not to consider all of the freegan tactics part of foraging -- you can forage for just about anything from car parts to sweepings from the farmers market.

But that is not our focus. Our focus is on helping people connect directly with their spontaneously growing urban ecosystem. We focus on plants and animals, and less on gleaning. I guess part of why you ask this question is that we often think that we just won’t find anything living in our concrete jungles, but that’s mainly because we don’t know how to look and where to look. We have led foraging walks in downtown NYC and San Francisco and it is really surprising what can be foraged. Plants, roots, berries, barks, mushrooms, animals, fish, shellfish, seaweeds... A huge part of the issue is that we don’t recognize that our urban environments are thriving complex ecosystems -- but more on this later...

4.DIY Food:  How does urban foraging differ from foraging in rural areas?

Iain: This is a great question -- our focus has been on urban environments in the broadest sense of this term. We find that people often think that “nature” is something only found outside of cities, or if it is found in cities it is only in little well protected parks. But this is just not true -- urban environments, as more and more ecologists are coming to recognize, are distinct complex ecosystems in their own right and not simply massively degraded states of “nature”.

The main distinction between rural areas and urban ones would be that in urban ecosystems we find primarily the species that are most closely associated with humans and our various migrations. We might think of ourselves as “individuals” but in reality we are never alone and many species come with us as we migrate -- some deliberately and others on the bottoms of our shoes, in our stomachs, and the ballast of our boats. We are really a complex of species -- bees, earthworms, fungi, bacteria, plants and so on. So urban ecologies reflect the history of human migrations -- on the east coast you can trace Indian trade systems, and multiple waves of European, African and Asian migrations.



5. DIY Food: What sorts of positive implications does urban foraging have on the community, infrastructure, economy, and individuals? Any negative ramifications?

Iain: This is something that we have focused on in our research and development of programming.  Community foraging has many positive impacts for communities and their entangled ecosystems.

The first impact is the sheer joy of eating glorious seasonal fresh foods with your neighbors both human and non-human.
Foraging connects and joins you to the actual life of where you live. It makes us take responsibility directly for our environment. Scaling up, one of the biggest impacts on infrastructure, community and economy is that it shifts all of these systems towards more “Commons” based systems of social and political organization. This is a much more co-operative, and mutually interdependent local system. We are interested in how foraging can begin to make the Commons become a rich interspecies community and much less an exclusively human based idea.

Briefly, there are obvious important negative realities to these ideas -- primarily these involve exposing ourselves to harmful aspects of our environment. We see these as very important and constructive negativities -- these are the real catalytic issues to transform where we live into habitable places and healthy ecosystems. This has to be managed very carefully without giving up the ethical act of foraging where we live -- for our sense is that if we don’t then these areas will never be cleaned up.
Basic precautions should be observed and proactive actions should be undertaken -- get your city and neighbors to stop using toxins. Find out where your city sprays. Areas that are overrun and don’t look like perfect lawns are going to be more likely to healthy. For us it is important not to give into the belief in toxicity means that we can never eat from our environment -- we need to dig into transforming where we live into healthy ecologies, and this begins with cautious forms of joining our world.



6. DIY Food: Talk to us about health and safety for urban food foragers.

Iain: There are two parts to this: one is that we are taught to fear nature, the wilds and everything to do with the outdoors. Things are dangerous, you need experts. Best to just buy things, trust others. This has led to the situation that where we live is pretty toxic and it is only the very rich or lucky that live in clean environments. The answer is not to seal off the ground and import clean soil. We need to remediate where we live. Many spontaneously growing plants do a fantastic job at this as well as breaking up asphalt, developing soil and ground cover, etc. This will be a long process.

If it make sense testing is a great idea -- many colleges and universities offer soil testing programs. A little sleuthing will turn these up.

As foragers, in general we need to forage carefully avoiding areas that are heavily sprayed. And demanding that spraying and dumping etc. stop.

Poisonous plants are easily identified with a good guide and easily avoided with a little caution and common sense. In general we make far too much of a big deal about this. Learning about what is part of our world is a joyous fundamental aspect of curiosity, learning what to avoid, or use with caution is part of this care and curiosity.


7. DIY Food: What are the most commonly foraged foods available in urban environments in April and May?

Iain: It will vary with where you live -- spring is great for quite a bit: dandelions, spring onions, oysters, fiddlehead ferns, knotweed, garlic mustard. In fact, spring is a really important time to really get out there and harvest many items to freeze, ferment, pickle, dry etc. for the rest of the year. Share in the bounty of where you live.

This is something important to realize -- when foraging you need to take advantage of when things are in abundance. Don’t think of foraging as a dainty activity of collecting just a few herbs and leaves to put on the side of dinner. It works best when things are picked at a much larger scale.

This brings up the question of over-harvesting. Which is a common argument against foraging: if everyone starts foraging there will be nothing left and you will have destroyed a park or ecosystem (this is why many urban parks ban foraging). While this is a very common argument (it’s called “the tragedy of the commons”). It turns out that this rarely happens because communities form to self-manage usage -- the work of Elinor Ostrom is great in this regards. This is central to the logic of the Commons. We actually do not overharvest and when it happens there are community techniques to manage this -- there is no reason to utilize top down draconian techniques such as banning foraging.

For us, this emerging and self-regulating community of people working together is one of the greatest parts of foraging. The Commons and commoning go hand in hand with foraging.



Can you please share a recipe  using one or some spring foraged ingredients?

Iain: Here is a recipe from our forthcoming cookbook, “Eat Your Sidewalk”:

 Get this Dandelion Wine recipe


8. DIY Food: We can see how this could also be so beneficial to low income families in areas of the city commonly referred to as “urban deserts” where access to fresh produce and food is very limited or non-existent. Tell us about any programs or education of which you are aware that targets people in these communities.

Iain: We have been focusing on this. I think that it is important not to overstate the case for foraging -- foraging is not the answer -- we will need many integrated strategies that include community farms and markets. One of the great seemingly indirect benefits of foraging that has less to do with feeding an entire community is that it really supports and catalyzes bottom up strategies of the commons and place making that are essential to finding real opportunities and alternatives to simply convincing Whole Foods to move into another neighborhood.The other surprising truth is that the yield of most urban farms is both less in quantity and diversity of what can be found spontaneously growing in urban fields.



9. DIY Food: What are some of the best starting points and key information for beginning urban foragers?

Iain: We really encourage people to not wait -- even if you don’t know what a single plant is -- get out and walk your block. Pick things, and photograph things, make notes. Just get a sense of what is alive. How many plants are growing in the cracks of our sidewalk, at the edge of buildings? Now find ways to identify things -- there are many great guide books -- use what you can find in your local library or online -- we tend to prefer books. Find friends who might know a couple of plants, take a course, form a group. Begin with one plant -- say the wondrous and ubiquitous dandelion -- sauté it, make a salad with it, add it to a burger, dip the blossoms into batter and fry, just nibble the leaves raw.

10. DIY Food: What do you find are among the biggest motivators for people to begin practicing urban foraging?

Iain: For us it is always the sheer delight in finding delicious things right underfoot. Spending an afternoon foraging and then making a wonderful meal -- perhaps serving it with some dandelion wine or elderberry champagne helps! Too much of the environmental movement can see like a big downer. Foraging is most often simply a real joy. This is important to remember.

11. DIY Food: What are the obstacles to the urban foraging movement and how do you see them being overcome?

Iain: Again there are many obstacles -- our belief in products, our fear of nature, the deep seated sense that environmentalism asks of us to leave “nature” alone, that our environments everywhere are in not the greatest shape, habits, etc. In addition we have banned foraging from parks based (more on this below). But we don’t want to overstate any of this -- there is great reason to hope and be hopeful -- most of us pick things -- a flower, a leaf, a stone or nut. We have parents or grandparents or neighbors who forage. We buy things that also grow right under our feet. We are curious about our world...

12. DIY Food: Can you share some tools, resources, or communities of which you are aware that support urban foragers?

Iain: Where ever you are there is great material at your library, bookstore, or with your neighbors and if not start a group, in a book online. Look for people picking things, fishing at the pier (you see this all over NYC). A knife and a small shovel will help as will a good bag or pack. Walking or biking works best. For us, nothing needs to be fancy, overly organized, or dependent on experts -- most of us have the ability, tools and environments to forage just fine. Let your activities build a community. Talk to your neighbors -- ask if you can trespass, barter...



For more information about urban foraging and environments, visit spurse.org.

Images courtesy of SPURSE/Cole Caswell. Dandelion wine image: Thinkstock