Milwaukee was offered $5 million, and all it came up with were these lousy urban farming projects
Is Tom Barrett’s answer to the “Mayors Challenge” too modest, or just what Milwaukee needs?
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Back in June, in the wake of Historic Milwaukee’s “Envisioning The Seen” discussion at the Pabst Theater, news of an intriguing city-vs.-city competition began spreading through local social media circles. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had established a “Mayors Challenge,” asking communities across the country to come up with “innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life—and that can be shared with cities across the nation.” The city with the best idea would get a cool $5 million to put its plan into action, while the runners-up would receive $1 million. For those who found discussions like “Envisioning The Seen” too unfocused and self-satisfied, the contest seemed like a godsend. Finally, Milwaukee could put its money where its mouth was and prove to the country just how stuffed with innovative, dynamic, and brilliant thinkers it really was.
I briefly discussed the contest during an episode of The Disclaimer, a radio talk show I co-host with WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher and the Shepherd Express’ Evan Rytlewski. Channeling my inner crotchety old man (many have suggested I start calling these blogs “Get off my lawn!”), I predicted that even though a myriad of serious problems faced both our city and the country at large, Milwaukee would likely come up with a bunch of urban farming pitches. “Are you really talking smack about urban farming?” my co-hosts asked. No, I wasn’t, but urban farming seemed like the perfect non-controversial, predictable, and uber-trendy idea Milwaukee would wholeheartedly embrace. I expressed hope that someone would instead dream up a project that was both unexpected and inspired, and not something cribbed from an episode of Portlandia.
Now, two months later, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett has officially accepted Bloomberg’s challenge, issuing a citywide call for bright, innovative ideas. (Nearly 400 other American cities have taken up the challenge, too.) And guess what issue he’s asking applicants to address? You guessed it: urban fucking farming.
Well, urban agriculture and the nationwide foreclosure crisis, to be exact. Here’s Barrett’s pitch, taken from the newly minted, bizarrely titled “Tournavation” website (brought to you by the friendly young professionals at Newaukee!):
“Our challenge is to find out how to leverage the land and property assets in foreclosure to create greater and more efficient access to healthy, locally grown food for citizens in need of better food security. That’s where you, the people of Milwaukee, come in. I want your best and most creative ideas to include in this plan. Individuals and groups are asked to think about innovative solutions that can transform the vacant lots and abandoned properties—the casualties of the foreclosure crisis—into assets that will expand and strengthen Urban Agriculture to improve food security in Milwaukee, and cities across America.”
My first reaction when I read this “challenge” was to roll my eyes and shake my cane. This was the pressing problem we were being called on to solve? Turning vacant lots into urban farms? What about education? What about jobs? What about Milwaukee’s sad standing as one of the most segregated cities in America? Didn’t these problems trump the need for locally grown food? Peeved, I came up with a semi-clever title for this blog, took my customary shot, and started hammering away.
But several hours later, I had the sneaking suspicion I was wrong. Maybe urban agriculture is the sort of thing Milwaukee should be pursuing. Will Allen’s Growing Power is certainly one of the most high-profile urban agriculture businesses in the country, and it’s been making national headlines for years. Barrett says as much on the website:
“Growing food locally for local consumption has taken root in Milwaukee. Thanks to the leadership of organizations like Growing Power and Milwaukee Urban Gardens, local food production is growing. To truly harness the power of UA to address food security, there must be structural improvements in the local food supply and delivery chains to truly make a meaningful impact. Today, the supply chain is scattered, composed of some direct sales, farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (in which individuals purchase directly from farmers) and personal consumption. But local food is not always affordable compared to the cost of products from outside the region, nor is it easily available for purchase through nearly all traditional food outlets – supermarkets, corner stores, schools, and family restaurants.”
Urban agriculture also seems like the sort of small, manageable, and media-friendly issue Bloomberg’s challenge was designed to address. After all, how far does $5 million really go these days? And maybe that’s the source of my disappointment: for all its high hopes and lofty goals, the “Mayors Challenge” seems decidedly modest. Its list of “Great Examples” is pretty much what you would expect: New York is dreaming of “reimagining public space,” while Chicago wants to “empower its citizens.” Compared to those vague, feel-good propositions, Milwaukee’s goal of “improving food security” seems downright noble—small, but noble. Still, where are the big problems? The big solutions?
But that’s neither here nor there. To use the worst phrase on the planet, Bloomberg’s challenge “is what it is.” At the end of the day, even if our big idea fails to make the cut and win a single dime (Milwaukee applicants have until Aug. 24 to submit an idea; a finalist will be chosen Sept. 7), we’ll still have a host of ideas that we could implement ourselves. It’s just too bad that competitions like the “Mayors Challenge”—and the proposals those competitions inevitably receive—seem to set their sights so low. In our rush to hop aboard the latest urban planning bandwagon, we too often lose sight of the forest for the locally grown trees.