From Farm to City: Staten Island, 1661-2012. Panorama of the Harbor of New York, Staten Island and the Narrows, 1854. Nagel & Weingartner, printmakers. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
“Olmstead on Staten Island: The Rural Laboratory” at the Museum of the City of New York was further reviewed by a panel of experts from a diverse field of backgrounds. Allan Brake hosted the panel, Ryan Carey served as the historian as well as the co-creator of the exhibit, and Tatiana Choulika is a Landscape Architect at the Fresh Hills Project. Lastly was Gus Jones, one of the last two farmers on Staten Island and owner of the Snug Harbor farm. The combination of these four experts provided the audience with a wealth of information on the past and future of the agricultural industry.
Frederick Law Olmstead–most famous for designing Central Park–came to Staten Island in 1848 in order to study agroecology, also known as scientific farming. Olmstead was what you called a gentleman’s farmer. A gentleman’s farmer works the land, in order to experiment and advance the agricultural industry.
Olmstead had recently failed as a farmer on a 78-acre farm in his hometown of Connecticut. It was soon after his failed attempt that John Olmstead, Fredrick’s father, purchased his son a new plot of land on Staten Island. This hobby turned out to serve as his first design project. Staten Island was the farming county of New York, but was also used as a countryside retreat for the elite upper class.
Staten Island gets a bad wrap but is an essential piece of New York and should not be underestimated. The lack of public transportation allowed Staten Island to isolate itself and sustain its ecological balance away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Unlike the traditional layout of the other four boroughs of New York, Staten Island was urbanely planned in a curvilinear manner and not on the grid, which has a controlled response for a more free flowing neighborhood and more space to plot farms.
When Robert Moses made the decision to construct the Verrazano Bridge it opened up another means of transportation to and from the island. However, the influx of cars increased and the new road infrastructure disrupted the green belt of Staten Island.
New York City produces more garbage then anywhere on the planet. The garbage used to be processed at Fresh Kill Landfill, located on Staten Island. This landfill is four times larger then Central Park. The name originated from its location along the banks of Fresh Kills estuary along the western side of Staten Island. A landfill is mostly seen as volatile and appalling, however this Fresh Kills Land Fill now serves as a recreational green space where you can walk and kayak along the wet lands depending on the seasons.
Fresh Kill Landfill mastered the art of biodiversity within soil. This massive project must balance the nutrients in the soil everyday in order to contain the stench, but also decompose the garbage and allow for additional garbage layering. New York has suppressed the importance of maintaining the soil and still deprives the soil of its proper ecological balance. As a result, we rely heavily on large industrial farms to fill the agricultural void. However, industrial farming is a major contributor to global warming.
How do we sustain what little remains of our fertile land? Gus Jones stressed the importance of research development in order to improve the current studies of soil biodiversity and agroecology. Urban farming will not produce enough produce to fulfill the massive demand. However, small urban farming projects will help shift the industry away from industrial demands and toward organic approaches. That being said, this is a massive task. The industry will be less efficient and production rate will fall, which immediately turns many heads due to the decrease in profit. However, if agricultural industries continue to invest in research and development, they will be able to regain the production rate that they use to achieve.
Most importantly rooftop gardens and small urban farms will involve local communities and re-educate them on the importance of soil ecology. Climate change will soon be irreversible unless we change the lifestyle that we all grew accustomed to.
“Olmstead on Staten Island: The Rural Laboratory” at the Museum of the City of New York is a fascinating exhibit to visit. Olmstead’s personal maps and farming apparatuses are on display along with a plethora of information dealing with urban farming on Staten Island. The exhibit’s look into Staten Island’s past will give us some insight into its future.