Make No Little Plans

Darwin Kelsey, Executive Director

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with every growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

— Daniel H. Burnham

 That quotation attributed to Daniel Burnham early in the 20th century has inspired and encouraged millions. Today, he no doubt would have said our sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters – but the rest of his words remain timeless and powerful. We hope the planning process that the Countryside Conservancy (CC) and Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) have embarked on – to create a Countryside Center – will measure up to the character and quality of planning Burnham championed.

The Countryside Center, as now being envisioned, will become the administrative and programming hub for both the Countryside Initiative (CI) and CC.  Its demonstration gardens, teaching kitchens, classrooms, historical exhibits, and special event facilities – if/when achieved – promise to become an important CVNP destination.

As part of the initial planning process, this past Fall I prepared the first draft for a “foundation document” – a formal statement of the Center’s core mission – to help guide planning and development.  It included historical sketches of the origins and purposes of both CVNP and CC – and a common reaction, even among CC and CVNP staff, was “I didn’t know that”.  And they suggested I break the foundation document into smaller digestible parts for sharing, over a period of months, on the CC blog.  The first excerpt is attached.

From the Countryside Center Foundation Document

Darwin Kelsey, Executive Director

II. Why A Countryside Center?

  1. America’s Current Industrial Food System is Unsustainable

There is a growing awareness among people, rural and urban, that something is fundamentally wrong with America’s food system.  On the one hand, for most Americans, our current industrial food system begun in the decades following World War II, provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient.  Yet, it is increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems:  Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply.  The number, complexity, and severity of such problems simply were not anticipated in the 1950s and 60s.  In 2012, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without fairly radical change – and that will impact the lives of all Americans.

2. Prerequisites for Change

Agricultural economist John Ikerd writes that people do not make big changes unless three conditions exist.  First they must become convinced that the current system isn’t working, and isn’t going to work in the future – we have to have a good reason to change.  Second, we must have a clear vision of what we could do that is fundamentally better than what we are doing today.  Third, we must believe it is actually possible, even if not quick and easy – most people do not pursue impossible dreams.  Change, Ikerd says, can be risky, uncomfortable, difficult, and painful – lacking any of the three preconditions for change, most people will keep on doing what they are doing.

Hence, context matters: 2012 is not 1950, nor 2050.  Many Americans are now aware of problems beginning to plague our current industrial food system, problems which are going to get worse:  Expensive energy, access to water, and unstable weather patterns.  But for now, for the great majority of Americans, the current system is still working – so the need to change is not perceived as urgent.  And the good news is, America (unlike Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed), should have several years to experiment with and implement viable alternatives to the current system.  For America, survival as a nation will not hinge on two or three years of desperate, radical restructuring of our food system.  For us, change can come more slowly, and less painfully.

Many scientists and economists – those not intellectually and economically invested in maintaining the current industrial food system – believe that by 2050 farming and food production systems across America will have had to be rescaled, reorganized, and relocalized in order to effectively cope with  the problems noted above. Some estimate that by 2050 nearly 30% to 40% of our food can and will be grown in the metroregions where it is consumed.  But that would require hundreds of thousands of new (smaller, more diversified) farms, and millions of new farmers.  It would require roughly 10% of our population in 2050 to be involved in farming and food production for a livelihood  – as it was in 1950.

Just as important as generating new farmers and building a robust local food market economy is revitalizing the household economy within American households. One of the most dramatic shifts of industrialization was the shift of the production of many basic goods and services – including food, medicine, energy, education, and entertainment – from the household economy to the market economy. While this increased employment and the size the formal market economy, it resulted in Americans losing the skills necessary to provide for many of their own needs.  Given the uncertainty we now face in the formal market economy and the vulnerability of many of our major systems to climate change and energy resource depletion, it’s essential that we begin re-skilling American households so that they can produce many of their own goods if need be. And, if we are to start rebuilding the informal household economy we must begin in the heart of it: The garden.

Millions of new farmers and gardeners must be re-skilled in order to transition to a healthier, more resilient, and energy efficient food production system. While the scale of this undertaking can seem unimaginable and unmanageable in the short term, we are already witnessing a reawakening of the farming and gardening impulse in American culture. This is expressed both as an increase in the popularity of backyard gardening as well as through a growing number of young and beginning farmers.  Though many must, most people will not become farmers (in the sense of producing for market). So in addition to repopulating the rural American landscape with small farms, we must also repopulate the fire escapes, front porches, and backyards of urban and suburban America with home gardens.

To tip the scales we must create more local opportunities and resources for the re-skilling of our communities. We must engender a shift within American culture that appreciates the values of hard work, self-reliance, thrift, craftsmanship, care, and conservation. Everyone needs to do something – from the smallest container garden on up for our culture to change.  It is reported that of the nearly 164,000,000 households in the United states, about half “gardened” during the past year.  Significant culture change may not be an impossible dream.

3. An Important Part of the Solution

Why a Countryside Center?  Because America does have a very real, very major problem:  The industrial food system which currently supplies roughly 98% of all the food consumed in America has a pattern of problems which make it unsustainable.  Concepts for something fundamentally better already do exist.  And the Countryside Center has the potential to be an especially effective contributor to making their realization possible.

The Countryside Center will become a source of inspiration, and re-skilling necessary for individual and collective action to build more resilient, sustainable, community-based food systems.  They will be highly diversified and widely distributed across families, neighborhoods, communities, and regions.  The Center will gather many of the best ideas from across the country, then model and demonstrate them onsite – for replication by Center visitors; for adaptation by a growing network of interested local, state, and national parks; and for adaptation by other sustainable farming/food organizations.

The Countryside Center’s potential to become a significant contributor to fundamental change in America’s food culture rests first on the unique partnership between CC and CVNP – their purposes, programs, and resources.  The character and strength of that partnership creates a foundation for a much broader collaboration of Cleveland-Akron area partners interested in a revitalized local food system (city-county agencies, schools, universities, health care organizations, restaurants, food processors, faith communities, social service agencies, etc.)  And the CC-CVNP partnership has already worked its way through numerous complex regulatory impediments to create a unique educational program within the National Park Service.  No other unit of NPS is as well prepared, or as well positioned, to provide leadership in helping define an appropriate role for NPS in the reshaping of America’s food culture.

Such a role was partially anticipated in the Cooperative Agreement signed by CC and CVNP in 1999, which launched the Countryside Initiative.  Much of what was envisioned then – let alone our current more ambitious vision – will never be realized without the kind of support facilities and programs described here as the Countryside Center.


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