Berkeley as edible city: A new guide to urban foraging

According to Edible Cities creator Cristian Ionescu-Zanetti, we should always be foraging for, rather than paying dollars for, lemons

Berkeley resident Cristian Ionescu-Zanetti has created an online resource for urban foragers, and believes our city is the perfect place to take advantage of it. Here he explains how he came up with the idea for the mapping tool, and why you should never, ever need to buy lemons or rosemary in a store again.

Berkeley is a great walking city. That was at the top of our list when we decided to settle our small, but growing, family on the sunny side of the bay. Walking to the store, library, or school became paramount once kids were added to the mix. With infants, sometimes just walking around the block is what the doctor ordered. And, as my wife Mia often points out, the walking happens at a slower pace, allowing one to notice more and absorb the details of the neighborhood in a different way altogether.

Around 2006, I started noticing the public edibles throughout Berkeley, and began to wonder if my kids would ever enjoy foraging, the way I did as a kid in growing up in Bucharest.

Edible Cities started as a pen and paper exercise of mapping our neighborhood. Talking with friends about the concept threw up the good suggestion of turning the paper trail into a public map on Google — people would be able to contribute and share sources as the map got passed around among friends.

The limitations of a straight Google map approach quickly became apparent: updating species-specific map icons was painstaking, and it was easy for contributors to accidentally move or erase markers; as the entries multiplied, the inability to select a specific type of tree to display made the map look crowded and hard to use.  This wasn’t going to be a scalable solution.

That’s when Daniele Malleo, a tech-literate friend, got involved. In addition to his own contributions, Daniele was able to identify the right resources to make a more satisfying mapping tool a reality. With a good bit of time spent after-hours, and a bit of personal investment, we finally got a presentable version of the website going and went live a couple of months ago.  You can check it out at Edible Cities.

The interface was designed for simplicity and ease of use: contributors can add edible sources without having to register or log in, by simply right-clicking at any map location. Made a mistake? No problem: just write ‘test’ in the notes field and the entry will be removed when the list is periodically curated.  This allows us to get around the accidental erase issue.

If you have suggestions, or can contribute to the mapping interface, we would love to hear from you. Click here to email comments and suggestions.

Mapping Berkeley is well under way but we’d love for Berkeleyside readers to contribute. Have a look at the map and see what else you find while taking a stroll in your neighborhood.  I found that once you start looking, many more sources will jump out at you.  Slowly, the perspective changes from looking at the landscaping as an architectural element to looking at it as a possible food source. It’s rewarding, and opens up a new way to interact with the urban landscape. (You can also use Twitter to insert new entries. Just tweet the name of the fruit or plant and the corresponding address to @edblcities. For example: @edblcities: lemon tree on Milvia and Hearst.)

You might say, OK, what does this really have to do with me? What can I do with this resource?  Perhaps the most important aspect is education: kids need to learn where food comes from, and adults need a refresher as well.

During the process of putting together Edible Cities, we starting putting some thought into the practical implications of this new way of looking at our city and how it might change the status quo.

Right now there is a great variety of trees and shrubs growing in the city, and even some “bottled water” crops like lemons and rosemary that you should never, ever, buy at the store.  They are so plentiful, it simply makes no sense.

There is another class of plentiful crops, we call them “more power to you” crops. If you can harvest and find a good use for these, we’ll give you a big pat on the back. They include cherry plums and loquats; these are difficult to eat raw in quantity, but can yield great jams and jellies. The city and the neighbors will be happy to have you get rid of the mess of unused fruit as well!

The environmental impact could also be, we believe, significant. Looking at the tree density in Berkeley as compared to a commercial orchard, they are quite similar (see below):

A back-of-the-envelope calculation might go as follows: we consume an average of two pieces of fruit daily; each house has about three people, and in the edible city Utopia about three mature fruit trees are planted on the street space around it. Each mature tree yields roughly 200-300 fruit per harvest, so this could account for half of the total fruit consumption of the city. Adding on parks and other open spaces, as well as back yard, we could get close to 100% of the city’s needs being met. So much for the Utopia.

We also started to look at other similar efforts – efforts aimed at increasing awareness and mapping the urban forest. It quickly became apparent that the Edible Cities effort wasn’t the first of its kind; great ideas often emerge in multiple places and at similar times. First, there is the locavore/slow food movement. Popularized by Berkeley resident and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, it proposes that we should strive toward locally produced food (healthier and more sustainable). Of course, food production doesn’t get any more local, or sustainable than foraging.

Looking at edible fruit mapping in particular, there are a number of other local movements aimed at promoting the use of edibles grown in urban environments. Fallenfruit of Los Angeles was one of the earliest. With a focus on art inspired by the urban harvest, they have have started a trend of creating PDF maps of one neighborhood at a time that marks tress within a few blocks radius and posting the printable maps online.

Portland has its own burgeoning mapping effort at Urban Edibles, again based on a straight Google maps interface, and so does Oakland (Forage Oakland). Municipalities are starting to take notice, with Seattle planning an edible plants only park and LA having commissioned an art project that turns a large lawn into an orchard.

Given all of the growing local interest and established local movements taking a fresh look at foraging, we think the best way Edible Cities could contribute to the movement is by providing a mapping engine for others to use; it is readily accessible and has already been tailored to the mapping of edibles. We are working with a number of sustainable living communities across the country to distribute the mapping engine, and have had the first one go live (Code Green Community) in Tampa, FL.

We started getting the word out over the past month, and the response has been great. Just how diverse the contributors are become apparent in this world view of the map. In some ways it’s more exciting to take the message to places that are not as environmentally conscious as the Bay Area. EdibleCities is still in its infancy, and we know that there is a way to go – one of the obvious improvements is to have a mobile version of the site, and we plan to unveil that next month.

Here in Berkeley, we hope you’ll enjoy this new resource, contribute, and share your thoughts with us. Most importantly, take a stroll around your neighborhood and take a fresh look at the urban landscape.

Is this a Death Cap? Mushrooms: the good the bad and the ugly [12.05.11]
Field trip highlights programs in food-forward Berkeley [11.04.11]
Berkeley’s Natasha Boissier forages fruit, feeds hungry [02.04.11]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • FiatSlug

    Is this map limited to people who make their produce available for foraging?

    I foresee a problem with locations appearing on the map owned by people who either (1) have no idea that such a map exists and/or (2) do not want to volunteer their produce.

    We have had incidents where people simply came onto our property, unwelcome to do so, to pick from a tree that did produce a desirable fruit (I’d rather not say what species).  

    What’s the basis for a location’s appearance?

  • signoradefarge

    I was thinking the same thing.  It sounds to me like “foraging” is a euphemism for stealing from other people’s property.  He had better not set foot in my yard.

  • South Berkeley

    Yes, how do you determine what is a “public” tree? We have a lemon tree in our front yard (behind a fence) and people frequently come in our front yard to pick the lemons (which we actually use frequently ourselves). I can imagine someone posting the location of our tree on the map without our consent.

    In general, as an avid gardener and forager, I think this map is a good idea. I’m just concerned about what is “public.”

  • Bruce Love

    Here we have a good argument for an even stronger form of Hahn’s proposal to allow residential-compatible commercial growing and selling in residential neighborhoods.   The main improvement needed to the proposal is to permit wholesaling (say, up to 1 visit per 2 days in nothing larger than a pick-up truck) as an alternative to the up-to-10 retail customer visits per day.    Urban farming need not be any more damaging to residential peace and quiet than landscapers (minus noisy mowers and leaf blowers).

    The map helps to make the case that Berkeley’s residential areas can be usefully even more productive than they already are.   Much more productive.  Perhaps that can even help to support home values.

    The idea that foraging is the right model, though, seems problematic to me.   On the one hand, foraging bypasses any chance for food safety testing.   On the other hand, promoting foraging seems like aiming for a tragedy of the commons.

    Foraging already happens, of course.  I even met one family with a productive front yard (that’s also highly ornamental!).   I asked if they were fans of permaculture (which does encourage fouraging).   They wryly explained that no, nothing like that… “they just grow the stuff and sometimes people come to collect some … and then more grows!”  Nope, no permaculture there! :-)    Thankfully, they aren’t on the map.   Of course, I know others with a similar front yard who grow for household use where foraging would be unwelcome.

    What a map like this does, though, is try to take foraging from the casual, quiet level to a competitive game of resource extraction.    I think this is similar to the situation of recycling poaching.

    We know from recycling poaching that if people can eek out some semblance of subsistence by roaming the streets and collecting large quantities of stuff of modest value, not only will it happen but it will turn into a competitive, unregulated, micro-industry complete with territory fights, trespassing, and so on.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Don’t be stealin’ my lemons…my daughter has a lemonade stand.

  • TN

    We’ve also had a similar problem though not with fruit. When we lived in a house with an open front yard, someone completely stripped our Hydrangea of all the blossoms. I didn’t know at the time but it turned out that dried Hydrangea flowers can be sold to be used as a part of flower arrangements.

    We did give away flowers to people who practiced the common courtesy of asking before taking.

    This idea needs a lot more social refinement.

  • The Sharkey

    Good points, Bruce.

    I like the idea of “crop swaps” and it’s always great when a neighbor with too many lemons or zucchinis puts out a box of free produce, but it seems like this kind of a map might encourage pilfering without permission.

  • Gardener

     I’ve got to agree with some of the skeptics here. I put a lot of work into my yard and don’t want it listed (I checked and it isn’t). For me it’s one thing for a neighbor to come by and grab something, but quite another to make a public list available for harvesters.

    I guess I’d probably have the website have a very easy button allowing a homeowner to remove a plant. That person should be able to check a box saying “this is my plant and I don’t want it listed.” There could also be a button “this is my tree and I am happy to have it listed” that would prevent others from deleting it.

    An addition I think would be cool is to also have “census” data here. How many lemon trees are listed in Berkeley? I’d be happy to have my plants listed in the census, but not on the map, so perhaps there could be a “hidden plant” option as well.

  • FiatSlug

    Your suggestions are good, and they should be practical to implement.

  • Heather_W_62

    I had to laugh when I read this; ”
    began to wonder if my kids would ever enjoy foraging, the way I did as a kid in growing up in Bucharest”.

    Dude, kids have been foraging in Berkeley forever!

  • Heather_W_62

    Glad my fruit trees are in the backyard. I’d be kinda pissed off if people started wandering down to pick my figs and cherries without my permission. 

  • TizziLish

    When I lived in Mountain View, I walked by two grapefruit trees daily on my way to my daily lap swim. It was a rental property and it was very obvious no one ever harvested the grapefruit — fruit was nearly always rotting on the ground.  I felt pretty sure no one in the world would have minded me taking a couple grapefruit from the tree . . . . but I never took any because it is stealing, isn’t it?

    I love the idea of mapping out edible, forageable fruit. Perhaps this project could attach an envirionmentally safe placard/sign indicating whether or not an individual fruit tree is available for foraging.

  • Barbara Yoder

    One of the programs offered by Spiral Gardens in Berkeley is The Community Harvest Project, which “assists private homeowners and the community by harvesting excess fruit from backyard and community trees and distributing what would otherwise go to waste to people in need.” I think this is how it works: Homeowners who have more fruit than they can use contact Spiral Gardens, which sends a team of volunteers to harvest. I think this model makes good sense. It provides a useful service. The map, without controls, could promote unwelcome pilfering of urban gardens. I’m happy to share produce with my neighbors and even passersby who stop to chat. I think our neighborhood Crop Swap is big fun. But I would not want anyone else to post my garden on their online map. I want to keep my sharing of produce personal.

  • Alina

    Their site has a tab for “ethics”.  “Respect others and their property.  If a tree seems like it may not be on public property, ALWAYS reach out to the property owner to ask for permission. In a large majority of cases, people are happy to share their harvest.
    This is a good practice even where people have planted trees on the
    center divide of a public street, especially when the property owner is
    clearly tending to said fruit trees.
    On a side note to my fellow Romanian forager – si eu care credeam ca sunt singura care mananca corcodusele din Ohlone Park :) 

  • iicisco

    I see potential theft problems. I know I definitively wouldn’t appreciate some random person coming on my property to pick my lemons!

  • I pick blackberries of course.  They are a weed and the owners would be happy to get rid of them, so should not mind me taking berries.

    Plums are plentiful in season, so I pick them too.  I have talked to a few owners about their trees; none of them even knew the fruit was edible, and all were happy for me to pick what I wanted.

    Citrus, apples, pears, pomegranates, any other high-value fruit: no, not without explicit permission from the owner.  Even if there’s fruit rotting on the ground: no.  Ask the owner.

    Flowers: are you kidding me? Only an asshole picks flowers.

    This map would be great if all entries are checked for explicit permission before being posted.  If not, it just encourages theft.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I’ve had people steal whole plants from my yard.  I made the mistake of leaving the black plastic pot that a plant came in near my trash bin (then in the front of the house) so that I could take it for recycling.

    I came out to find a hole in the ground and the plant pot gone too.  I called BPD and was advised to “check the Ashby swap meet” the following weekend as it would surely be there. 

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I remember Michael Pollan writing about “usufruct” in one book or other.  What I recall is that the fruit is fair game if it can be accessed from the public space.  So, if I can get your lemon from the sidewalk, it’s OK.  Going around your fence and into your yard would not be OK.  

  • The Sharkey

    I was given the same advice when I reported a stolen bike.

    Considering how aware the police are that the Ashby swap meet is a venue for selling stolen goods, I’m surprised it hasn’t been shut down.

  • TN

    I’d go further. I’d like to see a positive “opt-in” system and not the “opt-out” system that you’re suggesting. If the tree is on private property, the website should not list it without explicit permission from the owner/tenant to do so.

    This discussion is kind of sad. You would hope that common sense and courtesy would prevail. Everyone would share and be happier. But many of us in Berkeley have had bad experiences with people taking things from our gardens without permission.

    One of the issues with unsupervised foraging is that the tree itself can be harmed by improper removal of fruit. This happened to us once at an office space we rented in Oakland. Someone jumped the fence and stripped the lemon tree in the court yard. Unfortunately they didn’t know how to pick lemons. They cut the fruit off taking more of the stem and branches than necessary. They thereby took the points of the branches where the subsequent fruit bearing branches would grow. It took two years for the tree to recover.

  •  When I lived in Oakland, a neighbor with a lemon tree in the front yard (clearly on their property, but with no fence between the tree and the street), I always enjoyed the hand-lettered sign adorning the tree: “Warning: Fruit contains Bird Virus”

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Maybe if word got out that the Chief’s son’s iPhone was on sale there….

  • Biker 94703

    Ah I see my trees are listed.  Now I can have more jerks stealing fruit before it is ripe.  Thanks internet.

  • South Berkeley

    I would be upset if someone picked blackberries from my yard. If the owners thought they were a weed, they would remove them.

  • EdibleCities

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all of the comments and all the ‘likes’.  I see that there are a lot of concerns about private property and pilfering of fruit…

    We’ve done our best to have contributors only add public sources, or get the permission of property owners otherwise.  This is clearly stated in our ‘ethics’ section.  However this is a crowd sourced map and anybody with a browser can visit the site and add sources.

    Here’s how we’re dealing with it:  If your tree is listed and you’d like it removed, please email us with your address and the tree and we’ll get it off the map w/in the day.

  • Kay

    Keep your hands off my blackberries! We use them for preserves and pies!

  • tenjen

     While I love the idea of “foraging” and not letting untended food go to waste, you really do have a problem here. There could be scads of private fruit trees, etc., listed here without the owners’ knowledge, and how are they supposed to know there’s a map out there, let alone request that they be taken off it? (This reminds me of a friend who used to live here and was constantly aggravated by people coming in his yard to help themselves to bamboo shoots. Who knows, maybe there was a bamboo-shoot-loving network out there telling people where they could pilfer?)

  • tenjen

     You know that, and I know that, but try telling that to some of the various folks wandering our streets and helping themselves to anything not nailed down…

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Ridiculous. Why is the burden on us to opt out? What keeps someone from putting us back on?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I agree. And I don’t like this site inciting even more of that. For context, the patch is reporting two hot prowl burglaries in Berkeley this week.

  • Bbreyes

    dear edible cities,
    what is your address and what can i come over and pick ?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Funny you should mention that.  I looked it up using publicly available information — turnabout is fair play — and the address I found for the creator of this thing is a building without a whiff of greenery in front.  Even the tree strip is concrete.  Perhaps he has moved to a new address, but since he mentions having done this since 2006, I think there’s a noticeable lack of symmetry in Dr. Ionescu-Zanetti’s scheme.

    There are other, less troubling approaches available.  The crop swaps are opt in.  So are postings on freecycle and similar sites.  But to just publish other people’s information to the maximum available audience without permission seems worse and worse the longer I think about it.

    The only rational response that I can think of to this thing is to “chaff” it — cover the map in bogus entries so that it is rendered useless.  

  • Guest

    A truly goofy idea.  Michael Pollan (whose name is misspelled in the piece) to the contrary not withstanding, fruit which “can be accessed from the public space” is not fair game for snatchers.   Substitute “bicycle” and you’ll get the idea–you can’t just reach over a fence and take what you can reach. 

  • rlauriston

    I guess it’s so poorly enforced that hardly anyone knows about it, but most of the Bay Area including all of Berkeley is in the federal Light Brown Apple Moth quarantine regulated zone, and it’s illegal to transport fruit or other green plant material unless it was commercially grown or approved by an agricultural official.

  • Tara

    Wow, I am so excited to find your site.  Ignore all the ridiculous comments here by the “Don’t eat my tree” Americans.  How annoying, no one is using all the fruit on their tree!.  I live in Richmond, Virginia and I am mapping the edible plants of our area.  My experience is most people don’t care about their fruit trees, heck our neighbor just cut down his old plum tree because it was a nuisance!  If you are a forager, you follow these rules, never trespassing into someone’s yard, if your tree is hanging in public space…that is public fruit, and ask permission of the owner.  It is not difficult to do, and almost everyone I have asked was more than happy to have you use the fruit.  Americans have real issues with common sense and property, as illustrated by the comments to this article.  Thanks! (I am an American whose family goes back to the beginning, both Native American and European, it is our right as humans to forage, with respect)

  • Liz Lemon

    Wow, some nasty and selfish comments here. Maybe it would help if you put a sign warning people off your property right beside your lemon trees or whatever berry plants.