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]

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