Saturday, March 17, 2012

The fairytale of "free"

The latest concept to come out of Seattle isn't at all surprising, at least if you know Seattle: a proposed seven-acre, self-sustaining "food forest" in a Beacon Hill neighborhood park. And like a lot of concepts introduced in Seattle, it sounds just wonderful in theory -- and will probably be an unmitigated disaster in practice.

Wait. How could anyone be against the idea of creating a permaculture forest oasis in the middle of an urban desert, filled with acres of luscious fruit and vegetables free for the picking? Isn't this a creative, positive response to widespread hunger, urban food deserts, and lack of public green space in Seattle neighborhoods? It's such a great idea -- what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Sparky, here's the crux of it: if you're going to create something of lasting value for human beings to use, you must figure human nature into your plans. And one unfortunate truth about human nature is this: if you offer a valuable good or service to the public, totally free of charge with no rules or supervision, people will pull it to pieces. This holds especially true in densely populated urban environments like Seattle, where people are much less likely to be socially ostracized for bad behavior than they would be in small towns.

Have the Friends of the Food Forest never heard of Portland's ill-fated Yellow Bike Project? Its sponsors figured Portland's traffic and pollution could be drastically reduced if there were lots of free bicycles around for everyone to use. There was probably no better place to test out the idea than in eco-conscious, bike-friendly Portland. At its zenith in the mid-1990s, the YBP made some 350 basic yellow bicycles available to the public, for unrestricted use anywhere in the city. Nearly every one of those free bikes was stolen or vandalized, at a faster rate than they could be fixed or replaced. The project was shut down as untenable within three years, although some claim you can still find a yellow bike or two in Portland -- if you're willing to dredge the Willamette River. Similar free bike programs in the United States and Canada have suffered the same fate. What happens when you offer a free, unsupervised resource to crowds of people? They will trash it.

Don't the people working on this project believe in sustainable development? And if so, is it completely beyond their ken that offering a "free" public resource without any kind of personal accountability is not a sustainable practice?

That's not to say all free public resources are impossible to sustain -- but if a system is to continue to work, it must hold individuals to account for their actions. Think about the way the average public library works. The books are "free" to the public (after they're paid for with a budget pulled from patrons' taxes), but there are restrictions and monitoring methods in place to protect the system from damage. Patrons must use their own library cards to check out materials, so the librarians can keep track of who last had a particular resource; there are limits on how many total materials can be checked out at once; and those materials have to be returned by a certain date, or the fines start mounting. If a book isn't returned or fines aren't paid, that patron doesn't get to use the library any more. Particularly rare or expensive materials may not be removed from the library at all. The library is an example of a free public resource that works, because it holds people to account for any destructive behavior that could put that resource in jeopardy.

What would library-style accountability look like in the Food Forest? A few quick ideas:
  • Patrons might have to show an ID card to get in.
  • There would probably have to be a per-person limit imposed on the number of fruits and vegetables carried out of the area.
  • There would also need to be rules in place about not reselling the produce one has harvested from the forest.
  • Fruits and vegetables could not be harvested until they were actually ripe (or, in the case of pears, ready to ripen).
  • Friends of the Food Forest would need to hire "docents" or "gardeners" or the like to keep an eye on the forest and make sure no patrons were pulling up tender lingonberry plants to replant them in their own yards, "fertilizing" or "watering" the herb garden with highly personal organic contributions, or growing their own little patches of Oaxacan ditch weed in some obscure corner.
  • People would not be allowed to stay in the forest after dark.
These ideas took all of five minutes to think up, and they address only the most obvious setbacks a place like the Beacon Food Forest would be likely to experience -- green picking, overpicking, squatting, lack of supervision, and other general mischief and misuse of the property.

But it appears from some of the journalistic coverage of the Food Forest that not even these most obvious setbacks have been accounted for in the plans. In the words of lead landscape architect Margarett Harrison: "People worried, 'What if someone comes and takes all the blueberries?' That could very well happen, but maybe someone needed those blueberries. We look at it this way—if we have none at the end of blueberry season, then it means we're successful."

And if you have no blueberry plants left within two weeks of opening the forest to the public, Ms. Harrison, does that mean you've failed? Because unless you have a system in place to keep it from happening, rest assured it is going to happen. The rapacious quality of human nature makes it a virtual certainty. The headlines claim "It's Not A Fairytale," but the current plans for the Food Forest do seem like something straight out of Aesop's fables.


MarieC said...


Soozcat said...

Thanks, Marie. I just find this frustrating, because they're obviously spending time and money to make this happen, but it'll be time and money wasted if they don't really think about how human beings are going to behave.

Anonymous said...

The concept of free bike (or very cheap that you rent for half an hour and depose somewhere else) is working very well in Europe, Paris has got the VELIB for many years and London copied it too for 3 years ! Just have to like a ride ! No problem to secure your bike !

Soozcat said...

Hi, and welcome to the blog.

As I understand it, the "free" European bike sharing programs are only truly free for the first half hour. They are available from a bank of bike locks and rented out via bank card on a time basis; the price goes up depending on how long you have the bike out. In this sense they more closely resemble the few successful bike sharing programs and Zipcar car sharing program that exist in the U.S.

I guess my point is, the requirement to swipe a bank card in order to use the system brings in a certain amount of personal accountability, which protects the system from theft and vandalism to some extent. That accountability didn't exist in the Portland bike program, and it doesn't appear to exist in Seattle's current food forest project.