By Oona Morrow
I believe that research can do more than describe and critique what already exists but also contribute to the co-creation of more just and sustainable futures. My research is concerned with grassroots sustainability innovations that endeavor to make urban food economies more collective, equitable, and shared. I approach these practices from the theoretical perspective of diverse economies, care, and the commons. These concerns have led me to examine a diverse range of topics at multiple urban scales ranging from everyday and gendered practices of food self-provisioning; to food sharing, food waste, and community composting; to community gardening and urban agriculture; to circular agri-food systems and urban food policies. What unites these topics is not simply a focus on food and the city, but my particular approach which is both critical and reparative, and sensitive to dynamics of creativity and power in grassroots sustainability innovations. I have had the joy of working with community food initiatives in Boston, New York, Berlin, and more recently Amsterdam.
But what does this actually look like, how do I go about it, and how did I arrive here ?
I began my PhD in geography with an interest in gender and diverse economies, but without a clearly defined research topic. In the U.S. a PhD takes a bit longer, and with three years of required course work I had time to explore a number of research topics and sub-disciplines before I began my field work. I knew that I wanted to conduct long term, participatory, and careful research in a place I felt connected to. I also knew what types of theories and concepts excited me – these tended to more feminist, post-structural, interested everyday life as a site of politics and possibility, and committed to social justice and transformation.
I found my conceptual home and community in feminist geography, and a particular strand of post-structural feminist economic geography being woven by J.K. Gibson-Graham and the community economies collective. Rather than viewing the economy as a monolithic structure that is imposed on us and driven by logics of growth, capitalism, and so on – this group of scholar-activists take an anti-essentialist approach to the multiple economies we make and remake each day in ethical negotiation with all of the (human and more-than-human) actors we are interdependent with. Using the metaphor of the economy as iceberg, they urge researchers, activist, and policy makers to look beyond the tip of the iceberg (e.g. gross domestic product, monetary exchanges, waged labor, capitalist enterprise), and appreciate the abundant and diverse activities happening below the water line that contribute to the well-being of people and planet. From this vantage familiar (but often static) concepts like class, the market, and enterprise are broken down into more open categories that facilitate the recognition and appreciation of economic diversity, local assets, and the too often hidden and undervalued labors of care and commoning.
Going into the field for me meant staying home in Somerville, Massachusetts (a once affordable inner suburb of Boston) and observing what was happening around me in terms of gender and diverse economies. It turned out that there was an incredible amount of non-market, cooperative, and commons based activities happening around food provisioning, in domestic and community spaces, and that gender (as well as race and class) played an important role in how these activities unfolded. I conducted ethnographic and action research with households and community food initiatives involved in self-provisioning, urban homesteading, and urban agriculture. I attended zoning meetings in Boston, where urban agriculture was being debated and reframed as an economic growth strategy, rather than a livelihood strategy. I sat in dozens of backyards, held chickens, admired the dancing of bees, shared meals, attended foraging, garden tours, and bee hive tours, and participated in countless workshops organized by the Urban Homesteaders League (a skill sharing community founded by the social practice artist Lisa Gross). I also organized and supported several community food initiatives who were trying to work out more collective and cooperative ways of food provisioning. In collaboration with the League of Urban Canners I conducted participatory mapping to uncover the urban food commons, knocked on doors to glean backyard fruit for community food preservation, and harvest and processed tons of fruit into jam. In collaboration with the humans and microbes I fermented food in home and community settings. And I interviewed people about these experiences.
My interest in the convivial and shared aspect of food provisioning eventually brought me to Dublin Ireland, where I joined a team of researchers exploring the sustainability potential of urban food sharing. Inspired by the diverse economies framework, we developed a crowdsourced database and map to “make visible” the economic diversity of food sharing in 100 different cities. Through ethnographic research with community food initiatives in Berlin and New York City I dug deeper into my core concerns with diverse economies, care, and commoning. I became fascinated with the legal and regulatory frameworks that shape these practices, especially around notions of risk. I spoke with food safety officers and food sharers who cared deeply about these risks. I rescued, carried, distributed, gifted, shared, prepared, cooked, and consumed tons of “food waste”. I sat in communal gardens and kitchens and spoke with people. And I fell in love with compost, and community composting in particular.
At the Rural Sociology Group I have continued my research agenda on diverse economies and urban food commons, and developed a new research agenda on careful circularity which explores the potential for constructing circuits of care and solidarity rather than merely closing loops in the circular economy transition. I work on these topics together with students and in participatory research on grassroots circular food innovations in Amsterdam. I’m supported in this work by a web of scholars, activists, institutes, and importantly artists who help me to not only think but also to dream by prototyping social innovations and possible futures in food provisioning, commoning, circularity, and diverse economies.
Publications related to this work
- Morrow, O., & Davies, A. (2021). Creating Careful Circularities: Community composting in New York City. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.
- Morrow, O. (2021). Ball jars, Bacteria, and Labor: CO-producing nature through cooperative enterprise. Food and Foodways, 1-17.
- Morrow, O. (2021) Food Commons in M. Goodman, M. Kneafsey, L. Holloway, and D. Maye. Food Geographies. Bloomsbury
- Morrow, O., & Parker, B. (2020). Care, Commoning and Collectivity: from grand domestic revolution to urban transformation. Urban Geography, 1-18.
- Morrow, O. (2020). Gleaning: transactions at the nexus of food, commons and waste. In Eds. K. Gibson and K. Dombroski. Handbook of Diverse Economies. Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Hoffman, D., Poll, C., and Morrow, O (2019) Berlin’s Food Policy Council. RUAF UA Magazine 36: Food Policy Councils
- Morrow, O. (2019) Community Self-Organizing and the Urban Food Commons in Berlin and New York.. Sustainability. Special issue “Community Self-Organisation, Sustainability, and Resilience in Food Systems.” Eds. M. Hasanov and M. Kneafsey
- Morrow, O., & Martin, D. G. (2019). Unbundling Property in Boston’s Urban Food Commons. Urban Geography, 00(00), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2019.161581
- Community Economies Collective, Morrow, O., St. Martin, K., Gabriel, N., Heras, A. (2019). Community Economies. pp. 56-61. in Eds. Antipode Editorial Collective. Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50. John Wiley and Sons.
- Morrow, O. (2019). Sharing Food and Risk in Berlin’s Urban Food Commons. Geoforum: Special Issue on Urban Food Sharing. Eds. A. Davies and D. Evans.
- McKinnon, K., Dombroski, K., and Morrow, O. (2018) The Diverse Economy: Feminism, Capitalocentrism, and Postcapitalist Futures. In Eds. A. Roberts and J. Elias. Handbook of International Political Economy of Gender. Edward Elgar Publishers.
- Davies, A.R., Edwards, M., Marovelli, B., Morrow, O., Rut, M., Weymes, M. (2017). Making Visible: Interrogating the performance of food sharing across 100 urban areas. Geoforum.
- Parker, B. and Morrow, O. (2017) Urban Homesteading and Intensive Mothering: (Re) Gendering Care and Environmental Responsibility in Boston and Chicago. Gender, Place, and Culture.
- Morrow, O. (2017) League of Urban Canners: Stewarding Urban Fruit Orchards. In Eds. Shareable. Sharing Cities: Activating the yrban commons. https://www.shareable.net/sharing-cities/
- Morrow, O., Hawkins, R., Kern, L. (2015) Feminist Research in Online Spaces. Gender, Place, and Culture. 22(4): 526-43
- Morrow, O., and Dombroski, K. (2015) Enacting a Post-Capitalist Politics through the sites and practices of life’s work. in eds. K. Strauss and K. Meehan. Precarious Worlds: New Geographies of Social Reproduction. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press ‘geographies of justice and social transformation series’ pp. 82-96.
Artists, Activists & Initiatives who have inspired this work
- 596 Acres, https://596acres.org/
- Brave New Alps https://www.brave-new-alps.com/
- Casco https://casco.art/ & The Traveling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills https://tfmdepot.hotglue.me/
- Cascoland http://cascoland.com/#/
- Community Economies Institute https://www.communityeconomies.org/about/community-economies-institute
- Community Economies Research Network https://www.communityeconomies.org/about/ce-research-network-cern
- CSPS foosdscapes cluster https://centreforspaceplacesociety.com/foodscapes/
- Debbie Ullman http://www.nycompostbox.com/about
- Design Studio for Social Intervention & Public Kitchen https://www.ds4si.org/creativity-labs//public-kitchen
- Dutch Degrowth Platform https://ontgroei.degrowth.net/
- Food Sharing DE https://foodsharing.de/
- Himmel Beet https://himmelbeet.de/ , and community gardens all over Berlin
- Just Food https://www.justfood.org/
- Kate Rich & Feral Trade http://bureauit.org/data/krcv/
- Kathrin Bohm & Company Drinks https://companydrinks.info/
- League of Urban Canners http://emilydirsh.github.io/leagueofurbancanners_design/
- Lisa Gross & The Urban Homesteaders League https://www.meetup.com/Urban-Homesteaders-League/ & The League of Kitchens https://www.leagueofkitchens.com/about-us
- Mary Mattingly & SWALE https://marymattingly.com/html/MATTINGLYSwale.html
- Mundraub https://mundraub.org/
- My Villages https://www.myvillages.org/
- NYC Compost Project https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/site/our-work/reduce-reuse-recycle/community-composting , especially folks at Red Hook Community Farm, Earth Matter, BIG reuse, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center
- Pascale Gatzen & the Linen Project https://thelinenproject.online/
- Somerville Yogurt Making Coop https://somervilleyogurtmakingcoop.wordpress.com/
- Uber den Tellerrand https://ueberdentellerrand.org/