The Amazing Air Potato

I was reading Eric Toensmeier’s amazing book “Perennial Vegetables – from Artichoke to Zuiki Taro, a gardener’s guide to over 100 delicious, easy to grow  edibles”, when I came across the air potato.

It’s basically a vine that grows up to 4o feet high, that instead of having tubers in the ground like a potato plant puts them on its branches like a hardy kiwi. It throws out an enormous quantity of these aerial tubers over a period of some months so that you have truly lengthy harvesting season.  Great if you’re looking for self sufficiency, or supplying a small but constant stream to a farmer’s market, in a local park, not so great if you’re a farmer wanting a fast succession of plants and a short harvest season. Makes it ideal in cities.

Another things that really interested me was that it seems ideal for growing up the outside of fire escapes in apartment buildings,  or up windowless walls.  Shade a building like that in the torrid heat of a Tokyo summer and you could turn your air conditioning down a tad.

I  swear Japanese architects are solar oven enthusiasts conspiring with air conditioning salesmen and the electricity companies to fleece the general public.  I walk out the door and it’s ten degrees cooler outside the house than in.

Now here’s what I’m thinking. You want a dark wall in winter, so that it captures as much solar heat as it can and helps keep the building warm. You want a light coloured wall in summer so that it reflects all the heat. However a vine that grows like crazy in the spring and shades the wall does a better job than white paint.

Turn down your air conditioner.

And when summer is over and the temperature drops the vine dies all the way down to its roots. Well then, the black wall is then revealed and absorbs solar radiation warming the building in the process.

Turn down the heating.

So with one plant and a dark wall you’ve got yourself a potato field that feeds you for five months.

You’ve also got a massive plant for  feeding to earthworms and black soldier fly when it dies back in winter, which in turn feeds the fish in your aquaponics system.

You’ve also got an AC cost reduction system in summer.

You’ve also got a heating cost reduction system.

That’s one plant, one wall/fire escape.

Think what you could if you could extend this thinking to every balcony, every rooftop.

I looked around and came across a site talking about this plant and its relations. It was actually pretty funny. If you grow it in the wrong place it can be a nightmare. Everyone who grows it in Florida regrets it, frothing at the mouth about how horrible it is.

Everyone who grows it in the colder northern areas love it.

Very few people seem to recognize the fact that colder weather is how you control it. Grow it in a tropical environment like Florida where it never gets cold and you’re going to look like Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors.  Tokyo, where I am,  gets a light coating of snow every winter, so we’re going to have to be careful with it.

On the other hand, the Japanese in Tokyo would have this invasive for breakfast. Put it in a container plant and it’s not going anywhere. You can take an axe to it.

Rooftop Ecology- Another dimension.

Modern life in cities is  a lonely business.

I know someone has moved into the apartment next to me because I’ve thumps and scrapes and the heavily muffled sub-audio hum of conversation. Now it’s silent it could be Schrodinger’s cat next door for all I know. For the moment like the cat they are both alive and dead at the same time.

Though given the use of poison in the experiment I’d hope this was not the case.

Where do people interact in large cities? There’s certainly no place in my apartment building. Elevators going up or down segregate people according to the direction of travel and by order. That is if someone from the 4th floor is going down, then the person on the 6th floor is necessarily going to have to wait and travel alone.

And so we are alone again.

Could we use what Americans call sidewalks (in a nod to their position in the street) and what Brits call the pavement (defining the place in terms of materials). Sadly, not really. Sidewalks are very narrow spaces where I live in Tokyo and Tokyo people don’t talk to each other unless they are introduced.  Indeed, in many places there are no sidewalks, merely painted white lines on the road requesting drivers not run over pedestrians.

And of course wary pedestrians.

The parks too are either for kids or for old people, they’re not thoroughfares or places of assembly. You’ll see a mother with a baby carriage and some old men sitting in ones and twos looking into the distance. On a good day you’ll see three or four playing boules, french style in a dusty, sand floored square.

It’s all very dispiriting.  But it’s not just sad, it’s more than that. When we lose places where people come together to interact and watch as the the general hustle and bustle of people going  to and fro about their business, well when we lose that we lose something important.

Social engagment and higher levels of interaction and indeed learning are really only possible in places like piazza’s coupled with wide sidewalks where people get to interact with each other.  It’s nothing less than major blood vessels entering the aorta. A place for mixing and being and moving. The analogy is an apt one, these places are the life blood of a city, of a neighborhood, of a community.

The loss of them leaves us bereft.

What we have at present is no substitute. The difference is akin to comparing a slurpy in a paper cup to a banquet in Tuscany. There is not, and can never be any significant  interaction between a pedestrian and a car driver.

Why is this important you might ask and where am I going with this? Well, the actions and interactions of one or two people are relatively simple, but the actions and interactions of hundreds of people are much more complex, giving rise to an emergence.

From the back cover of Steven Johnson’s book Emergence.

“Emergence is a a change that occurs from the bottom up. When enough individual elements interact and organize themselves the result is collective intelligence – even though no-one is in charge. It is a phenomenon that exists at every level of experience and will revolutionize the way we see the world.”

We’ve dumbed down our cities. We’ve taken the fabric of the city as the university of life and turned it into free certificate correspondence course. When you dumb down your cities all problems seem insurmountable because you’ve turned your city from Einstein into Forrest Gump. What you’re left with is the ideas of individuals, not groups. What you’re left with is the power of individuals not communities.

The question now should be how can we start to upgrade again?

Well I propose the following.

If you want to put the neighbor back in neighborhood.

If you rail as I do against the isolation tank of the I in I-pod, where personalities are siphoned off down headphones to an I-store around the neck.

If you want to have friends around you instead of having to make trips across the city to centrally located gathering areas and finding your train stops before you reach home.

If you want any of that then I suggest that a good place to start would be on the roof.

The roof you say? But roofs are boring places, bare concrete separated from humanity. It’s hot and exposed in summer and a place in thrall in to the cold northern wind in winter.

All true, but not if you have an ecology there.

You could have a roof garden I suppose, but a roof garden is really a place to meditate, maybe read a book. There isn’t really a good reason to be there besides catch a little sun. It’s a place you go for peace and quiet, a covert cigarette.

A rooftop ecology is interesting though. There’s always something going on, something happening, something evolving. It’s a place to observe, to browse, to tend to, to talk about with the other people who have likewise invested time and effort into it. It’s a self sufficiency skills workshop. It’s a place where you show the fella from three buildings away how ‘you’ run your worm bin.

If we’re going to solve the problems that face urban man in the 21st century, then we need to reshape our cities, make them smarter, more integrated and less subdivided. A single roof is a good place to start. Multiply that by a thousand, connect the roofs into thoroughfares where possible and the interactions in the hundreds of millions will give us all the things we need most in life, and a chance to keep living.