Urban agriculture has gotten a lot of press in recent years: growing food in the city has a unique, even romantic appeal, upending one’s notions about what is urban and what is rural and providing many social, environmental and health benefits. City farming operations vary in size: from chicken coops and beehives to household, school or community gardens, from rooftop and larger-scale farms to aquaculture facilities and indoor hydroponic “vertical farms”; they may be privately, publicly or commercially-owned; they may be run for profit, operated by a social mission or some combination of the two. 1
Despite the focus on urban agriculture in recent years, it is not a new phenomenon. As long as we humans have been living in cities, it is likely that we’ve also been cultivating produce there: some research even suggests that urban agriculture developed before its rural counterpart. 2 Recent history dates back to British and European allotment gardens of the 19th century, the fertilizer for which was often supplied by nutrient-rich manure from horses, which were the primary transportation of the day. 3
In the US, in the middle of a depression in 1890s Detroit, the mayor requisitioned vacant land for unemployed city residents to grow vegetables. The gardens, called “potato patches” (after their primary crop), produced $14,000 worth of produce on 430 acres in the first year, with more than 1,500 families involved at the peak of the program’s popularity. 4 As the US entered both World Wars, the government promoted the planting of what became known as “Victory Gardens” in parks and yards, on rooftops and in other available spaces in towns, in suburbs and cities alike, to reduce dependence on food needed for the war effort. Through an ad campaign of slogans such as “Plant a Garden for Victory,” Victory Gardens became so popular that 20 million gardens produced more than 40 percent of the fresh vegetables in the United States in 1944 —much coming from towns and cities. 5
After WWII, suburbanization and white flight caused property values to plummet in cities around the US, and it wasn’t uncommon for landlords to burn down their own buildings to collect insurance money, leaving abandoned vacant lots in their place. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the residents that remained in these neighborhoods, many of them immigrants and people of color, cleared out the lots and planted gardens, which not only supplied an important source of fresh food in areas abandoned by supermarkets and other infrastructure, but created a venue for the community to come together and organize around a host of other issues. 6
Today, urban agriculture takes many forms, from garden plots behind city rowhouses to high-tech, hydroponic vertical farms.
Aside from individual backyard gardens, community gardens are probably the most common and most widely recognized form of urban agriculture. As noted above, many were formerly abandoned spaces in low-income neighborhoods, which were reclaimed by members of the community. Gardens provide a source for produce in areas with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables; they allow members to grow exactly the varieties they want to eat – for example, immigrants can grow crops from their home countries, which may not be available in community stores. In addition, some urban community gardens house egg-laying chickens or beehives, or develop sustainable infrastructure like solar power, rainwater collection or composting systems.
People get involved with community gardens for a variety of reasons – to grow produce, to be closer to nature, to build things, to learn about plants or compost, to get to know their neighbors; the garden benefits from a convergence of diverse strengths and interests. 7 Working together breaks down social barriers and builds community. Some gardening communities, having found that they can work together to establish and maintain a garden, will turn their attention to organizing around other local issues, such as affordable housing or better schools.
Community gardens increase property values in the blocks that surround them, sometimes by a great deal, and the resulting increase in tax revenue can be significant. 8 The “busy streets” theory of crime prevention suggests that neighborhoods where residents are taking care of their own streets – as demonstrated through well-tended gardens rather than vacant lots, fixed-up abandoned buildings, new benches and more lighting – have lower crime than neighborhoods without much community involvement. 9 A growing body of research suggests that investment in projects like these is a more effective crime-reduction strategy than the “broken windows” theory, in which police crack down on small, quality-of-life offenses (such as open containers or subway fare evasion), which predominantly target men of color as offenders. 1011 Locally-driven renewal projects, instead, count on residents not as perpetrators or victims, but as agents of change. 12
Sometimes benefits of community gardens can be a mixed blessing. Rising property values and falling crime rates can lead to gentrification and displacement of longtime residents. 13 Additionally, in gentrifying areas without gardens, establishment of a new garden can become contentious rather than unifying. New residents in a neighborhood, who are often white and wealthier than the rest of the community, will sometimes start a community garden without seeking buy-in or prioritizing involvement from longtime residents, making what should be a new asset for all instead seem exclusive to newcomers. 14 Just which “community” is being served by a community garden is an important consideration for anyone involved with such a project.
Some of the other major challenges urban growers face relate to the land, including contaminated soils and land tenure. The soil in city lots can contain chemicals, lead or other heavy metals, and most urban agriculture is therefore done in containers or raised beds, where clean compost and topsoil are spread on top of the existing ground. 15 Like rural farmers, urban growers invest a great deal of time, effort and often money into the land they cultivate, even though the land may be held by an absentee landlord or a city agency. As a neighborhood improves – partly owing to gardeners’ efforts – developers may become more interested in building on what they perceive as a vacant lot, and evict the garden. Sometimes these fights become high-profile: in 2006, a developer bulldozed the 14-acre South Central Farm, tended by 350 low- to moderate-income, mainly immigrant, families in Los Angeles. 16 Before the farm’s destruction, more than a dozen celebrities and politicians joined the struggle to save it, and the fight was documented by an Academy-Award nominated film. 17 Today, many of the “South Central Farmers” are growing on nearby land, and still trying to regain access to the original farm site, which has not yet been redeveloped.
The LA urban farmers established the South Central Farmers Restoration Committee following the destruction of their farm; this is a common model. Many urban agriculture projects are community-based but run by a dedicated entity, such as a non-profit organization or small business. These often have a social mission, whether to increase access to healthy food or provide job training for the local youth. Sales of produce at a farmers’ market, through a CSA or to restaurants may be part of their funding stream, but very few make a profit or break even from food sales, instead relying on public funds, grants, donations and volunteer labor. 18 However, the other benefits of these projects can be extraordinary, including increasing social capital, community well-being and civic engagement with the food system. 19
Detroit’s D-Town Farm, for example, is a seven-acre urban farm managed by the 12-year-old Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). The farm grows more than 30 crops for sale at farmers markets and to wholesale customers, and has educational programs, large-scale composting, bee-keeping and more. It is also just one component of DBCFSN’s broader work to address food insecurity in Detroit’s Black community as the city rapidly develops and gentrifies: to organize community members to play an active role in leading its urban agriculture and to ensure that developments in food security are led by and benefit the city’s long-standing Black community, not only newcomers. 20
Similarly, East New York Farms! (ENYF!), which is run out of a community center in a diverse low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, manages three urban farms plus a community garden; provides materials and labor to dozens of other neighborhood gardens; operates two farmers markets; and has trained hundreds of local youths in farming skills, political literacy, the food system and leadership development. Several members of the organization’s staff began as youth interns. ENYF! developed out of a community assessment in the late 1990s, which identified neighborhood assets of a large youth population, along with many vacant lots and community gardens, and a deficit of fresh food and youth activities locally. ENYF! has concretely matched assets to needs for 20 years and, in the process, has built the organization’s greatest success: a strong, interconnected, intergenerational, cross-cultural community. 21 As with many mission-driven urban agriculture projects, food production and farming skills themselves are important elements, but they are also tools to achieve a greater end.
Any discussion of mission-driven, urban agriculture should include school gardens, which are a prominent part of the urban agriculture landscape in some cities, and which offer many benefits beyond that of eating healthy produce, including opportunities for outdoor learning and education in the sciences and arts. Some school gardens are run independently by schools with the help of teachers and parents, and some are the result of nonprofit leadership. For example, the nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh partners with schools in and around the city to help schools with the technical and educational aspects of establishing a garden; and, Green Village Initiative in Bridgeport Connecticut partners with schools around the city on building gardens, as well as providing curricula to go with them.
Perhaps the fastest-growing type of urban farming is focused more intensively on production and profit.
Green roofs are the most basic form of rooftop agriculture: roofs planted with simple low-maintenance plants. These have great environmental benefits, cooling the city and absorbing storm water, which can overwhelm sewage treatment facilities and pollute waterways. Rooftop farms, which have become popular in making efficient use of limited urban space, offer such benefits, as well as producing food. Chicago is a leader in green roofs – with as many as seven million square feet spanning 500 rooftops. Most are simple green roofs, but the city also has several notable farms, such as one run by a restaurant and another by the Chicago Botanic Garden. 22
Chicago institutionalized the use of green roofs back in 2001 starting with planting a garden atop Chicago’s City Hall, but New York City, with its many thousands of rooftops, has also become a leader in rooftop farming. When the USDA opened its first urban agriculture outreach office in 2016 — to help connect urban growers to the support programs available through the Farm Services Agency — they did it in New York City. The largest in the country, Brooklyn Grange, is a for-profit business with a diversified program and funding stream straddling the line between mission- and profit-driven. It grows more than 50,000 pounds of produce annually on its two farm sites in Brooklyn and Queens, sells its produce to restaurants and at some farmers markets, provides urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services, hosts events, and partners with its non-profit arm to host 17,000 NYC youth annually for educational opportunities on the farm. 23
Rooftop farms have great benefits, but they are not a panacea. There are several logistical considerations in constructing a rooftop farm: not all buildings can support the weight of the soil and plants; it can be difficult to get water to the roof; plus questions of access to the roof itself, how to get thousands of pounds of soil up there, and how to get regular access for maintenance.
With open space and clean soil often difficult to find in cities, some urban farming operations have decided to abandon the search altogether. Recirculating farms, which grow plants hydroponically in water instead of soil are becoming increasingly popular.
Aquaponic systems, demonstrated perhaps most famously by Macarthur Award-winning urban farmer Will Allen at Growing Power in Milwaukee, cultivate fish in tanks together with plants. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants clean the water. Both fish and plants – which commonly include herbs and greens, but also peppers and cucumbers, as well – can be harvested for sale or personal consumption. One study of small-scale aquaponic operations showed a median annual fish harvest of 50 to 99 pounds and median annual plant harvest of 100 to 499 pounds. 24 Aquaponics operations can be constructed from recycled materials and are inexpensive to set up; they are also relatively energy efficient – in some climates, they can be run off-grid with small-scale solar power, according to the Recirculating Farms Coalition.
An increasing number of farming ventures in cities across the country are known as “vertical farming”: indoor, high-tech systems that grow plants in carefully controlled conditions. Millions of dollars of venture capital are pouring into this new industry, which seeks to “disrupt” the traditional soil-based farm and food system by growing food nearer to where its eaten, but with less waste. However, big questions remain for this new industry. The lighting, temperature controls and water pumps for indoor hydroponic growing require far more energy than traditional farming, which relies on sun and soil (especially those farms that use greenhouses or similar methods of season extension), and the start-up costs for a new indoor farm operation are high. The resulting produce in the grocery store is very expensive, and it is unclear if enough consumers are willing to pay the premium to allow the industry to scale up. 25
From the smallest community garden to the most high-tech hydroponic farm, urban agriculture can produce a great deal of food – but, at least in the US, these methods are a supplement to, not a replacement for, rural agriculture. Always on the lookout for the latest hot thing, many investors have put a great deal of funding into tech-heavy vertical farming, while within a small radius of most cities, there are many thousands of acres of farmland needing protection and soil-based farmers who are barely making a living. Public and private funding and city policies should support urban agriculture, especially projects that have additional social benefits beyond food production or profit, but cities must also invest in their surrounding farms, helping farmers to tend the land and bring products to market.