Section A: What is Urban Agriculture?
- Projected Outcomes
- Background / Lessons
- Additional Reading
- Students will learn some basic information about urban agriculture.
- Students will learn how urban agriculture differs from traditional agriculture.
- Students will learn about the history and reason for the urban agriculture movement.
- Students will be introduced to different types of urban agriculture
- Students will begin to consider whether urban agriculture is sustainable.
Urban agriculture, in its most basic sense, is the production and distribution of food in and around cities. It encompasses a wide range of food production – from home and community gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown for personal use, to agriculture businesses that sell to local and regional markets.
Introductory Video: How urban agriculture is transforming Detroit, Devita Davison
This optional 12 minute TED talk by Devita Davison is a good introduction to urban agriculture in Detroit. It discusses the special circumstances of Detroit that make it an interesting case study for urban agriculture. It also provides several specific examples of urban agriculture businesses and discusses community benefits.
How does Urban Agriculture Differ from Rural Agriculture?
In contrast to traditional agriculture that mostly cultivates products like corn, soybeans, beef, pork, or dairy, urban agriculture usually focuses on vegetables, fruits, and sometimes small livestock. This is mainly due to space constraints in the urban environment. In addition to economic goals, urban agriculture is also motivated by concerns about environmental stewardship, food security and equity, social justice, education, and neighborhood revitalization. Urban agriculture often involves the input and participation of municipalities, food policy councils, and non-profit organizations, while rural farms in the US are primarily supported by federal and state policy.
Urban agriculture faces a number of special challenges in comparison to rural agriculture. Land issues are common, such as lack of space, the high cost of land, uncertain land tenure of vacant lots, and zoning requirements. Additional concerns include the potential presence of heavy metals and other soil contaminants, vandalism, and constraints on manure use in densely populated areas.
A Brief History
The recent popularity of urban agriculture has brought with it unique perspectives and innovations. But urban agriculture is as old as urban areas themselves. For example, around 3500 BC, Mesopotamian farmers began establishing plots in growing cities. In the 1400s A.D., vegetable beds designed to receive a maximum amount of afternoon sun contributed to the self-reliance of the Incan city Machu Picchu high in the Andes of Peru.
More recently, the enclosure movements in England, industrialization, and greater urbanization in the 19th century spurred an interest in bringing green spaces to crowded urban neighborhoods. Social reformers saw this as a way to improve the lives of the landless poor and increase their food security. In England, allotments – small parcels of land leased to individuals at low cost by local governments – gave urban dwellers a means of growing their own food. Cities in the US also responded to changing conditions. During the economic recession of the 1890s, Detroit organized a vacant lot gardening program to help the city’s unemployed industrial laborers. In the early 20th century, educators like Fannie Griscom Parsons created school gardens for low-income and immigrant children living in densely populated cities like New York. They saw it as a way of connecting children to nature and improving their health and well-being.
Greater urbanization also spurred the growth of market gardens in and near cities. In the latter half of the 19th century, an estimated 8500 maraichers or urban farmers in Paris, each working small plots of land and taking advantage of the city’s abundance of horse manure for fertilizer, supplied Parisians with high quality salad greens and vegetables. In the US, small farmers in the 19th and early 20th century raised vegetables and livestock on the outskirts of large urban centers, including New York City, Detroit, and Chicago, and marketed their produce to growing populations.
Several crises during the first half of the 20th century increased interest in subsistence urban gardening. During World Wars I and II, the US government encouraged community-focused gardening to combat food shortages. During the Great Depression, community organizations and municipal governments promoted gardens as a way of supplying food to the unemployed.
Following the 2nd World War, agriculture became more industrialized, more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and more globalized. At the same time, the US became a more urbanized society. In 1900, 60% of the population was still rural while 40% of the population lived in cities. By 1950, those percentages were reversed. Today more than 80% of the population lives in urban and suburban areas (Graphical visualization of urbanization in the US).
Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, as broad concern about environmental issues increased, many people began to question the sustainability of the industrial food system. They were concerned about the harmful effects of pesticides, decreases in crop diversity, soil erosion, fertilizer runoff, and an agricultural system that relied on cheap fuel to ship food long distances. Consumers also worried about growing homogenization and over-processing of food and related health concerns such as heart disease.
In reaction, interest in sustainable and organic farming and gardening practices has steadily grown. The Slow Food Movement, promoting the preservation of regional cuisine and heirloom and rare varieties of vegetables and fruits, increases support for local sources of food in urban areas. Urban farmers, aquaculture practitioners, and specialty food producers continually look for ways to grow thriving agriculture businesses for urban markets. In addition, community organizations and institutions have increasingly involved themselves in encouraging the availability of fresh, healthy food to urban communities, particularly in low-income neighborhoods that have reduced access to these foods.
AU Online (2019) History of Urban Agriculture. https://online.aurora.edu/history-of-urban-agriculture/
Motivations for Urban Agriculture
People are involved in urban agriculture for a variety of reasons, including food security, food safety, and environmental sustainability. They are motivated by:
- Desire for delicious, fresh, and affordable vegetables, herbs, and fruits.
- Desire to provide community gardening space for urban residents who do not have yards of their own to grow fresh produce.
- Concerns about social justice and the need to increase the availability of healthy, affordable, and nutritious food for low-income families.
- An interest in preserving rare and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, or growing varieties of herbs and vegetables that may not be available in the typical grocery store.
- Concerns about pesticide use and the general safety of food. By growing their own produce, people have more control over food safety. Organic cultivation helps reduce the amount of pesticides introduced into the environment. Consumers who purchase from local growers they’re familiar with can be more confident that their food is grown and processed safely.
- Concerns about climate change. By reducing food miles— the distance between where food is grown and where it is consumed—urban growers reduce pollution and greenhouse gases released during long-distance food transport. Fresh produce travels, on average, around 1500 miles from farm to plate, so growing and eating produce locally can have a significant impact. For a more detailed analysis of food miles, see this ATTRA publication. Composting food and yard waste (banana peels, grass clippings, dried leaves, etc.) can reduce the amount of methane – a major greenhouse gas – released from landfills while providing nutrients to home gardens.
- Concerns about biodiversity. Urban growers and community gardeners cultivate a rich variety of vegetables, herbs, fruits-bearing shrubs and trees, as well as native wildflowers and grasses. These systems have more complexity than monocultures or lawns and provide an important habitat for butterflies, bees, birds, and other wildlife.
- An interest in revitalizing neighborhoods and promoting social cohesion by turning ugly, vacant lots into beautiful green spaces where urban residents can gather.
- Desire to improve the health and well-being of communities living in urban environments by providing natural spaces for outdoor activity. Working in a garden strengthens muscles, improves flexibility, and boosts aerobic fitness. Beyond the physical benefits, spending time in outdoor green spaces can relieve stress and increase mental well-being.
- A hope to increase food and agriculture literacy among adults and children in urban areas. Urban gardens provide hands-on opportunities to engage and educate people on natural systems, plant biology, and the sources of their food.
- A variety of business opportunities, including ground-based farms, vertical farms, aquaculture, honey production, and value-added food products.
McCauley, DJ. (2021, January 25). Urban Agriculture Combats Food Insecurity, Builds Community. EOS. https://eos.org/articles/urban-agriculture-combats-food-insecurity-builds-community
Agriculture Law Information Partnership & AFSIC. Urban Agriculture. USDA. https://www.nal.usda.gov/farms-and-agricultural-production-systems/urban-agriculture
Types of Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture comes in many forms. Some are non-profits and often include a social or educational mission. Others are for-profit businesses. Here are just a few different types of urban agriculture.
Home gardens have long provided extra produce for households. In recent years, many gardeners have rejected large lawns in favor of food-producing plants, incorporating vegetable plots and fruit and nut-bearing trees and shrubs into their landscape. Homeowners sometimes add beekeeping, poultry-raising, and hydroponics to their gardening practices. Apartment dwellers have become resourceful in growing food in small spaces, from container gardening to rooftop gardens. Home gardeners can design their plantings to benefit birds and insects in addition to providing food for their households.
Community gardens are areas of land gardened by a group of people either working together on one large area or divided into individual plots. Community gardens welcome apartment dwellers who do not have access to a yard, as well as homeowners who want extra growing space or whose yards are heavily shaded. People have established community gardens in privately or publicly owned vacant lots, city parks, and community organization owned land. Community gardens may be organized by nonprofits or institutions as part of their larger missions. For example, gardens can be important community gathering places, provide food for low-income families, increase the food literacy of urban residents, and allow immigrants to grow familiar vegetables from their homeland.
Community orchards are plantings of fruit trees, nut trees, and fruit-bearing shrubs in areas that have public access. This may include public parks, school grounds, or land owned by a community organization or land trust. Orchards can produce fresh foods such as apples, pears, cherries, almonds, persimmons, chestnuts, and juneberries. Fruit-bearing shrubs and vines provide even more variety, including blackberries, currants, hazelnuts, and grapes. The organization of a community orchard may begin with one or two individuals who bring together a dedicated group of volunteers willing to be involved in the planting and care of the trees for an extended time. In other cases, nonprofit organizations partner with community groups, such as community centers, schools, and churches to establish orchards.
Nonprofit Urban Agricultural Organizations
Nonprofit urban agriculture organizations combine the goals of a just and equitable food system with educational programs, workforce development, and support of local communities. Many of these organizations are located in low-income, minority neighborhoods and see their mission as addressing the needs of these communities. Food produced on urban farms can be sold at farmers’ markets or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations for affordable prices or donated to food pantries. Some organizations use a pay-what-you-can model for produce sales. These organizations may also provide space for community gardens, as well as tools, materials, and gardening instruction.
In addition to addressing food access, many organizations have food-related educational activities and training programs for children and adults. Students are involved in garden-based learning from vegetable gardening to nutrition and cooking lessons. Many organizations also offer instruction or work opportunities to learn about small-scale sustainable farming techniques as well as business planning and marketing.
Ground-Based Commercial Vegetable Farms
Commercial ground-based vegetable farmers grow produce on small acreages in urban or semi-urban areas. Some farmers lease or purchase vacant lots or unused land. Others make arrangements with homeowners to use yard space, often in trade for crops. These urban growers typically market their produce several ways: direct home delivery, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, restaurants, CSA programs, and local grocery stores. Urban farmers keep the expenses of external inputs low, use efficient tools and small machinery, and focus on growing crops that bring a premium price to create successful businesses.
Urban rooftop gardens are gardens that make use of unused space on the roofs of residential and commercial buildings. While providing food, these gardens can also reduce stormwater runoff, reduce energy use by cooling buildings, provide habitat for birds and insects, and beautify empty spaces. Rooftop gardening is a relatively new method of urban agriculture and presents several special challenges that will be discussed in detail in Sections C-D.
Vertical (Hydroponic) Farms
In vertical farming, crops are grown in vertically stacked layers in a climate-controlled indoor environment using hydroponic (water-based growing) techniques. Thus, this farming method is also known as hydroponic farming. This farming method requires less land to grow a large number of vegetables, so it is suitable for urban areas. Similarly to rooftop gardening, vertical farming is a relatively new way of producing food and has many tradeoffs that will be discussed in Sections C-D.
Aquaculture and Aquaponic Agriculture
Today, over 50% of the fish produced around the world is farm-raised (Our World in Data, Ritchie, 2019). Most aquaculture systems are net pen operations in oceans, but Midwest farmers raise freshwater fish in ponds and raceways (an artificial channel or flow-through system). Farmers in urban areas use either a recirculating system or an aquaponic system that is suitable for compact indoor spaces. In recirculating systems, biological, mechanical and/or chemical filters allow reuse of water. In an aquaponic system, wastewater from fish tanks provides organic fertilizer to hydroponic plant roots, which in turn act as bio-filters by removing nitrates, phosphorus, etc., from the water before it is returned to fish tanks.
Flower farming, or floriculture, in urban agriculture is the cultivation of flowers for local and regional markets. Floriculture producers grow flowers primarily for floral arrangements as well as additions to soaps, perfumes, and lotions. Urban flower growers are interested in providing an alternative to the conventional global cut flower industry which has a significant environmental cost. Flowers bought in the US may travel as much as 6000 miles from South America and must be refrigerated during their transport, resulting in high energy costs.
Markets for Urban Agriculture
One of the advantages of urban agriculture is its proximity to markets such as farmers’ markets, CSA operations, and restaurants. In recent years, interest in locally grown food has coincided with a significant rise in the number of farmers’ markets. From 1994 to 2014 the number of farmers’ markets increased by 371%, from 1,755 to 8,268 (USDA). CSAs have also grown in popularity among urban consumers. In a CSA, individuals or households can buy annual shares or provide labor for a local farm in return for a regular (usually weekly) supply of produce. The farm benefits from a direct, consistent consumer market, while customers can trust that their produce is fresh, local, and oftentimes organic. Chefs featuring local foods and cuisine provide another important market for urban growers and food producers, and these restaurants help build community interest in local foods.
Another niche market for urban agriculture is food incubator businesses. Food incubator businesses add value to locally sourced produce by processing it in some way. Products may include specialty sauces, fruit jams, pickled vegetables, or specialty beverages. One challenge of this market for small producers can be meeting food safety standards. Food safety standards vary based on location and type of food. Information about WI specific standards can be found in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection guide. Food incubators help small producers find commercial kitchens they can use or rent, and offer advice on business plans, marketing ideas, website development, and legal requirements. Incubators often get input and assistance from university extension programs, technical colleges, chambers of commerce, and non-profit organizations.
Barriers to Urban Agriculture
Urban farmers and gardeners face a number of barriers including limited space, uncertain land tenure, heavily compacted or contaminated soils, and vandalism. Ground-based farmers face high start-up costs if the site has contaminated soil or needs fencing. Rooftop farms, vertical farms and aquaculture systems all require substantial infrastructure. Many types of urban agriculture, particularly community gardens, community orchards, and nonprofit urban agriculture organizations, rely heavily on volunteers. They also often need financial support and adjustments to government policy such as zoning regulations. Sections C and D explore these challenges in more detail.
Is Urban Agriculture Sustainable?
Urban agriculture adds to the sustainability of urban areas environmentally, economically, and socially. It increases environmental sustainability by reducing food miles needed to transport vegetables and fruits, reducing pesticide use, recycling food and yard waste, cooling buildings, reducing storm water runoff, and increasing biodiversity. Urban agriculture can improve economic sustainability by increasing access to fresh, affordable produce that urban residents can purchase or grow themselves. Urban agriculture also plays an important role in social sustainability. Community gardens and community orchards, for example, foster social cohesion and provide natural spaces that contribute to mental and physical well-being.
Urban agriculture also faces sustainability challenges. Outside soil, water, and energy inputs are a challenge to environmental sustainability. Community gardens, community orchards, and nonprofit organizations may need volunteers, program administration, and outside funding to sustain in the long term.
The following books include discussions of how to farm in an urban area, benefits and drawbacks of urban agriculture, and numerous case studies.
- Clauzing, Hans, and Nuno Clauzing. (2015) Urban Farming. Aerial Media Company
- Features numerous European and NYC case studies and photographs
- Cockrall-King, Jennifer. (2012) Food and the City. Prometheus Books
- General discussion of issues and case studies
- Goya, Monica, et al. (2021) Urban Farmers, The Now (and How) of Growing Food in the City. Gestalten
- Includes case studies and photographs
- Ladner, Peter. (2011) The Urban Food Revolution. New Society Publishers
- General discussion of challenges and case studies