Urban Agriculture in 800 words
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
Until my family's move to California's Central Valley nearly ten years ago, we did not know or appreciate the true flavors and nutritional values of fruits and vegetables. There is truly no comparison between freshly grown, locally produced, ripe harvested produce and that of produce specifically grown for ease of shipping and handling across states and countries. For many years my family and I have planted and cultivated our own small family garden; within which we have grown a variety of fruits and vegetables. This year, due to scheduling conflicts, we did not plant or harvest from our modest garden plot. Upon reflection, the lack of flavor at family meals and lost opportunities for family gardening memories has been quite the disappointment! This experience has reminded me of the many important facets of gardening in our urbanized environments and the broader concept of urban agriculture. The concept of urban agriculture is simple to define, highlights many societal benefits and can be creatively implemented in so many ways, limited only by our imagination.
Defining Urban Agriculture
A loose definition of urban agriculture is the production of food products for consumption within or around urban environments. Understanding that eighty percent of the United States population lives within urban environments, and the fact that more food is now imported into the country than ever before, the need for locally available food sources has become increasingly important.2 Urban agriculture can be considered a single component in a much larger and complex food system that supports society. The uniqueness of urban agriculture is that it tends to be and is often perceived to be a local food system within a global food system. Local food systems are intrinsically related to community benefits and relationships which improve health, social interaction, economics and sense of place for local communities.3
Myriad Benefits Through the Practice of Urban Agriculture
At the surface, urban agriculture may be viewed simply as a trend or as a means of increasing the sustainable nature of urban spaces. In reality the benefits of urban agriculture are diverse, ranging from health benefits to economic benefits. The North American Urban Agriculture Committee has documented many of these benefits, a few of which are listed below:
Improved awareness of environmental stewardship.
Local supply of food decreases energy needs for transport , delivery and refrigeration. (Travel distances for food can range between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before actual consumption)
Improved community pride and value.
Increase in economic development as demand rises for locally grown and available foods.
Limits spoils caused by transportation. (Nearly 50% of transported food is unusable due to spoilage)
Improved supply of local foods in the event of emergencies and natural disasters. (The Department of Homeland Security suggests communities should be able to supply 30% of their supplies locally, though currently the average is closer to 5%)
Improved activity and health by those directly involved in the cultivation and harvest of local foods. (Studies have shown that gardening three to four times a week is comparable to moderate walking and biking.)
Increase of green space which is tied to the reduction of stress, moderation of emotion and lowering of blood pressure.
Functional use of otherwise unused space. (The City of Chicago is estimated to have 70,000 vacant parcels of land and Philadelphia is estimated to have 31,000.)
Reuse of green waste throughout the urban environment in a cyclical fashion.
In addition to these reasons, food grown on a smaller scale, harvested when ripe, and prepared shortly after harvesting is much more flavorful than commercially available foods. An interesting survey completed in Philadelphia reported additional reasons and benefits for which community gardeners engaged in urban agriculture. The results were: "recreation (21%), mental health (19%), physical health (17%), produce quality and nutrition (14%), spiritual reasons (10%), cost and convenience (7%), self-expression/self-fulfillment (7%) and other (5%)."2 Another survey, from the general population, revealed that the majority of respondents believed urban agriculture's main purpose and benefit was to supplement household foods.3
The Many Forms of Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture can also make business sense. In Kansas City, a local non-profit group, Cultivate Kansas City, uses a business model to gross over $100,000 annually with its two acre urban plot. Where demand is high urban agriculture can spur economic vitality and entrepreneurial activities.3
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Urban agriculture can be accomplished in many ways from window pots to for-profit enterprises. The most common forms of urban agriculture are vacant parcel gardens, roof-top gardens, community gardens, direct-sales farmers markets,1 and personal gardens. Other more innovative and creative methods include edible landscapes (both public and private), vertical urban gardens (like the one shown to the left by Green Living Technologies), urban foraging (the practice of harvesting naturally occurring, underutilized edible plants from urban environments, Click here for additional information on urban foraging),and through livestock foraging practices in urban parks and open spaces.
1-Adeyemi, Abiola. Urban Agriculture. An abbreviated list of references and resource guide 2000. US Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service. Beltsville, MD. September 2000.
2-Community Food Security Coalition's North American Urban Agriculture Committee. Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States: Farming from the City Center to the Urban Frindge. October 2003..
3-Hendrickson, Mary K. and Mark Porth. Urban Agriculture: Best Practices and Possibilities. University of Missouri Extension, Division of Applied Social Sciences. June 2012.