How Urban Farming Can Transform Our Cities — And Our Agricultural System

by Adam James

As concerns mount over the accessibility and quality of meals in cities, urban agriculture is becoming a practical solution to give communities more choice — all while helping address greenhouse gas emissions from centralized agriculture.

With over 80 percent of the American population living in metropolitan centers, urban farming has the ability to dramatically enhance economic growth, increase food quality, and build healthier communities.

The Problem: Carbon Intensive Meals

“Would you like some CO2 with that?”

The globalization of food has dramatically increased the amount of carbon emissions in our meals — particularly in America.

For example,  food related emissions in the U.S. account for 21 percent of total emissions, or 6.1 tons of CO2 per year. Additionally, 15 percent of personal transportation emissions, 20 percent of home energy use emissions, and 23 percent of the aggregate remaining activities are food-related as well. Add it all up and you find that our food choices make up a very large portion of our overall footprint.

Consumer activities like traveling to the grocery store, eating at restaurants, and cooking make up 46 percent of total emissions from food.

The other 54 percent of emissions come from the production, distribution, and selling of food. This includes activities like packaging, storage, and transportation. The average meal has traveled 4,200 miles just to get to the table. And at the end of the line, food related emissions account for 28 percent of all U.S. landfill gas emissions.

So what can be done?

The Solution: Urban Farming’s Wide Range of Benefits

There are already plenty of resources on the energy intensity of food and how to calculate the emissions from a given meal. But people — particularly those in cities living in “food deserts” — can’t act on this information if they don’t have the resources.

This is where urban agriculture comes in. Urban agriculture is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as:

“[A]n industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel, largely in response to the daily demand of consumers within a town, city, or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intensive production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban wastes to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.”

Basically, urban farming allows individuals or groups to establish gardens or mini-farms on small plots, using creative techniques to maximize, output, meet local needs, and help make efficient use of the land. Gardeners are finding all kinds of ways to grow food: On rooftops, in abandoned buildings, and on deteriorating plots of land.

These operations can help consumers lower their food emissions by giving them the choice to eat food grown within their communities, not thousands of miles away.

But that’s not all. In addition to offsetting emissions, there are at least three concrete benefits to urban farming: economic growth; community building; and improved health.

Economic Growth

The economic benefits realized through urban farming are localized, thus keeping dollars circulating through the community. These urban farms also have a fantastic return on investment, with every $1 invested in a community garden generating $6 worth of vegetables.

And these community food enterprises are actually competitive with big-box retailers. As one report puts it:

“In recent years CFEs have discovered that they actually have unique advantages over bigger companies. They have a deeper awareness of local tastes and markets, they can obtain consumer feedback more quickly, and they can tweak their business models more swiftly. They can deliver goods and services faster, with shorter distribution links and smaller inventories. They can rely more on word-of¬mouth advertising that costs nothing.”

These projects can be structured in unique ways to encourage greater economic impacts in communities. For example, Food From the ‘Hood turned an abandoned football field into a 2 acre farm, with 25 percent of the proceeds going to a scholarship fund for local youth in South Central Los Angeles. To date, $250,000 has gone to sending youth in the community to college.

Furthermore, in low-income communities, where food costs can be as much as 30-60 percent of income, localizing food can help stabilize food costs.

Community Building

In 2010, a total of 14.5 percent of households were food insecure, with a further 5.4 percent experiencing “severe” food security.

Community health is, as one report describes it, “the social and economic capacity of a community to create an environment that sustains the visions, goals and needs of its residents.” Increased food security is a crucial component to realizing this vision.

The social organization required for most urban farming projects can forge stronger community bonds by creating “stakeholder interactions” that give individuals a sense of responsibility and productivity.  By harnessing two sources of capital — social capital and the existing built environment — urban farming uses the inherent strengths of cities to solve some of their most serious problems.

Food Quality and Health

Studies have shown that nutrition, exercise, and mental and physical health are all augmented with urban farms.

According to three experts from the Community Food Security Coalition, a small garden can have a major impact on food needs: “In a 130- day temperate growing season, a 10’x10’ meter plot can provide most of a 4-person household’s total yearly vegetable needs, including much of the household’s nutritional requirements for vitamins A, C, and B complex and iron.”

This solves the directly related problems food insecurity and poor nutrition. The act of gardening is also great exercise that improves physical health: reducing risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The act of cultivation has significant impact on mental health as well — assisting with social skills, self-esteem improvement and stress reduction.

Bringing It Home

The impact of urban farming on local communities and families is undeniable. While this activity gains traction in cities across the country, the potential for reducing our food related emissions continues to grow — all while helping improve the economic and social dynamics of the urban environment.

Adam James is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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12 Responses to How Urban Farming Can Transform Our Cities — And Our Agricultural System

  1. Joan Savage says:

    I balked at the statement,

    “In temperate climates, a 10’ x 10’ garden can feed a family of four year-round and meet almost all basic nutritional requirements.”

    That is not a commonly-accepted belief. What evidence / references / links does the author have for that assertion?

    Most temperate zone planting estimates require more space than that to produce enough calories and protein for a family. A 10′ by 10′ garden can upgrade meal quality and that is a good reason to have one.

  2. Bill says:

    “In temperate climates, a 10’ x 10’ garden can feed a family of four year-round and meet almost all basic nutritional requirements.”

    That’s not what the linked study says. It says a 10 meter square garden “can” provide “most” of a families “vegetable needs” without defining much of what this means. The footnoted Rutgers study backing up this assertion was published 14 years ago, and is not available online.

  3. Alteredstory says:

    There IS a reference provided, but the people making that claim in the linked source don’t do much to back it up.

    My guess is that the number comes from a couple things:

    First, the amount of protein needed by a normal person is generally less than many of us heard growing up. We get more than we need. If part of the garden, say two feet by ten feet, is devoted to a couple chickens, getting protein would not be hard, and that would leave you with four more 2×10 rows for growing everything else.

    Grow potatoes in two rows, and you’ve got just about all the carbs you need, and grow assorted greens, peppers, tomatoes, and things like that in the other two rows, and you’ve got the ruffage, and added nutrients. In addition, you can move the chickens from row to row, and provide fertilizer when the various rows are fallow.

    Granted, what I’m describing does sound like a lot of diligent, careful work, and there wouldn’t be any room for over-eating, but it should be theoretically possible, and the time put in would DEFINITELY be worth the money saved.

    Now, in a place like Boston, you’d have to be sure you had enough light, and chances are you’d want to make a greenhouse for the winter, but assuming the plot of land you were using allowed that, the money saved by the farming would more than cover those costs, especially if you were clever about where you got your building materials (I’m willing to bet if you took a pickup truck around Boston on Moving Day, you could pick up enough hardware to build a small house).

    Easy? definitely not, but almost certainly do-able.

  4. Jay Turner says:

    It may not show up in the official GDP statistics, but gardening is productive economic activity. If we could as a nation spend a little less time in front of the TV or game box a bit more doing productive activity–like gardening–we would all be better off.

  5. There are a lot of if’s and but’s involved with urban farming… but not enough to say that one should abandon the idea. There are many cities… e.g. Los Angeles… where the infrastructure to deliver water when and where needed just is not in place.

    Then, you need to consider food storage space. In suburbia, we have plenty of room in the garage for freezing foods (e.g. tomatoes) and pantry space for dried foods (apples) along with room to grow them both.

    It may be that there are as many good solutions there are people with the interest and energy to pursue them.

  6. Martin W says:

    From the referenced article:

    Urban gardens and farms produce surprising amounts
    of fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, and meat. In a 130-
    day temperate growing season, a 10’x10’ meter plot
    can provide most of a 4-person household’s total
    yearly vegetable needs, including much of the
    household’s nutritional requirements for vitamins A, C,
    and B complex and iron.

    So we are not talking about calories, fats and protein.

  7. Billy Snapp says:

    Don’t forget that you need to feed the chickens, too.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    The article has been revised – the link wasn’t in the version posted earlier.

    The link says, “In a 130-day temperate growing season, a 10’x10′ meter plot..”

    A 100 square meter plot is 1076 square feet, more than ten times the area of a “10′ x10′ foot garden.
    A 100 square meter plot is far more reasonable!

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Following up on the point raised by Joan Savage above, Adam James’s article states:

    “In temperate climates, a 10’ x 10’ garden can feed a family of four year-round and meet almost all basic nutritional requirements

    Mr. James cites “three experts from the Community Food Security Coalition” as the source for this assertion.

    However, that is NOT what the linked source document says. The source document asserts:

    “… a 10’x10’ meter plot can provide most of a 4-person household’s total yearly vegetable needs, including much of the household’s nutritional requirements for vitamins A, C, and B complex and iron.”

    Set aside for the moment that the actual size meant by “a 10’x10′ meter plot” is completely unclear (is it 10 feet by 10 feet, or 10 meters by 10 meters, or what?).

    The original claim is that such a plot can meet “most” of a family’s vegetable needs and “much” of the nutritional requirements for three vitamins and one mineral — which is an entirely different matter than meeting “almost all basic nutritional requirements“, which would also include things like calories and protein.

    Which is not surprising, since typical “garden vegetable” crops are extremely high in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and enzymes, but don’t provide much calories or protein.

    For comparison, John A. Freeman’s 1983 classic book “Survival Gardening” found that by using the intensive biodynamic gardening techniques pioneered by John Jeavons to grow a selection of vegetable crops carefully selected to maximize calorie and protein production (e.g. potatoes, beans, yams & turnips), a 1000 square foot space could provide a nutritionally complete diet for one person. That would be a 10′ x 100′ space — ten times the size of the plot that the author of this article erroneously suggests can feed a family of four!

    Having said that, the ability to grow either a complete food supply for one person in 1000 square feet, or a complete supply of fresh vegetables (augmenting calories and proteins from other sources) for a family of four in 100 square feet, is pretty impressive.

    The potential for providing much of America’s food supply from urban and suburban gardens is truly immense. The “Victory Gardens” of World War II at their peak provided two-thirds of the fresh produce consumed in America — and with modern organic techniques, we could do much better today.

  10. adelady says:

    I’m pretty impressed with the ‘ One Magic Square’ concept. I realise it’s a book and you can look at it if you like, but it’s a good way to rethink gardening skills and how you get started and build up productive capacity.

    A plot one meter square for salads. One for Chinese/Asian vegetables. One for winter veg. One for herbs. Once you realise that a 1 meter square plot gives you a 1.4 metre long diagonal for carrots (or spring onions or leeks or parsnips if you like) you come to see that you can fit a lot more food into an apparently small space than you might have thought. A lot more.

    And then you start cramming in more along the edges, beetroot, leeks, baby spinach, and inter-planting, succession or double planting so that there’s no break in productivity from one season to the next. Add in another square metre to give you a rotation opportunity to slip in a green manure or peas and beans planting scheme – and you’re really moving.

    Not many people can produce all their needs from their own gardens. In fact, there are good reasons why total self-sufficiency is not a good idea. And trying to replace your grains, oils, flour, dairy supply is too much to ask in the city. But anyone who can produce say 2 or more whole days’ worth of food for the family each and every week will do a great deal of good. Or they could aim for all their greens, all their salads, or onion supplies or soup vegs or dried beans/peas – if they’re in a neighbourhood scheme, specialising like this will mean they’ve usually got something to trade.

  11. Alteredstory says:

    That does make more sense – I was trying really hard to see how it might be possible. Still want to try it out some time :P

  12. Alteredstory says:

    Nope – they’re magical photosynthetic chickens!