We Could Subsidize Urban Farming, But We Probably Shouldn’t

Elizabeth Royte’s New York Times Magazine article about urban farming was interesting, but I have to say that I don’t think urban farming is a particularly promising model for anything. And I think Ezra Klein is unduly impressed by the argument that since the current model of agriculture is based on heavy and unjustified subsidies that it might make sense to heavily subsidize urban farms.

The reality is that farming is an inherently space-intensive enterprise. Think about your favorite farmer’s market and how much space it occupies. Now think of how much space was occupied in the course of growing all the stuff that’s on sale at your favorite farmer’s market. Consequently, it makes sense to locate farms where land is cheap. Which is to say “not in cities.”

If you want to encourage more local food in a realistic and sustainable way, what you should be aiming for is not urban farming but suburban farming. In other words, not farming in cities, but farming near them. In most of America we have lots of rules — maximum height, maximum FAR, maximum lot occupancy, minimum parking — restraining how densely developed land can be in places where land is expensive. If those rules were relaxed in, for example, the DC area, then we’d have more housing and more offices and more retail in the urban core area of DC, Arlington, and Alexandria. That would reduce the economic pressure to transform farmland in nearby areas into exurban sprawl and strip malls. That would be farmland that’s local enough to be sold to consumers at farmer’s markets and whatnot without involving any outlandish economics.

That said, one place where I could imagine a role for explicit encouragement of urban farming is in the case of cities that have suffered from severe shrinkage (see Corby Kummer’s article about Holyoke for an example of what this might look like). In this case, though, the issue is that we do have some urban areas (primarily in the rust belt) that would benefit from becoming more compact. In both cases, the basic point is that there are good reasons to try to reduce the overall geographical footprint of our urban areas.


Ezra updates to say he doesn’t think urban farming should be subsidized but, rather, “that our current food production system is heavily subsidized, and so there’s no reason to think that the dominant model is either the only possible model, or even the model that’s most economically desirable.” Seems right to me.


I should also add that I have no problem with people growing food in vacant lots and whatnot recognizing that, in practice, the wheels of development turn slowly. But I don’t think we should expect such enterprises to become a major source of food. Nor should we deliberately prevent the redevelopment of vacant lots into high-value uses (apartments or office buildings) in order to preserve urban farmland.