As commonly thought, urban agriculture is not just for growing food. Indeed food production is important and a vital component to urban agriculture. However, overlooking the other benefits of urban agriculture fails to consider the systemic purposes of this type of gardening or farming.
Loosely put, urban agriculture is farming or gardening in an urban or suburban setting. This can include community gardens, food forests, transforming an empty lot into a mini farm. Many innovative and creative ways exist to bring food production or pollination to barren areas. Yes, the farming and gardening aspect of urban agriculture is usually for food purposes. But we can use this practice to our benefit in other ways:
Urban agriculture is vital and has much to teach us. All agriculture methods, including urban, can utilize techniques to either further harm or heal the earth and our communities.
Sustainable food systems not only play a key role in our communities, they are central to the health and well-being of all people living within. Agriculture and food systems in all their forms, can either nourish us, our communities, our soil and our world, or they can contribute to the degradation of our bodies, communities and earth.
Towns and cities across America are embracing the great potential of urban agriculture. Some are experimenting with it in innovative ways. However, there exists a largely untapped and mostly unstructured grassroots groundswell in the area of urban farming and distribution.
We all need green spaces to thrive. Cities are often planned with green spaces in mind–think of Central Park or any major park area in your city. These are great beginnings, but often, poorer neighborhoods lack these important green spaces. An urban agriculture expert, Karen Washington even says,
“Community gardens are the lungs of the city. They provide a place for people to congregate and relieve their stress. It’s a place to celebrate culture and to grow food that’s culturally appropriate.”
Richmond, VA urban ag specialist and farmer, Duron Chavis notes,
“The community itself can provide the answers to food access problems.”
In his years of work on urban agriculture, Chavis has seen the ways urban farms and green spaces have benefited the communities they are in.
It is not just adults who benefit from a community garden plot, a food forest, or an urban farm of any size. Children are often the greatest beneficiaries, offering them the gift of self-reliance, or giving them their first relationship to nature. Not only do they get access to clean, fresh produce, they also get to learn about growing food–from important members in their family or community.
Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or adversity. Carefully managed urban farms restore carbon to soils giving the neighborhood greater natural resiliency in their ecosystems. The deterioration of our soils through unsustainable agricultural practices poses a serious, if not existential societal threat for generations to come. A 2008 article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer claims “Disappearing dirt rivals global warming as an environmental threat,” stating “the National Academy of Sciences has determined that cropland in the U.S. is being eroded at least 10 times faster than the time it takes for lost soil to be replaced.” Source
A more recent TIME article blares the headline “What if the World’s Soil Runs Out?” The article goes on to explain that “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone.
Again, as expert Duron notes, urban gardens create an outdoor recreation area for the community.
“In a lot of the areas [in Richmond] where food access is limited, there’s a lot of streetscape, lots of asphalt and cement, and a lot of blighted, dilapidated buildings. If you transform that landscape by planting a garden or a little grove of trees in public spaces, you encourage the community to come outdoors and connect with each other.”
While overdevelopment, roads, and infrastructure rob animals of vital habitat, a solution in the form of urban agriculture is gaining traction–food forests. What exactly are food forests? They are forested spaces using principles of permaculture to grow food in an efficient manner. These farms use the forest ecosystem as the basis for the selections of plants chosen to cultivate. Local ecosystems benefit greatly from this method of urban or suburban agriculture as it provides habitat for a diversity of species of every kingdom, while the community sees enough food production to make this a reasonable method for feeding a neighborhood. As the creativity of farmers grows, so do the produce yields.
Events, businesses, nonprofits and start-ups participating in the urban agriculture initiatives would increase the economic multiplier effect of money flowing locally and the velocity of money within the community. By partnering directly or indirectly with local businesses, the existence of an urban farm provides incentive to the local business community to invest available resources back into the community.
Urban farms offer the opportunity to expand the classroom, and bring children into the community, facilitating a respect for the place they live and the people who share the space…probably even deterring delinquent behavior when people have a greater sense of “we.”
Take a look at this promising study about community gardens and youth. The authors state,“Results suggest that the garden programs provided opportunities for constructive activities, contributions to the community, relationship and interpersonal skill development, informal social control, exploring cognitive and behavioral competence, and improved nutrition.”
Various farming methods strip the soil of carbon making it less robust, weaker in nutrients and causing soil to be lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even well-maintained European farmland, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates. Different types of soil-based urban agriculture can offer scientists research opportunities and insights into the best methods for soil restoration.
As our cities and suburbs become increasingly urbanized, urban and suburban communities can benefit greatly from a shift to include food sourced from urban agriculture instead of predominantly rurally-produced food. With our advanced systems of travel, it is not a big deal to eat oranges all year, in the north. Or strawberries in December. Or lettuces and greens all year long. But getting food from CA to the east coast has its costs–and consequences. Eating food grown within your bioregion helps keep transport costs down, keeps food seasonal and thus fresher. You might not get every item anytime you want, but you’ll have the fresher, healthier version.
All of us can contribute to healthier diets, resilient ecosystems, and social connection by creating an urban ag related project where we live, or supporting one in our community. It truly is that simple. You can make a change no matter how big or small. All those little actions add up!