Urban Agriculture: Is it a Worthwhile Endeavour?

Growing up, I can remember visiting the local market with my father to buy tomato plants for his garden. It was a big thing amongst the Greeks – who could grow the best tomatoes. Unfortunately, like many of my contemporaries, we have lost the desire to grow our food. But with the onset of the pandemic, many people have begun to change how they look at food. News reports of dairy farmers across the country having to dump millions of liters of milk down the drain due to restaurant, hotel, and school shutdowns is astounding. Going forward two years later, the cost of groceries is hitting us all dearly. It made me think that my father and his counterparts were ahead of their time growing their fruits and vegetables.

Image: BrightAgrotech

What is Urban Agriculture?

To understand urban agriculture, we need to identify first what it is.  Urban agriculture is a fascinating industry.  You take people from metropolitan areas and turn them into farmers and, at the same time, completely change the way we grow, process, and ship our food.   Aside from individual backyard gardens, urban agriculture varies in size, from chicken coops and beehives to school or community gardens, rooftop gardens, or hydroponic “vertical farms.”    Modern urban agriculture bridges the gap between technology and horticulture with professionals from many different disciplines working together to develop highly efficient growing solutions. 

In recent years, urban agriculture has gotten a lot of press with trends for locally grown foods or farm-to-table dining.  Despite the focus, it is not a new phenomenon.  During the middle of the depression, the government encouraged citizens to plant gardens to help feed people.  In Detroit, gardens called “potato patches” produced $14,000 worth of produce on 430 acres in the first year.  During World War II, the United States started a campaign to plant “victory gardens” and eventually supplied a hungry nation with 40 percent of its homegrown fruits and vegetables.  After the need for food passed, these urban farms all but disappeared.

The Urban Trend

Since the end of the world war, more and more people have distanced themselves from food sources. In 2019, Canada imported $6.37 billion in fruit and $3.9 billion in vegetables, mainly from the United States, China, and Mexico. So, what happened? We went from cities and nations promoting the benefits of growing our food to large-scale food manufacturing. 

Many US cities have set up programs to encourage people to grow crops in vacant lots or on rooftops in the past few years. Why? It certainly won’t feed entire cities. However, proponents argue that the community dramatically benefits by encouraging and promoting urban farming. With the advancements in technology, such as hydroponic systems, solar greenhouses, and vertical farms, it is much easier to increase our food production while using fewer natural resources.   Today’s culture is very big on doing whatever it can to save the environment, and urban agriculture fits this bill.

Image: Jatuphon Buraphon

Is it Worthwhile?

Let’s put aside my father’s small garden and look at some of the other urban agriculture choices. Community gardens are probably the most widely recognized, with rooftop gardens a close second. Chicago boasts seven million square feet of rooftop gardens over 500 rooftops. If we put aside the belief that these urban gardens feed people, then why bother? Raychel Santo, Anne Palmer, and Brent Kim of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future researched this very subject. They found that urban farming won’t ever provide much food to feed our cities. In a city like New York, with 8.1 million people, dedicating every last vacant lot would only yield enough food for 160,000 of them.   There are certainly some serious problems with our current food supplies. Not everyone has access to affordable, healthy food, and much of our crops grown consist of corn and soy. Realistically, urban farming will not solve this issue.

Then we look at the environmental aspect of urban farming. Modern-day industrial agriculture certainly has ecological issues – from soil degradation to all the fossil fuels used for the heavy machinery. Transportation of foods also impacts the carbon footprint, but to a minimal degree regarding the overall picture. (Emissions are most significant for products shipped by air, like berries.)  For some types of urban agriculture, this would certainly help the environment. However, indoor “vertical farms” use an enormous amount of energy, especially those that require artificial lighting. In addition, urban growers often use water, fertilizers, and pesticides less efficiently than larger-scale farms do.

Finally, we must look at what urban farming requires. Urban agriculture depends heavily on technology to create sustainable food systems in smaller areas or unique growing spaces. This technology can be anything from power to fertilizers, and the production or supply of these components negatively affects the environment.

What Then is the Benefit?

People get involved with community gardens or create their gardens for several reasons – to grow fruits or vegetables, be closer to nature, build things, or learn about plants. What they don’t expect is that they get to know their neighbors. Studies have shown that urban agriculture brings people together and allows small communities to encourage healthier diets, bolster the community’s camaraderie, and better appreciate how our food system works.  

Cities like Cleveland and Detroit have been pushing the idea of urban agriculture as a way to improve neighborhood aesthetics, reduce crime, and increase community cohesion. They can serve as a site to educate the youth or training opportunities for the future farming workforce. In addition, most advocates believe that community gardens and green roofs can help filter out local air pollution, cool down cities in the summertime, and retain precipitation to avoid storm-water runoff into nearby waterways. Most importantly, if designed properly, they can provide habitats for wild bees and other pollinators (and we all know how important those little black and yellow fellas are to our environment.)

The Final Word

I believe that aside from the bees, the most significant benefit of urban agriculture (whether a small backyard garden or a community initiative) is that it helps us understand our food better. We learn to appreciate the work it takes to grow different crops and their difficulty. Coming from someone who does not have a green thumb, I understand the maintenance required to produce a simple tomato plant. There are so many options available to us today – from hanging vegetable plants to planter boxes to fruit trees that thrive in Canada. It is certainly easy to give it a try. And if you are in the heart of the city, check with your local community center. Chances are there is a garden where you can get involved.

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