Imagine living in a world, where fresh food is right at your footsteps. Imagine living in a world, where even the less fortunate have secure access to wholesome organic fruits and vegetables. Imagine living in a world, where you are in direct contact with the earth and all that it has to offer. It is nice to dream, but even better to live that dream and one way to make it come true is through urban agriculture.
The traditional definition of urban agriculture is the “practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city”. While this formal definition has stayed the same for decades, the actual practice of urban agriculture has changed drastically over time. In the past, it was merely compromised of growing a limited amount of food in a few greenhouses. While that was the first step to bringing food production back to the city, it was just the beginning. I say “back”, because there was a time when farming and city living went hand in hand. Steve Coleman, the executive director of Washington Parks and People, remembers such a time.
“People, who are not much older than, me recall a time when they were growing up in the 1950s playing in Meridian Hill park, when on a hot-summer day a horse-drawn watermelon cart would pull up next to the park and they would all run to it the way that kids run to the ice cream truck. It is a great reminder that farming in general, and urban farming is not ancient history. That our direct connection with the land and the food that came from dirt rather than from a box or Styrofoam package or a can, that that kind of food is more part of our recent life than we realize.” — Steve Coleman, Executive Director of WPP
In the last 15 years, we have tried to bring this part of our past back. Growing throughout most of the 4 seasons, urban agriculture now includes beekeeping, chicken tending, and more; however, expanding upon the definition of urban farming cannot stop here. The future of this practice can be very bright and promising. We want to make it a for-profit lucrative business, which can thrive and do well financially. We would also like this type of agriculture to be implemented in all big cities across the United States, and ultimately across the entire world.
The innumerable benefits of urban agriculture are astounding and the chain reactions it causes tremendously significant. It has such long-lasting effect that it can transform our world and quite possibly catapult us into that aforementioned imaginary dream world. For that reason, we need to take the expansion of this practice seriously.
To give an example of a benefit, urban agriculture will promote the environment. The most obvious reason is that the food that is being produced directly in urban locations will not have to be transported over long distances, making the carbon footprint lighter than for foods, which have to travel hundreds of miles to get to your local grocery store. This decreases the amount of carbon emission that holds heat in the atmosphere and, as a result, contributes to global warming. Furthermore, urban farming is done without heavy machinery, but rather by hand. Limiting the burning of fossil fuels, which releases stored carbon, and helps us conserve natural resources, like natural gas, that we have available to us. Urban agriculture also uses fewer petrochemicals and the likelihood of those products washing into waterways is greatly reduced, resulting in less water pollution.
Another major benefit of urban agriculture is the opportunity for enterprise. Research done at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Center estimated that urban farmers could make up to $90,000 per acre if the right crops and growing techniques were used.Another study done by Dr. Daniel Otto from the Department of Economics at Iowa State University investigated the economic benefits of urban farmers selling local goods. Otto found that 152 farmers markets in Iowa let do a gross increase of 576 jobs, $59.4 million and a $17.8 million increase in income. These numbers elicit the fact that urban agriculture can be profitable and efficient while also benefiting the community. Both goals can be achieved with this practice if it is done at an intense and serious level.
“Every $1 invested in a community garden yields $6 worth of fruits and vegetables.” — John E. Mogk
Following in a similar vein, the social benefits that sprout out of urban agriculture are some of the most valued and advantageous ones. Local community food production brings diverse residents together, beautifies neighborhoods, and encourages outdoor recreation. It also combats the issue of poor health. Currently, lack of access to healthy food is one of the leading causes of obesity (33.4% of adults in cities are obese), heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, the leading sicknesses of preventable death in the US. Urban agriculture could tackle a lot of these pressing issues and help families make the right food choices. A study done by the American Journal of Public Health in 2011 showed that Community gardeners consumed more fruits and vegetables than home gardeners and non-growers. The researchers surveyed 436 residents across 58 block groups in Denver, Colorado from 2006 to 2007 and the findings were significant. Community gardeners consumed fruits and vegetables 5.7 times per day, compared with home gardeners (4.6 times per day) and non-gardeners (3.9 times per day). This elicits the fact that community garden participation is positively correlated with fruit and vegetable intake. If we push urban agriculture intensively and make it accessible to everyone, we can decrease the number of preventable disease deaths and strive toward a healthier America.
While the advantages of urban agriculture are clear and convincing, there are a couple of challenges we face before being able to incorporate it fully in cities.
- People have become illiterate about the environment and disconnected from the land. This is the most detrimental problem that stands in the way of urban agriculture. We have lost a massive body of oral knowledge of farming and that has made us think badly about it. Luckily, there is a solution to this problem. Right now, there are people alive, who grew up on farms, but now live in the cities.The 6 million African-Americans that, for instance, moved through the Great Migration out of Southern agricultural areas are examples of people, who have direct personal memories and knowledge about working on the land. They could teach the rest of the city-dwellers about agriculture.
- People make assumptions about farming. Because of the aforementioned illiteracy about the environment, many people have become susceptible to assuming that urban farming is unsanitary, invites rodents, and should not come into contact with the masses, yet alone their own neighborhood. To get them to change their mind about it is an endless struggle that will be very difficult, but not impossible to do. We need to combat this issue by getting them used to the idea and educating them about urban agriculture: what it is, how it is done, and what the benefits are.
Urban agriculture is overall a good investment if it is taken more seriously by cities and if it is done on an intense level. It can narrow the divide between people and the places where food is grown and increase local opportunities to eat better. Additionally, it can combat the climate crisis with more plants and less carbon emission. Finally, this new enterprise could open up a brand-new job market and give the unemployed a new, unique opportunity.
I would like to leave you with a quote from Steve Coleman. In it, he discusses what needs to be done in order for people reconnect with the environment. His words epitomize what urban agriculture is all about in Washington Parks and People’s eyes.
“The only way we are really going to understand, appreciate, and want to fight for the environment and have a lasting movement for nature, is if we make nature part of our daily lives. We are not going to make nature part of our daily lives unless we have to and from Parks and People’s standpoint, food is on of the missing pieces of glue to the land. It has always bound us to the land.”