The North American Urban Agriculture Experience


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In a country where, in some places, a burger barely costs a dollar while a bag of baby carrots is priced nearly thrice as much, there’s plenty of work to be done to make healthy foods affordable – and accessible. There is no denying that food insecurity (of which cheap and nutritionally inadequate junk food is a major manifestation) is a concern in the US. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) nearly 14.5 per cent of Americans experienced food insecurity at some point in 2010.

To fight this, many cities across the US are assessing their food production potential and creating special legislation for promoting urban agriculture. Let me clarify that “urban” agriculture does not imply turning down high-density buildings in the city centers to build farms. As an urban planner I am a supporter of higher densities. However, the leftover land around the cities or the residential open spaces with no other obvious use could be used as productive fragments of land within the cities. But more on this later - maybe another blog entry!

In the US, urban agriculture began at the grassroots level as a social justice movement to combat food insecurity among under-privileged communities. Within a couple of decades, a growing demand resulted in local governments making an active effort to support urban agriculture. Sometime ago I documented some of New Orleans’ urban farms with my video camera.

The New Orleans effort is commendable. Especially since urban agriculture is not just about food security: it does great service to the cause of sustainable cities. At the most basic level, purchasing fresh and locally grown produce reduces energy needs and costs associated with long distance travel and refrigeration. City residents also benefit from cleaner air and cooler temperatures in the summer. Also, urban agriculture provides a great opportunity to convert unused land and water resources for food cultivation.

Based on my experience, ongoing urban agriculture efforts within the US can be categorized into three groups. Increasingly, cities are creating urban agriculture plans, food policy councils, and maps of potential locations for urban farms.

Urban Agriculture Plans

Oakland, California has an outstanding urban agriculture plan called “Transforming the Oakland Food System: A Plan for Action.” The plan includes a preliminary assessment of Oakland’s privately owned vacant plots of land, slope analysis of identified sites, and food policy recommendations. According to the plan, more than 800 acres of public land with slopes under 30% exist in Oakland, which are suitable for urban farming. There are many other examples of such inventories, which can be replicated in urban agriculture projects internationally. A few other cities across the US have similar land inventories identifying properties suitable for urban agriculture including Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington; Somerville, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; and New York City.

Policy Interventions
Two years ago, the State of Maryland introduced a legislation called House Bill 1062, authorizing local governments to give a five-year property tax credit for urban agricultural property. The State has defined priority areas that qualify for the credit, in order to promote smart growth. These are developed communities, with existing infrastructure, in which the State wishes to concentrate new investment as a way to combat sprawl and negative environmental impacts of greenfield development. Qualifying sites must be between one-eighth of an acre and two acres and be used exclusively for urban agricultural purposes.

Maryland State recognizes urban agriculture as a collection of various actions including stormwater abatement and groundwater protection. In addition, community development activities, such as food donations and food canning classes are also envisioned and allowed. Moreover, economic development activities including employment and training opportunities, direct sales to restaurants and institutions, and temporary produce stands for the sale of produce raised on the premises is allowed.

Urban Planning Tools to Support Urban Agriculture
Increasingly, cities across the United States are passing amendments to their zoning regulations in order to allow cultivation of local food. These zoning amendments envision urban farms in all parts of cities, and in some cases permit the sale of excess produce in local markets.

In many cities, small CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) have emerged in backyards of residential neighborhoods and are demanding that city governments grant them permission to sell their produce. Various cities are establishing novel zoning overlays to enable such entrepreneurial approaches to urban food production: The Boston Redevelopment Authority has established an Urban Agriculture Rezoning Project to explore ways to amend the city’s zoning code to better support urban agriculture. San Francisco has also passed a zoning amendment to facilitate food cultivation and sale in all neighborhoods.

A few developing countries are way ahead of the US in terms promoting urban agriculture. However, I am optimistic that the scenario is rapidly evolving here and efforts to reduce “food miles” will gain momentum as urban America realizes the value of growing food in its own backyard.

Join the Conversation

Rox Sen
February 07, 2012

What should be added to this overview is a recognition that commercial urban farms can produce significant economic activity.Up until recently there have not been economically viable crop production models that were appropriately scaled for cities. But in the last few years new farmers in the US and Canada have been having success with SPIN-Farming, which is an organic-based, small plot farming system that outlines how to make money growing in backyards, front lawns, neighborhood lots and underutilized parcels.

The next important step in building the capacity of local food systems is to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding local food into viable farming businesses. This will require training a large and diverse number of residents in appropriately scaled farming methods and microenterprise development and getting them up and operational quickly. Networks of entrepreneurial neighborhood-based farms will provide a cornerstone for a broad urban agriculture industry and have significant economic impact.

February 07, 2012

Thanks for your good comment, Rox. You are right and commercial urban farming could be a good subject for another blog entry. This entry only focuesd on non-commercial small scale interventions and policy tools used by cities to facilitate that.

Apollo Getic
February 09, 2012

Typos aside (per cent? not percent of?) I think this article has hyper-glamorized urban agriculture in America. Urban food production on the non-commercial level is primarily about people wanting to grow good food for themselves. It is not about food insecurity, and it is not originally a grassroots effort.

The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America (2009) shows that better tasting food is the primary reason people get into gardening, and this has been supported repeatedly by other studies. Lower food bills appear to be an after thought, as very few gardeners come from food insecure backgrounds. If you disagree, please provide some sort of evidence, as you currently only provide an interesting, yet anecdotal account of one city.

Further, the origins of the community gardening movement in America trace back to the victory garden days and were very much a top down push to help with the war effort.

I ardently believe urban food production has the potential to both foster a genuinely grassroots movement and relieve food insecurity, but simply saying it will not make it so, and articles like this, without any sort of constructive criticism do the entire movement a disservice. We need to be realistic about the current lay of the land, so to speak, and not kid ourselves about our accomplishments. This should not be a sales pitch, this should be an analysis of best practices (perhaps you could have focused more on the content of the video, which is a bit more of a best practices highlight).

And, on that note, your break down of urban ag efforts must be a joke. How about something like, for profit, social enterprice, non-profit, community focused, sustainability focused, food justice focused, and non-commercial? makes a lot more sense to me.

February 14, 2012

Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. The blog provides only a brief commentary of policy interventions in select North American cities in response to citizens’ demand to grow food in urban areas. It does not classify various “types” of urban farming. This would indeed be helpful in future publications. I hope you'll agree with me that no one, short article can do justice to such a complicated topic, and that we welcome views such as yours that add texture to the debate about the function and future of urban agriculture.

The report you refer to (The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America) is a good indication how food security and sovereignty are important reasons for households to cultivate food in urban areas. The findings show that while 58 per cent of American households indicate that “one” of the reasons they grow food is to have better tasting food, 54 per cent also indicate they want to save money, and 51 per cent are also looking for better quality food. Twenty per cent of the urban growers mentioned that they have decided to do so due to the economic recession.

Community gardening in the US dates back, as you indicate, to the WWII victory gardens, and this remains one type of urban agriculture. Types of urban agriculture vary by city. Finally, let me note that we at the World Bank may have more information about urban farms in cities in Africa or Asia but we do not often look into the case of developed countries. This blog is an attempt to do that by focusing on my North American experience. It is also worth mentioning that the Urban Development Unit of the World Bank is working with RUAF to produce a compendium and review of urban agriculture activities mainly in low and middle income urban areas. I hope you'll see that report when it emerges, and offer your comments on this blog in the future.

Surendra Rijal
March 13, 2012

There are many tree based vegetables which need less care and are cost effective. They offer regular depletion of carbondioxide and supply cheap vegetable. Such opportunities must be explored. They are Jackfruits,drum stick, pappaya and so on.
Additional benefit of this choice will be use of marginal land and less use of water. In some areas where water will be limiting factor or costly such measures must be applied to combat cheaper food need and ensure healthly and cheaper food supply