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Cities Must Evolve As Footprints Expand

Land use is one of the most important issues facing a growing global population. Cities are gobbling up farmland for development. Many farms are being relocated to the rainforests of the world. Rainforest destruction for food production is fueling global warming and extinction. It’s a deadly, downward spiral. It’s preventable.

Urban farming is a rising trend that offers multiple benefits to people and the planet. Urban farming seeks to bring food production into the city. It reduces transportation distances and costs, promotes a fresher and more secure food supply for modern cities.

Urban farming includes, food and flower gardens, community gardens, rooftop gardens, vertical farming, farmers’ markets, beekeeping and more. Urban farming is popular for several reasons such as sustainability, affordability, health, and convenience.

The recent resurgence of farming in and around cities has reconnected more people with agriculture. It isn’t the first time. Relief Gardens and Welfare Gardens are examples of urban agriculture practiced in the United States during the great depression Federal, state, and municipal governments promoted the practice to put food on the table for thousands of families that were starving.

urban forestry and global warming

During World War II, the government rationed food across the nation. More domestic gardens sprouted again as “Victory Gardens.” Citizens also planted the victory gardens in city parks and empty lots. Gardeners planted one on the White House lawn.

The USDA estimates that Americans planted more than 20 million gardens, which produced 9-10 million tons of produce—comparable to commercial production at the time. Victory Gardens disappeared after the war.

In the 1970s, concerns about fertilizers and pesticides used in industrial-scale agriculture fueled a new wave of local agriculture. There was more emphasis on community development, personal health, and city beautification.

Today, the urban agriculture movement is part of the sustainable growth movement. It’s part of a movement that can shape communities. Urban farming helps stimulate the local economy through job creation, income generation, and the growth of small businesses. More importantly, urban farming makes fresh food more affordable. It is fast becoming an important component of a city’s food system.

Farmers’ markets are a common example of the commercialization of agriculture taking place in urban areas. It is particularly interesting to see how urban agriculturalists have adapted food production to the urban landscape by conforming agriculture to the design features of buildings and lots. Gardens are planted in backyards, balconies, vacant lots in abandoned districts can be revitalized, and even rooftops of city buildings can be transformed into a vast field of farm land.

Chickens and bees make up the most common animal production in urban areas, but some municipalities have branched out to accommodate fish, goats, and pigs. Beekeepers also address concerns related to the sustainability. Colony collapse disorder is a growing concern in the bee population. Many urban agriculturalists value safe, healthy food. Many are organic producers.

Urban agriculture is a versatile solution to many concerns in modern society. Sustainability, promoting local business, environmentalism, food safety, animal rights, food security, personal health, and urban revitalization have all been linked to urban agriculture in a positive way. However, these goals and their implementation are often tailored to the local circumstances facing a municipality. On the West Coast, particularly in cities like Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, California, sustainability and access to locally grown organic food is a major drive behind the movement.

In the Midwest, cities such as Detroit and Cleveland are experiencing population reductions.

Urban agriculture can put vacant properties to productive use. Smart shrinking recognizes that many cities must learn to grow in new ways.

Cities, such as New York City and Boston, suffer from a phenomenon of food deserts. Food deserts are urban regions which lack convenient access to grocery stores where residents can purchase fruit and vegetables. Urban agriculture may not be a permanent solution to this problem, due to limitations on growing seasons, but it can be an important way of injecting fresh fruits and vegetables into these communities and bring many other benefits of urban agriculture to these communities.

Law affecting urban agriculture is primarily municipal ordinances, but state law and even federal law play a role in accommodating or prohibiting urban agriculture. Federal law affecting urban agriculture is primarily embodied in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The implications were minor but it demonstrated some concern on the federal level. As of 2010, the Greening Food Deserts Act specifically targets a major problem addressed by urban agriculture. This bill could lead to a Department of Urban Agriculture as well as establish an Urban Agricultural Outreach Program.

On the state level, at least two states have taken relatively dramatic moves to promote urban agriculture. The Georgia Right to Grow Act, passed in 2010, protected urban agricultural activities by restricting the rights of local municipal authorities to limit a variety of urban agricultural practices. The protected practices include crop production and the raising of chickens, rabbits, and goats. Another major item of state level legislation was in California. This law, the urban agriculture Incentive Zones Act, combined the strategies of two previous laws, the Williamson Act and the Mills Act, to help promote urban agriculture by making it more economically viable for property owners to lease their land to urban agriculturalist over the long term. Specifically, the Act grants property owners a substantial cut in their property taxes when they lease their land for agricultural purposes for a period of five years. Not only does this law help promote urban agriculture, but it encourages the long-term implementation of urban agriculture as land use within the city.

Growing food to be sold to the public implicates many more safety issues and begins to blend residential, agricultural, and commercial practices in a way which Euclidean zoning simply was not designed to accommodate very easily.

Urban farming plays a large part in contributing to sustainable urban development. As more and more people are living in cities, urban agriculture is emerging as an attractive means of supplying urbanites with food.

As more emphasis has been placed on the importance of air quality and building health among builders, developers, and architects, urban farming has also gained popularity in cities.

The average urban farm sees sales of just under $54,000 a year, according to the survey, although hydroponic operations earn more than double that and rooftop farms one-sixth of it. As the process becomes more efficient and economically viable, these urban farms are becoming more prevalent across the United States. By controlling important environmental factors indoors, growers are able to cultivate better-quality crops at higher yields and in shorter periods of time.

Of the urban agricultural activities, gardening is the most widely practiced and has a history of being tolerated as a hobby for gardening enthusiasts, many of whom are do not even necessarily identify with the urban agriculture movement. The biggest concerns here are against poorly tended gardens in front yards or between the sidewalk and the street could become unsightly. A municipal code could alleviate these concerns with provisions about keeping gardens contained to their yards, while controlling weeds and pests. Of course, homeowners also can choose to plant edible landscaping, instead of just grass and flowers.

Community gardens seem to be the favored starting point in many communities. Meanwhile, rooftop gardens offer numerous benefits, including the added insulation that they bring to buildings. 

Indoor agriculture is gaining momentum around the world, which is usually built around hydroponic systems. In vertical farms, crops are fed with a precise nutrient solution and nurtured by LED light.

In Berlin, ECF Farmsystems blends vegetable cultivation and fish farming. Germany’s capital is home to the world’s largest urban aquaponic farm. 

“By 2050, the global population will have increased from seven to nine million, of whom 86 percent will be living in cities,” said Erez Galonska, founder of Infarm, an Israeli company that develops vertical farms. “To feed those people, we will need much more land than we actually have.”

In order to provide urban populations consistent supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, a smarter system of food production is required. Presently, foods are transported long distances from their production locations to the consumers. Many foods, including soybeans, palm oil and beef are being produced on destructive plantations that have replaced the world’s rainforests. Then, the producers ship their commodities around the world to processors and consumers. Urban agriculture is one of many alternatives that can transform agriculture, cities and the planet.

Greener Cities and climate action

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler