Food for Thought: A Case for Urban Agriculture

A city, with circular images of urban gardens and agricultural spaces floating above the skyline.

The effects of cli­mate change at the city lev­el are increas­ing­ly appar­ent. More severe storms, pro­longed heat waves, and ris­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease due to cli­mate change are some of the symp­toms. Cities con­tend with anoth­er dilem­ma, the urban heat island effect, where urban areas become islands’ of high­er tem­per­a­tures rel­a­tive to out­ly­ing areas,” as EPA explains. This is often the result of deci­sions to replace green spaces with infra­struc­ture, such as build­ings and paved roads, that absorb and re-emit heat.

A pre­vi­ous com­men­tary high­light­ed cli­mate-neu­tral agri­cul­ture. For cities, too, agri­cul­ture, and specif­i­cal­ly urban agri­cul­ture, can play a sur­pris­ing­ly impor­tant role in com­bat­ing the ill effects of cli­mate change, while adding many ben­e­fits to a community.

Accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, urban agri­cul­ture gen­er­al­ly refers to the cul­ti­va­tion, pro­cess­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion of agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts in urban and sub­ur­ban set­tings.” It ranges from com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens to rooftop farms to hydro­pon­ics facil­i­ties. If you’ve ever worked in a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den, or picked up your gro­ceries from a CSA pro­gram, you know that urban agri­cul­ture can mean a whole lot more. It is a sup­port net­work of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who put val­ue in nature, their shared space, and the health of each oth­er. Places like Ale­many Farms in San Fran­cis­co, Chica­go Lights Urban Farm, and one of the first and still func­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens in NYC, Liz Christy Com­mu­ni­ty Gar­den, are all good exam­ples of this.

Cities with urban agri­cul­ture sys­tems often see finan­cial, social, envi­ron­men­tal, pub­lic health, and nutri­tion­al ben­e­fits. Devel­op­ing and sup­port­ing these sys­tems leads to pos­i­tive small-scale eco­nom­ic impacts. Spe­cif­ic exam­ples include job train­ing and skill build­ing pro­grams, food shar­ing pro­grams that ben­e­fit farm­ers and con­sumers, and urban agri­cul­ture can also lead to an increase in neigh­bor­hood home val­ues, as described in detail by UC Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture Research and Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram. Social ben­e­fits, sum­ma­rized in a post by Auro­ra Uni­ver­si­ty, include pro­vid­ing a place to build stronger rela­tion­ships among com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and improve neigh­bor­hood safe­ty. The tran­si­tion of food pro­duc­tion to urban cen­ters can also low­er ener­gy usage in trans­porta­tion and stor­age, build up bio­di­ver­si­ty in a com­mu­ni­ty, and pro­vide an avenue to address food inse­cu­ri­ty in under­served neighborhoods.

Even with all of these ben­e­fits, there has his­tor­i­cal­ly been an ebb and flow in sup­port from state and local gov­ern­ments. Farms and gar­dens in NYC, for exam­ple, have his­tor­i­cal­ly faced sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers in devel­op­ing urban agri­cul­ture pro­grams, as doc­u­ment­ed by the Parks Depart­ment and enthu­si­as­tic blog­gers. These bar­ri­ers are often the result of land use bat­tles and dis­agree­ments over com­mu­ni­ty development.

With the change of sea­son, it is a good time to look for ways to sup­port this type of local resource with broad impacts. In 2021, NYC passed a bill to cre­ate the May­or’s Office of Urban Agri­cul­ture, an office designed to help inte­grate sus­tain­able local food pro­duc­tion into the city’s devel­op­ment plants. On April 19, NYC May­or Eric Adams helped launch a Stat­en Island rooftop farm and high­light­ed the health ben­e­fits of more sus­tain­able, plant-based diets and grow­ing fresh veg­eta­bles that are acces­si­ble to every com­mu­ni­ty.” In most major cities urban agri­cul­ture pro­grams are wide­spread and in need of vol­un­teers and sup­port. NYC, for exam­ple, has resources that can help you lead you to your local farms and gar­dens. This is the best time of year to get out there and get your hands in some dirt.