My first urban garden was a 5x3 foot weed pit behind my rented duplex. With my landlady’s permission, I dug out the weeds and threw the coffee grounds from my french press and some organic compost into the dirt. My mission was simple: salsa ingredients, hopefully enough for a few jars. This was my first attempt at gardening, let alone on the bath mat sized part of the “back yard” which was more driveway than anything. My expectations were low, but as usual I had high ambitions. I sprouted my own tomatoes in egg cartons on the porch, concocted my own bug repellent and pulled a few weeds every morning before I went to work. Before I knew it the garden turned into a snarling forest of food. I couldn’t pick the romas fast enough, jalapenos were turning red and romaine was popping up in places I had not planted any. I sent anyone who visited me home with a bag of food and by October I was tired of pasta sauce and none of my friends could eat any more salsa.
That summer I discovered the power a tiny piece of land held. I greatly underestimated how much food I could produce, as well as what happened behind my house – it became a place I wanted to sit and where animals and insects thrived.
Urban agriculture has taken off as a movement in the last decade. You don’t have to go far to find a rooftop garden or even a class about how to start container gardening. People have begun to see the benefits of gardening in general and the positive impact urban agriculture has on our environment, economy and social systems.
Urban agriculture expands the economic base of a city through production resulting in increased entrepreneurship, job opportunities and the innovation of a new industry. One way urban farms can bring in revenue is through providing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. Typically, a CSA is a subscription in that the consumer pre-pays for a season’s worth of produce from a farm and receives a box of product weekly, eliminating grocery stores as the middle man. Fresh and healthy foods made available to urban areas that may lie within a food desert zone can impact childhood nutrition and form healthy adult food choice habits.
Urban agriculture also has numerous environmental benefits. From decreasing the distance food is transported from hundreds of miles to possibly blocks, oil use and carbon emissions can be cut down considerably. Vacant urban spaces can be retrofitted into gardens decreasing the amount of heat that is absorbed into pavement. In many cities, policy is being made that would promote the use of gardens on rooftops to combat urban heat island effects.
Besides these benefits are the ones that come from the added exercise of gardening, the community and social benefits of getting to know other people who share an interest in gardening and how much better you feel when you walk down the street and see thriving plants instead of a vacant lots full of dandelions growing in the cracks.
Obviously I think that the positive effects of urban agriculture and gardening outweigh the negative, but in some cases the negatives can be serious barriers to entry into this new market. Especially in dense urban areas space is at a premium, and it may difficult and expensive to obtain. Soil in urban areas may have high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals from years of car exhaust, as well as other contaminants from garbage, factories and lead paint from homes and garages. Many cities and states do offer soil testing in order to determine whether it is safe to grow plants for eating and often the solution is as simple as a raised bed.
Support infrastructure such as access to water may not be available or too costly and even policy may stand in the way. Just recently, the city of Minneapolis reworked its zoning code in order to allow urban farms and gardeners to sell what they grow. Since urban agriculture often starts on a small scale, citizen participation will be extremely important in enlightening city policy makers on what amendments to zoning codes and ordinances are needed in order to make this new industry grow.
So where is urban agriculture happening? Everywhere, but one of the most interesting places is Detroit, Michigan. After huge population losses, including 25% in the last decade, Detroit’s housing and infrastructure has deteriorated significantly. But near the vacant lots and burned out houses non-profit urban agriculture is beginning to thrive. Greening of Detroit is a non-profit “established in 1989 to guide and inspire the reforestation of Detroit. In 2006, a new vision was established, expanding The Greening’s mission to guide and inspire others to create a ‘greener’ Detroit through planting and educational programs environmental leadership, advocacy, and by building community capacity.” A surplus of land is enabling urban agriculture to be applied on a larger scale. Even private enterprise has taken note, with companies moving in to buy land to begin farms.
What will urban agriculture look like in the future? Terreform, an organization devoted to sustainable architecture and urbanism visualizes New York as a self-sustaining city of vertical farms but most likely urban agriculture and gardens(small scale as well as large) will continue to grow and benefit people in their surrounding communities.
Successful urban gardens seem to all have one thing in common: a strong and devoted social organization who believes in what they do and inspires others to participate. In many ways this may be more difficult to hold onto long term than changing policy, so lead by example and show neighbors and community members what you can do. Bring them a jar of your salsa!
Urban Farming In Progress:
Stones Throw Urban Farm (pictured above), Minneapolis
596 Acres, New York
Growing Lots, Minneapolis