Urban Agriculture & Sustainability

Note: This post was written for the The Nature of Cities Roundtable on Urban Agriculture & Sustainability:

The North American fetishization of urban agriculture, as a solution to urban food insecurity and dependence on rural agriculture, turns attention away more viable solutions to these problems. While the U.S. conceptualization of urban agriculture can certainly provide increased access for some small portion of urban dwellers to highly perishable food crops, it cannot provide yields needed to feed large urban populations. The recent interest boom in the U.S. in urban agriculture diverts attention from issues at the urban-rural interface that have a greater impact on urban sustainability.

Urban agriculture, like other green spaces, serves the public good, but it is unrealistic to expect that urban farms can provide sufficiency in the food supply needed for urban areas.
It is fallacious to proclaim that this is an urban age and so we should concentrate on urban systems in planning for sustainability, when much of the world’s population lives in sprawling settlements in the urban-rural interface. In the Global North, this most often take the form of suburban and exurban, automobile-dependent, sprawl. This sprawling development is problematic in terms of urban sustainability for several reasons. This pattern has a huge ecological footprint because of automobile dependence, embedded energy costs, and energy used to heat and cool large single family homes. Unchecked sprawl also threatens much of the world’s most productive farmland, as cities are often built near rivers and the rich riparian sediments that surround them.

North American urban agriculture is typically premised on a few elements. A farmer or farm director, along with a few part-time staff or interns, are expected to make a living from the sale of farm products to urban consumers, often in combination with income from educational programs or grants. This system, which must still compete in the market with more efficient rural production, cannot provide affordable food to the urban poor and leaves the farmer and farm employees struggling to make a basic income.

Even if this model exists in an urban area with large areas of abandoned land available, urban farms, because of their recreation and community building functions, tend to encourage redevelopment processes that increase land values and development pressures. Urban agriculture, like other green spaces, serves the public good, providing recreation, education, and increased social connections. Some urban agriculture should be protected as part of park and educational planning for cities, particularly to educate young people about food production, though it is unrealistic to expect that urban farms can provide sufficiency in the food supply needed for urban areas.

If we want to ensure food security and a localized food supply, a direct access strategy—like the Eastern Europe’s dacha system, where urban residents are provided with small farm plots within the urban-rural interface—rather than commercialized farming within urban centers might be more productive. These plots provide recreational and social values for their owners and contribute to household food security for low income families. A dacha-like system would also set aside productive farmland at the urban fringe, protecting it from harmful sprawl. Dachas are typically significantly larger plots than those that are available to urban residents through home gardens or small community garden plots.

The lack of affordable and secure access to land reduces the number of new U.S. farmers and threatens the economic viability of new small farms. Most small U.S. farms now rely on non-farm income to support their households. There isn’t enough land within central cities to grow significant amounts of food if we want to maintain urban densities, so land access must be made available in the nearby urban-rural interface by taking land off the market through public ownership, land trusts, or permanent conservation easements, thereby protecting land for small family farms and dacha-like plots. This would provide multiple societal benefits, and contribute to sustainability by ensuring food security for the poor, limiting sprawl, and by reconnecting urban people with the land.