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Eco-Farm 2013 “What’s Growing On With Urban Farming” by Kathy Vining

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The theme of my trip to the EcoFarm conference centered around the integration of agriculture into urban landscapes and our built environment. I attended several particularly powerful seminars most notable of which was “What’s Growing on with Urban Farming”. The speakers represented two amazing urban agriculture initiatives, Alemany farms in San Francisco and the Chicago Botanic Gardens, both of whom are leading the nation’s urban farming movement.

Jason Mark described Alemany farm as horticultural performance art- focused on integrating green spaces and a hub for community engagement and education into the city’s fabric rather than aspiring to build a self sufficient urban food system. Urban farming as an agricultural production method will always remain on the periphery of our food system, he says; there is simply not enough land or open space within city limits to accommodate the dietary needs of a dense urban population. To put things in perspective, R. Ford Denison of the University of Minnesota estimates that a farm the size of the state of Connecticut would be required to grow enough food to feed the city of New York City alone. As far as agricultural production is concerned 3.5 acres (the size of San Francisco’s Alemany Farms) is rather meager. However 3.5 acres in an urban setting, particularly in places where real estate is highly sought after and outrageously expensive, is hard to come by.

This is all part of what some are calling the impending “urban farming bubble”.  In recent years the urban farming movement has exploded; more and more people are excited about growing food in their backyards and reconnecting with their food systems, but due to finite urban resources the truth still remains that urban farming as a tool for creating sustainable local food systems may not be viable. Some might argue that pouring resources into less efficient methods of food production as compared to traditional rural farming models is a waste and will cause the urban farm bubble to eventually burst. However, there are numerous benefits to urban farming beyond simply the production of food. These benefits include but are not limited to, improving local health and reducing dietary diseases, reducing stormwater runoff, combating the urban heat island, and reducing violent crime while providing youth recreation and health education services. Like most city parks, urban farms provide the city with recreational areas, healthy green spaces and an escape from the concrete jungle. But in addition, urban farms increase healthy food access, revitalize local economies and provide local jobs, and serve as a hub for political engagement and a space for community education. For example, Eliza Fournier described the Chicago Botanic Garden as a delicate balance between escapism and political engagement. At the garden they aim to integrate three primary uses into the operations of their green space: recreation, education, and agricultural productivity.

While neither farm may single handedly provide enough food to feed the city, they provide numerous social, environmental, and economic benefits. Leading us to conclude that as the urban farming movement is pitted against finite land resources and rising property costs, we will simply have to get more creative with our methods of urban agricultural production.

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