Across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, urban farmers are planting the seeds of sustainability.
“The urban agriculture phenomenon has grown over the years for many reasons, each specific to the plot of land or rooftop it covers,” Arizona State University says. “While most of the benefits from these efforts seem to be limited and very local, when taken collectively the result is a significant environmental impact.”
Not everybody agrees on what precisely constitutes urban farming or urban agriculture, though.
What is urban farming?
In the simplest terms, urban farming involves growing or producing food in a heavily populated city or town, according to Greengrows, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture. However, the group adds, urban agriculture often is confused with community gardening, homesteading or subsistence farming.
“We’re happy to be thought of in such fine company,” Greengrows says, “but the fact is that they are very different animals. What distinguishes us is that urban agriculture assumes a level of commerce, the growing of product to be sold as opposed to being grown for personal consumption or sharing.”
The University of California’s extension service offers a somewhat broader definition:
“Urban agriculture includes production (beyond that which is strictly for home consumption or educational purposes), distribution and marketing of food and other products within the cores of metropolitan areas and at their edges.”
The University of California cites examples such as:
- Community, school, backyard and rooftop gardens that extend beyond one household producing and consuming its own homegrown fruits and vegetables.
- Community-supported agriculture operations in urban areas.
- Family farms located in metropolitan greenbelts.
Regardless of the definition, urban agriculture or urban farming cultivates a number of benefits. Here are five of them.
Urban Farming Benefits
1. Wider array of farming methods
Urban farming expands agriculture beyond traditional methods. For instance, according to commercial real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield, urban farmers can rely on:
- Hydroponic agriculture, allowing plants to be grown without soil.
- Aeroponic agriculture, enabling plants to be grown in an air or mist environment.
- Aquaponic agriculture, combining the raising of fish in tanks with hydroponic plant production.
2. More food for an expanding world
A 2018 study led by researchers at Arizona State University and Google projected that if urban agriculture reached its maximum capacity, it could result in production of 100 million to 180 million tons of food per year. Researchers assigned an overall value to stepped-up urban agriculture of much as $80 billion to $160 billion.
“The most obvious benefit of urban agriculture is that it improves access to healthy foods,” says Michelle Stuhlmacher, a researcher at Arizona State.
By one estimate, 124 million people in 51 countries face crisis-level food shortages.
The extension service at Michigan State University points out that although urban farms won’t feed entire cities, they can supply residents with an additional source of healthy, low-cost produce.
Nicholas Clinton, lead author of the Arizona State/Google study, says countries like the U.S., China, Germany and Japan stand to profit the most from urban agriculture.
“Relatively temperate, developed or developing countries with the right mix of crops are expected to have the greatest incentives for urban agriculture,” Clinton says.
3. Less damage to the ecosystem
If fully executed, urban agriculture practices hold the potential to greatly scale back harm to the global ecosystem, according to the Arizona State/Google study. The annual advantages would include:
- Energy savings of 14 billion to 15 billion kilowatt hours. That’s enough energy to power nearly 16 million average U.S. homes per month.
- Nitrogen reduction of 100,000 to 170,000 tons. Nitrogen gas can contribute to respiratory problems.
- Decrease in stormwater runoff of 11.9 trillion to 15 trillion gallons of water.
However, Michigan State notes that urban farming operations aren’t always as environmentally friendly as they’re purported to be. For instance, the university’s extension service says, some vertical farms — often promoted as a sustainable alternative to traditional farming — can consume lots of energy.
4. Better farm-to-market access
On average, produce in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate, Cushman & Wakefield notes. This reduces the freshness of produce but also can ramp up emission of greenhouse gases, the company says. (Critics complain that the often-quoted 1,500-mile figure comes from a 2001 study that was limited to the transportation of fruits and vegetables to a single produce market in Chicago.)
“Urban farming operations eliminate the need for extensive distribution chains with the ability to grow crops close to the end consumer,” Cushman & Wakefield says.
However, a 2008 study calls into question just how much of an effect urban farming can have in this regard. The study found that transportation as a whole represents just 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food, and delivery of food from producer to retailer accounts for just 4 percent.
5. Greater appreciation of food
Urban farms help raise awareness of the vital role that food plays in our lives.
“They can reconnect people with how to grow food,” Michigan State says, “and the practice of urban agriculture is most valuable for how it forces us to be more conscientious about the people who feed us.”