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Urban Farming
Credit: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Urban Farming

Call to action:

Expand urban farming practices worldwide to rekindle our relationship with fresh, diverse, nutritious, and just food.

Urban farming offers the world’s 4.2 billion city residents opportunities to eat their food where it is produced, fundamentally changing their relationship with the food system. Urban agriculture could produce up to 10 percent of the global output of legumes, tubers, and vegetables. Expanding urban farming can improve resiliency in the food supply, reduce urban heat-island effect, expand pollinator habitats, and provide access to nutritious produce, especially in low-income communities. Urban farms give people an alternative to ultra-processed foods, reawakening their understanding of food and its impact on human health, happiness, and well-being. Demand will stimulate localization of small farms near cities, spurring change in the larger food system.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the diverse forms of urban farming. Urban farming is any type of agriculture in a city that grows food and distributes it locally. It can include bees, native plants, and livestock, such as chickens. Traditionally, it can happen anywhere there is sunlight and soil, including homes, communities, schools, rooftops, and market gardens, as well as balconies, tiny greenhouses, and pots. In recent years, urban farming has expanded to vacant lots, greenbelts, warehouses, landfills, and parks. Soil is not necessarily required. Hydroponic, aquaponic, and container systems can all produce food year-round and can be stacked vertically. Technological innovations have enabled urban farmers to move beyond traditional urban methods and expand their operations and growing seasons.

Learn why urban farming is important to communities and the planet. Urban farming tends to be small scale, decentralized, community focused, highly efficient, and adaptable. Benefits of urban farming include:

Grow your own food. Before starting, get a sense of options in your city—who is doing urban farming, what they are growing, and what might work best for you.

Join a community garden. Becoming part of a wider food-growing community creates opportunities to connect with others, share resources and best practices, and provide nutritious, locally grown produce to your community. Get started by searching for openings in volunteer databases, using community garden locators, or joining gardening meetups.

  • Social Farms and Gardens works across the United Kingdom to provide workshops and training on the therapeutic use of farming practices in designing urban gardens for youth, elderly, and disabled residents.
  • GreenThumb, the largest urban gardening program in the United States, connects volunteers with community gardens in New York City that require assistance with garden maintenance and services such as carpentry, grant writing, communications, and finance.
  • The Chicago Community Gardens Association matches volunteers with community organizations that manage urban farms and gardens throughout the city and sponsors community involvement days.
  • In Auckland, Kelmarna Gardens runs a four-month farmhands volunteer and training program for individuals interested in learning regenerative organic food-growing skills.

Buy produce grown by urban farms. Supporting urban farms—especially those owned by women and BIPOC, who are vastly historically excluded among farmers—boosts demand for localized food. Here are a few examples of how to support urban farms in your area:

  • In the U.S., connect with urban farms by visiting your local farmers’ market or through urban farm location tools like the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project or the Dallas County Urban Garden Locator.
  • Community-supported agriculture (CSAs) connects eaters directly with growers by buying a share of the farm up front in exchange for regular deliveries of fresh produce. In Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Surat, the mobile platform Farmizen delivers organic produce grown by women farmers on small plots rented to city residents aiming to reconnect with nature. In the U.S., you can search for CSAs near you through the Department of Agriculture’s CSA directory or connect through Harvie Farms, a subscription service that makes customizable deliveries from over 250 local farmers and producers throughout the country.

Advocate for urban farming in your community. Raise awareness and promote investments in urban agriculture infrastructure by writing letters to your local paper, attending community meetings, and joining online forums. Here are examples of op-eds written for newspapers and advocacy websites, vertical farming and gardening forums, and resources to find and prepare for town halls.

Groups

Commercial Urban Farms

Seek out training and educational resources. Many urban farms, such as the Urban Growers Collective and the Urban Farming Institute, offer hands-on training to beginner urban farmers. Many universities also offer their own certificates and training programs both online and in person.

Leverage government urban agriculture policies. Guidelines on starting a commercial farm are available on many national and city government websites. Here are examples from the U.S., Singapore, and Mexico City.

Consider collaborative farming approaches. Small farmers can benefit from the collaborative approaches employed by cooperative models where farms, customers, and owners combine resources and expertise, meet shared needs, and oversee operations. See Lufa Farms and Urban Growers Collective in the Key Players section for more information.

  • Learn more about forming your own commercial CSA here.
  • Here is a brief intro and a full guide to forming an agricultural cooperative.

Explore innovations in urban farming. Startups contribute to research and development that enables farms to scale up to feed a greater share of densely populated urban areas, decrease emissions, and minimize waste production and water use. Below is a small sample of farms pioneering emerging technologies (see Key Players section for more):

  • Bowery Farms (New Jersey) is experimenting with the use of artificial intelligence, high-powered cameras, and robotic arms to identify and harvest fruits at peak ripeness, with a focus on fragile crops threatened by climate change.
  • Ÿnsect (France) raises mealworms and other insects to be made into ingredients used to fertilize crops and feed pets, fish, and people.
  • Upward Farms (Pennsylvania) integrates aquaponics with vertical vegetable farming and utilizes filtered fish waste to provide beneficial nutrients to the plants and minimize runoff waste.

Educators

Implement urban agriculture in your school’s curriculum. Becoming directly involved in growing food is a hands-on way to teach students about the impacts of their food choices and the benefits of environmental stewardship.

  • Bites is a mobile app that connects teachers with affordable, interactive classroom lunches with chefs to increase food literacy in schools and establish school food gardens.
  • In New York City, City Growers offers free and discounted urban agriculture–focused after-school programs, summer camps, and job training programs at their Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm.
  • In South Florida, the Urban Farming Institute provides teachers with a certified Florida School Garden Curriculum containing master gardening techniques and maintenance instructions as well as monthly check-in visits to established gardens.

Urban Planners, Architects, and Developers

Retrofit existing buildings to accommodate urban farms. High land prices can make acquiring land for urban farming difficult, especially in densely populated cities. When structures like vacant lots, rooftops, and parking garages are converted into urban farms, it not only decreases the effects of urban heat-island effect but also creates community spaces.

  • Rooftop Republic has partnered with businesses in Hong Kong to plant more than seven million square meters of rooftop gardens since 2015, with the aim of repairing the city’s relationship with food after decades of outsourcing to China, which currently produces 90 percent of Hong Kong’s food.
  • In Melbourne, Australia, nature-protection group Odonata joined forces with urban food-system designer Biofilta to use a grant from the Melbourne city council’s Urban Forest Fund to create the Melbourne Skyfarm—an urban farm and orchard built on a converted parking garage rooftop.

Prioritize urban agriculture infrastructure. New buildings can be constructed with urban farms incorporated into the design from the start, integrating water, agricultural, and energy systems more effectively (see Nature of Cities Nexus).

  • Thammasat University’s organic farm contains a built-in floodwater management system that slows rainwater runoff and prevents Bangkok’s sewage system from flooding.
  • Nature Urbaine, the world’s largest organic farm, uses a closed circuit that recycles water, requires no soil, and minimizes electricity usage.

Companies

Urban Farms

Reduce resource consumption in your day-to-day operations. By choosing energy-saving architectural designs, implementing systems that minimize water and food waste, powering crop growth through renewable energy, and abstaining from pesticide use, urban farms can minimize their carbon footprint (and often simultaneously reduce their operating costs in the long run).

  • In Montreal, Lufa Farms runs the largest commercial rooftop greenhouse in the world and has committed to “responsible agriculture”—including recapturing and recirculating irrigation water and rainfall, installing energy-saving glass rooftop panels and insulation curtains, capturing residual heat, using predatory insects instead of synthetic pesticides, converting waste into compost, and expanding a fleet of electric delivery vehicles to meet the increasing demand for produce deliver.
  • In Argentina, Rosario’s Urban Agriculture Program has reduced the city’s agriculture-related GHG emissions by 95 percent annually by localizing food production and establishing markets within walking distance of residents. The program has also secured over eight hundred acres of peri-urban land for permanent agricultural use, which lowers air temperatures, increases the absorbency of the soil, and ultimately helps prevent future landslides and floods.

Offer opportunities to community members to participate. Urban farms offer a unique space to increase people’s understanding of food and how it relates to human and planetary health. Here are a few farms that have made forging relationships with community residents an integral aspect of their mission:

  • In Baltimore, Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm is building the city’s first “AgriHood”—a community-shared agriculture training and resource institute within the surrounding predominantly Black and Caribbean neighborhoods.
  • Urban Growers Collective is a Black and women-led nonprofit urban farm based primarily on Chicago’s South Side that provides job training for young adults, beginner BIPOC farmers, and men at risk for gun violence.
  • In Rio de Janeiro, Horta de Manguinhos, designates job opportunities for residents previously involved in the local drug and crime enterprises and supplies training, equipment, and enough food to feed their families weekly.
  • In Mexico City, Huerta Tlatelolco, an edible forest and seed bank, teaches residents how to connect with food, care for the land, and build more green spaces throughout the city.
  • In Jersey City, AeroFarms is partnering with the Jersey City Housing Authority to pilot Healthy Greens JC, which aims to address food insecurity by combining farming technology, nutrition education programs, and opportunities for members to participate in the growing process.

Build partnerships with local restaurants. Supplying produce to restaurants in your city inspires an interest in sourcing food locally, boosts freshness and quality, and cuts down on transportation emissions.

  • In Singapore, Edible Garden City provides daily deliveries of fifty varieties of organic microgreens, edible flowers, and herbs to over two hundred dining establishments throughout the city.

Governance

Provide funding to community-based urban farms. Designating funding specifically for urban farms helps both ensure their longevity (i.e., by enabling them to prepare for the long-term impacts of climate change) and expand outreach to residents.

  • Singapore has established a $63 million Agricultural Productivity Fund to help farmers access technology that protects crops from excess sun and high temperatures. They have already begun to unlock access to underutilized spaces like rooftops and vacant government buildings, while the Singapore Food Agency has also set a target of producing 30 percent of the city-state’s nutritional needs by 2030.
  • In Cuba, the Urban Agriculture Department has provided funding and research support to the country’s organopónicos (organic urban farms that use crop substrates, animal manure, and household waste as fertilizer) by designating vacant land for agriculture free of charge, encouraging youth participation, and establishing guidelines to reduce energy usage and waste output.
  • In the state of Bihar, the government is heavily subsidizing the cost of building urban rooftop farms and providing seeds, training, and infrastructure support to urban farmers in order to increase green cover, bolster residents’ income, and provide protection against heatwaves.
  • In Dubai, UAE, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has allocated over 7,600 square meters of land to urban farming and has partnered with Shalimar Biotech Industries to develop country-specific vertical farming infrastructure, such as desalination plants and climate-controlled vertical farms.
  • In Medellín, Colombia, the Municipal Administration’s Huertas con Vos (Gardens with Us) program provides guidance and technical assistance to home gardeners to learn how to grow their own food and increase food security in the community.

Assist urban farmers with long-term leases and land ownership. Assisting urban farms in acquiring long-term leases or land ownership allows urban farmers to maintain a long-term presence in the communities where they operate.

  • In its first year alone, the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund—a coalition formed by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Keep Growing Detroit, and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm raised $55,000 to secure vacant lots for urban farmers in food-desert neighborhoods.

Ensure access to affordable housing near urban farms. Guaranteeing affordable housing in areas with urban farms preserves the relationships built between urban farms and residents and prevents the displacement of residents.

  • In Santa Clara, California, a mixed-income housing project designed by Agrihood broke ground in September 2021. The project will consist of community garden plots for use by residents, apartments for low-income seniors and veterans, and an organic farm.
  • In Chicago and Philadelphia, Vertical Harvest is partnering with local housing and development agencies to build hydroponic farms adjacent to affordable apartment complexes.

Join knowledge-sharing pacts. Pacts are key to increasing information flows between cities and farmers and ensuring that innovations in urban farming—especially those that increase resilience to the impacts of climate change—can be shared quickly. Here is a small sampling:

  • Established in 2015, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact is an international agreement joined by two hundred mayors from cities across the world who pledge as city leaders to develop inclusive and resilient sustainable food systems; integrate urban food policy considerations with social, economic, and environmental policies; engage actors at all levels of the food system in implementing food-related policies; and foster cooperation between cities.
  • Black Urban Growers hosts a yearly national conference that convenes Black farmers, organizers, city leaders, and members of the Black community committed to food justice and sovereignty to share best practices and build networks of Black leadership.

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