May 21, 2012

Urban Agriculture: What is it and why is it important?

Mary Campbell,
Extension Director and Urban Sustainability Agent

In the past few years, there has been an ever increasing interest in home vegetable gardening, community gardens, and backyard poultry. All of these can be considered a form of urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is defined as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. There has been a resurgence of interest for local food production since it supplies fresher, healthier and tastier foods, saves money, and provides recreation and relaxation. 

The most interesting feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban community with urban residents as farmers, and has direct links to consumers and impacts on the urban environment. Urban agriculture includes the growing, processing, and distribution of food through plant cultivation and animal husbandry. It is vegetable plots in community gardens, food production in vacant inner-city lots, fish farms, poultry/vegetable growing at jail facilities, municipal compost facilities, community supported agriculture, schoolyard gardens, restaurant-supported salad gardens, backyard fruit trees, rooftop gardens and beehives, window box gardens, and much more.

There is a large potential for food production in cities and dozens of model projects are demonstrating successfully that urban agriculture is both necessary and viable. Health and nutrition supporters are joining with community gardeners, Extension, and faith communities in city-wide coalitions and food policy councils to maintain and expand urban food availability. Community economic development organizers, city planners, and environmentalists concerned with urban waste reduction and recycling, see the potential of urban farming. A growing consumer demand for fresh, local, and often organic food creates new markets for urban food production. Many of these efforts address the needs of urban residents who are living in poverty and experience poor nutrition and hunger.

In American cities such as Detroit and New York, thousands of acres of land have been given over to unemployed workers for food growing. Urban agriculture contributes to local economic development, as well as to the greening of the city by turning derelict open spaces into green zones and cleaning up blighted areas. Vacant lands are often used as informal waste dumpsites and are a source of crime and health problems. When vacant land is turned into productive green spaces, not only is an unhealthy situation eliminated, but the neighbors will enjoy and possibly participate in farming.

Innovative examples of urban agriculture are popping up all over. In Brooklyn, New York, Bright Farms will put a hydroponic greenhouse on top of a former Navy warehouse that the city acquired last year and will occupy up to 100,000 square feet of rooftop space. It is expected to yield a million pounds of produce a year — without using any dirt. Lettuce, tomatoes and herbs will be grown for local markets. A Michigan State University study indicates that a combination of urban farms, community gardens, storage facilities and greenhouses used to extend the growing season – could supply local Detroit residents with more than 75 percent of their vegetables and more than 40 percent of their fruits.

Urban agriculture supports a healthy community and a healthy environment, while providing food availability where the majority of people now live – in the cities.

Urban Agriculture: 
University of Florida
University of Georgia
University of Nebraska

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