Farming the Concrete Jungle, Feeding a Green Economy

Urban farming is spreading around the world and is becoming a vital part of the urban food supply, producing many important benefits besides food and helping to make cities more livable.

By Chris de Morsella, the Green Economy Post

Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) is rapidly spreading around the world. The global adoption of urban farming is primarily being driven by the dire poverty of much of the world’s urban poor and is becoming an increasingly vital part of the world’s urban food supply. In rich developed cities around the world an urban farming movement is also taking root, partly because of environmental concerns and the adoption of a local food ethic, but also to help address the persistent hunger that still exists in urban areas in industrialized countries.

According to the FAO an estimated 800 million urban residents worldwide are engaged in urban farming or the informal food market economy it supplies, growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as raising livestock, poultry and producing eggs. By some estimates urban farms now supply around one third of the world’s food production and this value is expected to continue to rise. In cities around the world, such as Bangkok, Moscow, Mexico City, Beijing, Havana, Mumbai, Singapore and others urban farms have become a vital part of the food supply and food security of their inhabitants. For example, in the Bangkok greater metro area some 60% of the land is actively under cultivation and more than two thirds of all urban families are raising some food.

Urban Farming Is Also Spreading Rapidly in the US

Spearheaded by environmental, food quality and health concerns; by the local food movement; by the movement towards a green urban ethic as well as by economic necessity, urban farming is increasingly being adopted in the US as well. The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America, a recent research report by the National Gardening Association has found that 31% of all U.S. households (or 36 million households) participated in food gardening to some degree in 2008 and this number is expected to rise by 19% to 43 million households in 2009.

Community gardens and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) are also becoming increasingly common in and around cities across North America. LocalHarvest, an organic and local food website lists 2,500 CSAs in its database with 557 new CSA farms being added in 2008.

The Many Benefits of Farming the City

Urban farming can achieve impressive yields of up to 15 times the yields of field agriculture for a similar area, although in practice this potential is often not fully realized due to deficits such as poor quality seed, inferior or insufficient inputs, use of poorly adapted varieties, poor water management, and lack of farming knowledge. As an illustration of how much potential small urban micro-farms have consider the following examples: A 2006 pilot micro farm project situated on a sub-acre plot located on the outskirts of Philadelphia produced $67,000 from crops such as salad greens and baby vegetables; while a small 1-acre micro-farm in Milwaukee equipped with greenhouses, tilapia tanks and poultry pens grossed more than $220,000.

Many cities have many abandoned or empty lots as well as derelict brownfield sites that can with proper environmental remediation be turned into urban farms. Producing fresh produce right where it is needed most. The restoration of these abandoned derelict urban spaces into thriving green life giving oasis in the middle of the concrete jungles does a lot more than just produce food.

It helps to provide increased food security and desperately needed high nutritional value fresh produce to the city’s poorest people. The informal urban food economy is especially important for and attractive to woman across many parts of the world, because it enables them to work around their need to care for their children and is an important source of nutrition for their family as well.

In the US studies have shown that property values are higher in areas that have had abandoned empty lots turned into community gardens than in similar areas that have not had their abandoned lots so transformed. These green spaces become centers of community activity and replace urban blight with green growing plants. There is also evidence for decreased crime in areas with active urban gardens.

Perhaps most importantly urban farms are helping to reverse an age old dichotomy between the consuming urban center and the resource providing country that has crossed a tipping point of with the advent of vast industrialized urbanization across the world. In fact, cities cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, but consume 75% of its resources and by now more than half the world’s people are now living in the planet’s cities and their immediate peripheries. Things cannot go on this path much longer; the earth’s capacity to support these vast urban black holes of concentrated human consumption cutoff from the natural world has reached its breaking point.

Urban farming turns this on its head and helps to sow the urban space back into the natural world as a producer of – at least a significant portion – of its own food. It seeks to turn all the small empty spaces of the city into green living skin to grow food and flowers; to produce poultry, pork (in many cities in Asia pigs are raised within the metro areas), eggs, fish, beekeeping and so more.

One important and now largely overlooked space available in the city is the roofscape that tops it. Roughly 30% of all the surface of an urban area is comprised by roofs of one type or another.

Urban farms are helping to close resource loops that cities, especially industrial cities have bled away for scores of years and in some cases centuries. The urban waste stream is not sustainable and is causing grievous harm to the world. Urban farms can help re-cycle much organic and other compostable waste that is now overflowing landfills. Urban farms and gardens can use grey water and roof harvested water that would have otherwise ended up in over taxed sewage systems.

Food produced in urban farms is much fresher than food that has been grown in some faraway place and it does not need to be transported over often thousands of miles in order to get to market.

What Is Urban Farming and What Can Be Done to Promote It

Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) occurs within and surrounding the boundaries of cities throughout the world and includes crop and livestock production, fisheries and forestry, as well as the ecological services they provide. Often multiple farming and gardening systems exist in and near a single city.

Much can and needs to be done to develop the true potential of urban agriculture. Up until now this has largely been a spontaneous people’s movement that has often faced official opposition and stigma, but has spread in spite of it. Local, regional and national governments need to be educated about the many benefits of encouraging the development of urban based food economies.

The FAO has suggested that micro-credit support for storage and refrigeration could help to raise the income potential of urban farmers, and improve the safety of food sold by street vendors who rely heavily on urban and peri-urban food production. Urban farming and the small scale informal market economy that it supports seems eminently well suited to benefit from micro lending helping raise the quality of life for billions of people in a very real and tangible way.

The Green Metamorphosis

Urban farming comprises a vital part of the green metamorphosis of the world’s urban and peri-urban environments from their current state of being massive environmentally destructive resource sinks into becoming densely populated regions that are carefully reintegrated back into the various vital cycles of the natural world, producing much of their food, energy and other needs locally in a highly re-cycling economy. The urban farm can spearhead a tectonic reversal of the idea that cities are separate from nature that they somehow exist outside of it and begin to reverse the destructive, consumptive resource usage patterns that have resulted from cities being designed and built under the thrall of this notion.

Urban farms can and are in fact beginning to make use of urban generated waste streams tying them back into the closed loop of sustainable living systems. Urban farms will help urban dwellers reconnect with the land and with living things and the understanding that we all exist within a larger living system. Urban farms and gardens can become the colonizing green living fabric of a new kind of green city… one that does not impose such a burden on the wider world but rather re-knits itself back into that world, promoting virtuous cycles… nutrient cycles, water cycles, carbon cycles… closing the loops and re-using.

Granted we are very far from this idealized goal and many people do not understand the importance of re-knitting our cities back into the natural world and making them vastly more efficient. A lot of people do not see any problems at all and will argue that anyone who argues the need to profoundly change the way we live is being alarmist or worse. It will not be easy, but as resource scarcity begins to make itself increasingly felt in everyday life more and more people will be forced to open their eyes and see that we have no other choice, but to radically retrofit our cities and peripheral metro areas in order for them and the people living in them to be able to survive.

In the coming decades increasingly people will wonder why we ever did not produce a good portion of our metro areas food within the metro area itself.

© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.