The Argument for Urban Agriculture

By Scott Broadbent 

I recently visited my oldest brother Charlie at his new home in Austin, Texas. It’s our tradition, whenever we see each other, to cook up a big breakfast at home. I woke up Saturday morning with an eager appetite and opened the fridge to find one lonely egg in the carton and no bacon in sight. Disappointed, I made myself a cup of coffee and waited for Charlie to stir. My plan was to shame him for his negligent planning, but before I could get in a jab, he suggested we go for a walk. I followed his lead and we went for a short stroll around the corner to HausBar Urban Farm.

 The owner, Dorsey Barger, greeted my brother with a friendly hello and opened her fridge to reveal stacks of eggs, each a different hue of brown or blue. In her cooler we found cuts of meat from nearby Springdale Farm where pigs eat waste from their food truck and vegetables they’re unable to sell. Now Charlie and I were fully stocked for breakfast, but I was hungry for answers. These beautiful eggs, meats, and vegetables were being grown minutes from Downtown Austin, one of the fastest growing cities in the country. How was it possible? In that moment I knew I wanted to learn more about urban farming: where it is being done best, what the benefits are, and how we can best support it.

 The world’s population is predicted to reach 10 billion by the year 2050 and as that growth occurs, people are moving into cities at an incredible rate of 200,000 people per day. Today’s urban areas already face considerable problems, including pollution, congestion and affordability. However, accessibility to food (particularly the prevalence of food deserts) in urban areas is tied closely to the health of communities. 

Although urban agriculture is often viewed as a modern development, farming was once the center of community, not a peripheral figure. Cities are working to revive their agricultural roots and urban agriculture is at the forefront of developing green spaces and placing an emphasis on food accessibility and affordability in the heart of cities.

Atlanta, Georgia – Combatting Food Deserts

In 2017, there were over 35 mapped food deserts in Atlanta with nearly 2 million residents having limited options to source their food. Many residents either travel long distances to access a grocery store or resort to eating foods purchased at gas stations, convenience stores or fast food restaurants, which are often processed foods higher in fats, sugar, and cholesterol. Atlanta sees promoting the growing of food inside the city as a way to address neighborhoods limited access to fresh foods. In 2015, the city appointed its first Director of Urban Agriculture, Mario Cambardella. In an interview with Food Well Alliance, Cambardella highlights the way that urban agriculture can extend into the life of a city and the lives of its residents, “Whether as a response to issues of food security, nutrition, education, environmental degradation, public health and community well-being, locally grown foods are a multi-pronged solution to urban challenges that should not be overlooked.”

Map of low-income communities at least one mile from the nearest supermarket |    Source AJC

Map of low-income communities at least one mile from the nearest supermarket | Source AJC

Since Cambardella’s appointment, Atlanta has created AgLanta, a digital food hub for urban agriculture, where participants can find urban farms in their area, urban growers can connect with local markets to sell their produce, and entrepreneurs, non-profits, and residents can apply to adopt vacant, city-owned properties to start new urban gardens and farms. This year AgLanta is piloting a partnership with ride-share company Lyft that provides round-trip rides to and from local farmer’s markets for only $2.

Atlanta is an example of a city that has looked at the multitude of problems that urbanization creates and recognized that urban agriculture, when properly supported and encouraged, provides relief to many of the areas most impacted.


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Increasing Land Access

Philadelphia appointed their first Director of Urban Agriculture just this month to oversee their new urban agriculture plan. While Philadelphia already has an estimated 470 farms within the city limits, nearly half of the city’s farms operate on land that the farmers do not own or control. The problem of land ownership is a big one for urban agriculture. Since Philadelphia appointed Ashley Richards as Director of Urban Agriculture, the city’s Office of Sustainability has been working with the Philadelphia Land Bank, among other organizations to make vacant and tax-delinquent properties available to farmers and gardeners, with the eventual goal of transferring ownership to those groups. In the last year, four properties were purchased by the Neighborhood Garden Trust with the goal of expanding to 40 properties next year.

An urban farm in Philadelphia | Photo credit: Jessica Griffin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

An urban farm in Philadelphia | Photo credit: Jessica Griffin, The Philadelphia Inquirer


Paris, France – Crowdsourcing Ideas

Paris was once an extremely agricultural city. In 1891, 80 percent of the produce sold in Paris’ central Les Halles market was grown within the “green belt” of gardens surrounding the city. Today, a study by MIT’s Sensible City Lab found that Paris is the least green city among 10 major cities studied

Urban farming in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century | Photo credit: Albert Kahn Museum

Urban farming in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century | Photo credit: Albert Kahn Museum

In 2016, Paris adopted the “100 Hectare Objective,” pledging to cover that amount of urban space (about 250 acres) in greenery by 2020. The program brought 33 businesses and public organizations together under a commitment to work alongside the Paris city council to develop urban agriculture and vegetation initiatives. The goal was to create green roofs and facades and devote one-third of this area to food production. The next year, Paris launched the Parisculteurs program, allowing citizens and organizations alike to submit bids to develop urban agriculture and greening projects for the heritage buildings of Paris. In the first year of that project, 144 candidates applied. The winning bids include La Caverne, an underground farm in the 2nd basement floor of a parking garage, where mushrooms are grown in used coffee grounds, and a planned rooftop farm atop the famous Bastille Opera House, where a brewery would make beer from hops, which provide valuable shade for fruits and vegetables. 

Denver, Colorado – Challenging a Norm

Given the initiative of many cities around the world to find solutions to their problems in the promise of urban agriculture, there is tremendous potential for other cities to follow suit. Denver is located in what used to be an agricultural hub and is known for its production of sugar beets, grains, and cattle. Unfortunately, urban agriculture in Denver has long been written off as not practical due to the states’ harsh climate with sun exposure and frequent hailstorms. There is, however, something greener on the horizon and urban farms are starting to pop up with innovative solutions such as vertical farming at Altius Farms in RiNo and aquaponics / hydroponics at The Growhaus. Today, Bio-Logical Capital created Larimer Uprooted, a roof top farm on top of the Larimer Square Parking Garage, right in the heart of downtown. What Bio-Logical Capital is saying with this project is simple: many people think that open air rooftop farming in Denver can’t be done – let’s try.

Our team planting the beds at Larimer Uprooted, Denver’s first open air roof top urban farm

Our team planting the beds at Larimer Uprooted, Denver’s first open air roof top urban farm

Communities are increasingly reliant on a resource-intensive system of commodity agriculture to transport food from far away into population hubs. The effects of this system have drastic consequences on the health of communities and the environment. But urban agriculture is proving to be an effective combatant of these consequences. Looking at successful example of urban agriculture from New York City to Paris to South Africa, we can see what works and what does not. We can embrace and learn from failure, and use the lessons to build a better agricultural future.