Urban Farming a Fertile Bed for Crop of Local Stories

May 29, 2019
A rooftop garden at Boston’s Fenway Park supplies stadium concessions. Photo: Brian Crawford, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Urban Farming a Fertile Bed for Crop of Local Stories

It used to be that raising vegetables in your front yard or chickens in the back would draw frowns from neighbors. The rise of “urban agriculture” has changed all that.

So how is this story playing out in your neighborhood?

Conditions in U.S. cities vary enormously, as do local ordinances, food economics, nutritional needs, growing seasons and cultural norms. But urban agriculture is trending in a lot of places.

It’s a slippery thing to define. One size does not fit all. There are vacant lots, community gardens, rooftop gardens, hydroponics, vertical gardens, hoop houses, chicken houses, fish ponds and small businesses.  


Why it matters

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a keystone of human health. Yet many people in the United States do not have easy access to such produce or eat enough of it.

What we get in the supermarkets is often shipped (at real environmental cost) from half a continent away. Eating it, we sacrifice freshness and tastiness.

In neighborhoods without supermarkets, the main options may be processed, shelf-stable foods that do not nourish us well enough.

Gardening not only addresses health eating. It’s also fun — even deeply satisfying for many people. It gives people exercise, fresh air and a better understanding of where food comes from and how it nourishes us.


Community gardens create and nurture communities

that …. often organize to advocate things like

cleaner water, restraint of pesticides and reduction of waste.


You do not really understand what a strawberry or a pea is until you taste one you grew yourself and just picked ripe a few minutes ago.

Moreover, many urban agriculture efforts are done by groups — often multiple plots in a single place.

Community gardens create and nurture communities that span class, age and ethnic barriers. These groups of people often organize to advocate things like cleaner water, restraint of pesticides and reduction of waste. They often “give back” to larger communities by feeding them.


The backstory

Urban agriculture is not a new thing. Historians of civilization will tell you that farms are what make cities possible. But farms in cities are a different pot of beans.

Backyard kitchen gardens are an institution that made the jump from rural farms to small towns. Garden allotments of unused urban land to promote more efficient resource use were common in Europe centuries ago. Victory Gardens were a thing organized and promoted by the U.S. government in World War II.

But urban agriculture shifted into a higher gear with the rise of the modern environmental movement and food movement.

Community gardens have been increasing in the United States since at least the 1970s — populated not just by hippies and foodies, but by retirees and ordinary families as well.

Broadly defined, urban agriculture is a worldwide phenomenon, with some estimates claiming it produces as much as one-fifth of the world’s food.  


Story ideas

  • What are some community gardens or urban farm sites near you? Go visit and talk to the people who work there.
  • Is land in your urban/suburban area fully used — or are there vacant lots and neglected parks? What are the rules for using these areas?
  • Does your area include “food deserts,” places where supermarkets and nutritious, fresh food are hard to find? Are any urban agriculture efforts addressing this need?
  • What can be known about the soil used in particular urban agriculture projects? What was on the site before gardens? Has the soil been tested for toxics and what were the findings? Are there any restrictions on what can be grown and eaten?
  • What are the zoning and permit requirements affecting urban agriculture where you live? Are there setback rules? Public easements? Laws against chickens or bees?
  • How does your local urban farm manage pests? What are the biggest problems? Are chemicals seen as the main solution? Or are other management methods working?


Reporting resources

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture has a variety of information on urban ag.
  • Land-Grant Universities, a network of federally chartered state schools emphasizing agriculture, are loaded with urban ag experts.
  • Cooperative Extension offices are a network of ag and garden information offices typically at the county level. Find yours here.
  • City agencies promoting urban agriculture can often be found by looking at city or county directories. Philadelphia has its own urban agriculture director.
  • Local community garden organizations are the place to find hands-on experts.
  • Park authorities at the local level often make land available for community gardens and urban agriculture.
  • City Farmer is a Canada-based publication focused on urban ag.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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