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Some say urban farming is a trend, some say it is a movement, and some say it is a revolution. I say urban farming is going back to a lifestyle prevalent before the Industrial Revolution.

In the 1800s, we started to pull away from a self-sufficient, agrarian lifestyle, and built cities and populated them, because that’s where the jobs were. Since we weren’t farming and bartering to feed our families anymore, we had to go to work to make money to buy food that was trucked in from somewhere else. This was seen as ‘progress’.

Photo: jonathanvlarocca

A brief history of commercial food production

In the 20th century, the modern idea of mass production was put on our food, which was seen as healthier. Huge farms grew food with toxic herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers. It was harvested under-ripe, shipped across the country, and sold in big corporate supermarkets.

Clarence Birdseye invented frozen food, and life became about convenience, not survival. Agriculture became agribusiness, concerned with profit instead of people, and we became disconnected from our food source, the natural world and good health.

After generations of this “unnatural” behavior, we are making good use of those cities with farming. From the small personal garden to community gardens to profitable farms that sell on site, at farmer’s markets and to restaurants, people are finding out you don’t need to be in the country to grow, eat and share fresh food.

Types of urban farming

Personal gardens

Personal gardens consist of a small plot of vegetables in place of a lawn, leasing a friend’s or neighbor’s yard, gardening in containers and window boxes, or setting up a vertical garden indoors or out.

Community gardens

A community garden is a cooperative effort started by an individual or a group. Sometimes a city will provide the land, but if not, a lot with good sun and available water needs to be located first. Soil is tested, garden plots are laid out for members, and a plan is put in place for dues and responsibilities.

Photo: tcd123usa

Community gardens especially benefit low-income areas of a city, where fresh food may not be available. People get empowered and feel good about themselves when they can grow their own food and take care of their families.

Urban agriculture as urban renewal projects

Urban farming becomes urban agriculture to signify larger scale and profitability. Farms are started on empty building lots, old parking lots, concrete pads, abandoned railroad tracks, in city parks and on rooftops. Using infill, plant life replaces blight and beautifies the city. In places like New Orleans and Detroit, cities that have been devastated by natural disasters and the economy respectively, urban farms can regenerate them and create sorely needed jobs.

Urban gardens in three cities

In New York, the Brooklyn Grange Farm is a one-acre, organic commercial farm growing on a rooftop. They sell their produce at farmstands and to restaurants.

The city of Vancouver, BC is cooperating with farmers to find vacant land, and they allow large-scale rooftop farming. A Vancouver based organization, City Farmer, has a database to connect farmers seeking land with landowners, Sharing Backyards.

Urban gardens, Vancouver BC. Photo: donkeycart

San Francisco recently relaxed its zoning restrictions on selling produce from a commercial farm lot or to restaurants. This will encourage more urban farmers to make a living sharing food.

The benefits of urban farming

  • Fresh, local food distributed to community
  • Make use of vacant land and beautify the city
  • Create plant diversity
  • Create jobs
  • Teach adults and children where their food comes from, how it is grown, and what constitutes good nutrition
  • Get people back in touch with nature and the earth’s seasonal and weather cycles
  • Improve health
  • Increase food security
  • Build community – people connecting with people
  • Part of a complete local food system – grow food, sell to restaurants, scraps returned to farm for compost, which amends the soil

Urban farming and urban planning

Urban planners are key to the success of urban farming. They can help create zoning laws that benefit their community. They will also understand legal and insurance issues as well as neighborhood and city restrictions. The can keep track of empty lots and city spaces and keep gardeners informed. They have a lot of influence!

If you live in a city and want fresh food, or if you need to move to the city for a job or any other reason, you have plenty of options. Grow your own, participate in a community garden, or buy from a local urban farm to keep them in business. All urban gardening, be it small or large, personal or profitable, beautifies a cityscape, increases diversity and creates community. It’s win/win!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.