Urban farming is gaining ground in cities around the world. It’s a fluid term that means different things to different people in different landscapes. Ultimately, it is a means of engaging with growing food and the broader food systems utilized in an urban setting. It is an umbrella movement that grows like a forest canopy to include community gardens, farmer’s markets, vacant lots, and a renewed focus on local food and sustainability in the face of climate change. These are tactics and compounding issues that will be increasingly important for cities to tackle in equitable ways going forward.
There’s a lot to cover regarding urban farming – and a lot of opinions and various techniques to sift through. Today, we’ll step into the future with an introduction to some of these advances, collaborations, and ancient practices to explore urban farming and urban agriculture as a positive shift in the coming years.
Our food systems have changed drastically throughout the various eras of human history. As our societies – and cities – have grown to staggeringly high population numbers, the ways we grow, sell, and consume food have shifted, too. Today, there is an incredible amount of pressure on foodways that are vulnerable to crisis and the cost-benefit analysis of an unfeeling, out-of-touch marketplace. How did we get here, you may wonder. Where did all of this start?
In the archeological record, we see evidence of agricultural communities as early as the eleventh millennium B.P. in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. Farming techniques and dwellings crop up all over the planet – and are the foundation of massive advances for our species. Currency, animal domestication, class structure – so much of what shapes our societies today are elements that are borne out of food systems and foodways of the ancient world.
Even with all of our advances, however, there is still a striking amount of food insecurity on the globe. In a time when milk is poured into the ocean to maintain demand and corn byproduct is massively subsidized by nation-states, there are many families without consistent access to nourishing foods. The same is true for drinkable water, as in the case of Flint, Michigan.
This urgent challenge is different depending on what part of the globe you chose to focus on. Humanitarian aid to regions facing famine due to climate change and war is of course a priority.
Food security is a dignity that all people need in order to thrive – and even in rich, relatively peaceful countries, there can be a frustrating lack of access and affordability to healthy food due to systemic injustices such as racial capitalism.
In the United States, marginalized communities – often in very dense urban areas – are organizing to change this. Growing food is more challenging if you live in an area that lacks green spaces or are working other low-income jobs to support your family, but across the country, people are finding ways to do just that with breath-taking creativity and stubborn resolve to bring fresh produce and sustaining change to their friends, family, and neighbors. From Detroit to Santa Fe, to the Cherokee nation, to New York City, community-backed agriculture is changing our food systems and empowering communities to redefine their legacy and prepare for the future. Urban farming will change how our cities look, and how the people living in the cities thrive.
Since most people living in urban areas do not have access to acres and acres of arable land, urban farmers and community organizers must use clever approaches to use what is available and affordable. Growers have taken to various alternative processes to do just that. Here are a few examples of how people grow their own food in small spaces and in some cases, provide local food to their urban community.
Hydroponics is a term used to describe plant growth systems in liquid, gravel, sand, and other materials instead of in soil, as is traditional in farming.
Technically a type of horticulture, hydroponic systems are space-efficient, they exist indoors, and they do not require land ownership, land access, or even dirt. This can seem like a radical concept to the uninitiated, but it’s a technique that stretches back through time – first cropping up in written text in the 1600s. Today, it’s a booming industry and means of production around the world.
The very basic idea is that plants grow with their roots reaching to retrieve nutrients from the nutritious liquid – often inside a tank. There may also be physical support in the tank from substrates such as perlite, gravel, and/or sand.
Hydroponic systems use less water than traditional agriculture and are an option for urban farmers and curious horticulturalists in areas that have harsh weather conditions or less access to water. As climate change intensifies heat and drought around the world, this system of growing will become more and more important. According to NASA, it’s a technique that astronauts will likely bring with them into Outerspace on increasingly lengthy missions in the future.
Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics in the sense that they do not use soil to grow food. However, they differ in one of many exciting ways: fish.
Aquaponics is a system of plant growth in which, the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water.”
An aquaponic system looks like a fancy fish tank. There are fish swimming around in the water – these fish produce waste which the plants are able to consume as nutrients and grow. As the plants grow, they keep the water clean. It’s a brilliant system of coupling fish farming with hydroponics. When done well, it is an exchange of reciprocity that benefits the fish, the plants, and the people.
Vertical farming is a term to describe farming techniques that go up, instead of spreading out. Using staked layers, vertical farming often incorporates growing techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics. In academia, there are designs of skyscraper buildings that are actually farms and can feed a proposed 50,000 people. These sorts of visions and enterprises could be an important link in providing for people in a time when rising global temperatures and soil depletion shrink the acreage that is available for farming operations around the globe. By building up instead of out, agriculture can flourish without requiring the development of wilderness areas and vulnerable ecosystems, too.
In addition to these major bonuses regarding ecosystem protection, the current applications and projections estimate that vertical farming will also vastly improve the crop yield and overall success in comparison to traditional farming methods. These are the best sort of future solutions: less impact on our planet’s interlocking biome, with higher production to feed more people. This is sustainability at its finest.
Hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical farming are all scalable farming methods that can and are utilized in both urban and rural settings. They are massive categories that can look very different depending on the grower and the available resources. It’s big stuff.
And it can be overwhelming for an individual or even a passionate group to instigate. Hydroponics and aquaponics can absolutely start small. And there are plenty of other growing techniques that are appropriate to do on a small scale. One exciting example? mushroom spores!
Mushrooms are highly regarded for their delicious taste as well as their powerful medicinal properties. Foraging communities secretly guard their forest spots and grocery stores sell packages of fungi for exorbitant prices. In response, and as a supplement, people are growing mushrooms in their sheds, basements, closets, and more. With the right tools and delivery of spores to your front door, you too can start a little mushroom farm!
Issues surrounding food access and food production are becoming popular topics of discussion and activism. Pesticides, agricultural products, lawsuits, economic development, and carbon emissions all intersect in our food systems.
When it comes to natural resources, we know what the data indicates regarding public health and we can opt into methods of food production, distribution, and consumption that nourishes and empowers instead of diminishing and extracting. Urban farmers can carve out space in this crossroads for cities to engage with fair and efficient means of food.
Some people, even in the cities, have been raised within a philosophic framework of local, organic, and with deep connections to food producers. However, for most of us living in the modern age, this is not the case. Individual engagement is a great place to start – and passion can spread from there like a cover crop!
Only, it’s a huge area of exploration and even getting started can be a daunting task. Here are some easy first steps:
Are fresh foods part of your diet? Are they part of every meal? Is there a nearby location where you have access to fresh produce and sustainably harvested animal products? This is difficult in many areas of populous cities – but not impossible. The internet is a valuable resource for finding supermarkets and grocery stores in your area. You may live in a food desert. If this is the case, consider seeking out activist groups that are working to change that – add your voice to the chorus demanding proper access to sustenance in your neighborhood. If you can’t find this discourse in your community, maybe you can begin the conversation – and a movement on behalf of your neighbors.
CSAs are an excellent means of securing fresh, local food and they exist in both rural and urban areas. CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture”. Research to see if there is a local CSA for which you can sign up. There’s a possibility that the CSA may be an aspect of a local urban garden or urban farm.
Another way to engage with this topic and feed your burgeoning interest in urban plant and crop growth is to cultivate your own garden crops or kitchen herbs – this project can be as big or small as you want to make it!
If you haven’t gardened before or perhaps navigate a busy schedule, you can simply start with a single pot. Many urban farmers and master gardeners started in just this way – one plant. Herbs can be difficult to keep indoors, but with the proper amount of sunlight and a basic watering schedule, you might be surprised at how quickly a plant can become a beloved housemate of sorts. From there, you can spread out. People living in urban areas utilize patios and porches, rooftop farms, and vacant lots. You can engage in practices of guerilla gardening, urban foraging, or if you are feeling ambitious, you can sign up for a community garden plot. Often, there are city or neighborhood grants available for urban farming projects, so it’s worth doing a bit of research to possibly cover the start-up costs. Social media is another excellent tool to begin gardening and growing edible food. There are plenty of support and help groups plus there are networks of other gardeners willing to make trades or simply bequeath free tools and tips as you find your roots.
If you have the privilege of owning land in a city, an important first step is to test your soil. Soil health is paramount to a successful crop, no matter how small you may start. In a lot of urban areas, pollution and toxic spills may impact the landscape. Many state universities can do this testing for you – it’s a step that will inform your style of gardening or farming and it can provide critical information on your steps towards stewarding the land and sharing the abundance.
Many city areas are subject to particular zoning laws, and this can be tricky to navigate. Luckily, there are often other people in your community who have done the work and organized community gardens and lots that are open to the public. It’s a beautiful thing: to bike along city streets and see vacant lots transformed into a quilt of vegetable gardens, orchards, and community gathering places. It’s a vision that instills a feeling of hope for the future.
There are often non-profits that work to distribute healthy food and support young farmers and agriculture innovators – these can be good places to explore and engage with as you dig deeper into the world of urban farms.
As you experiment with gardening or support urban farms in your area, you’ll learn more and more about where your food comes from and the factors that go into a thriving eco-economy.
It doesn’t take much to link your own access to food to the broader environmental issues that will dictate the challenges of our generation and the generations to come. Fossil fuel extraction, chemical run-off, air pollution – the list goes on and on. The time to shift and rectify our destructive behaviors is long past due. Our inputs and outputs are connected – understanding the relationships that thread through our lives is at the core of any genuine sustainability movement.
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