Five Reasons To Promote Urban Agriculture in Your City

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This is a guest post by Allison Paisner.

April showers bring more than May flowers: for cities, springtime brings an opportunity to focus on more sustainable food systems. Gardens represent an ideal; the food they provide helps meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This spring, NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute recognizes local gardens and urban agriculture as valuable resources that exemplify this ideal.

Gardens represent more than the idea of sustainability, though – they represent opportunity. Urban agriculture initiatives offer city residents the chance to volunteer in a community garden, start their own gardens, support local agriculture through participation in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, or buy produce from a local farmer’s market. From environmental to health benefits, here are just a few of the reasons why urban agriculture will make your city a better place to live.

1) Gardens can help bring nutritious, affordable food to underserved communities.

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Food deserts are geographic areas in which a substantial portion of the population experiences the dual problems of low income and limited food access. According to the USDA, “census tracts qualify as food deserts if they meet low-income and low-access thresholds:

1. They qualify as ‘low-income communities’, based on having: a) a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, OR b) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income; AND

2. They qualify as ‘low-access communities’, based on the determination that at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of non-metropolitan census tracts).”

Over 13.5 million Americans are living in food deserts. However, even communities with limited food access are often forced to choose between fast food, chain restaurant and convenience store options. Garden projects and even edible landscaping (such as fruit and nut trees) throughout these communities provide an accessible local source of fresh produce. You can use the USDA Economic Research Service Food Access Research Atlas to find food desert tracts in your area, and visit the USDA website to find a complete list of 19 federal grant programs that your community could use to increase access to healthy food.

2) Local gardens reduce food transportation costs.

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(Getty Images)
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Whereas “local” is generally regarded as within a 100 mile radius, fresh produce in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate (that’s roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Minneapolis!). A Leopold Center study showed that increasing local consumption of produce by only 10 percent in Iowa, for example, would annually save more than 300,000 gallons in transportation fuel.

As a result, “Farm-to-Fork” or “Farm-to-Plate” campaigns are gaining traction throughout the country as consumers aim to reduce the mileage their food travels and eat more locally. For example, Sacramento, Calif. Mayor Kevin Johnson, together with regional elected officials and the State of California, proclaimed the city “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” in 2012, as the city boasts more than 7,000 acres of “boutique farms” and hosts more than 50 farmers markets.

3) Creative and strategic garden locations can help reduce urban “heat island” effects.

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(Getty Images)

Long gone are the days where gardens are merely rows and columns of vegetation in your backyard or community lot. In urban areas where green space is coveted and backyards are hard to come by, urban agriculture has transformed the environment. The Trust for Public Land points to planting shade trees (let’s make them fruit and nut trees!) and creating new parks as ways to lessen the urban “heat island” effect, the phenomenon in which developed urban areas are warmer than surrounding rural areas. Restoration of junkyards or vacant lots, indoor urban farming techniques (such as aquaponic fish farming and vertical farms), and rooftop gardens are the new wave of urban agriculture. Rather than covering building roofs with black tar, which has low albedo (reflectivity), “green roofs” are essentially rooftops covered with vegetation that provide a source of shade and evapotranspiration, removing heat from the air. With ample access to sun, rooftop farming not only provides a great location for a local source of fresh food, but helps to absorb rainwater, diluting pollutant loads in runoff and potentially preventing storm water runoff by serving as a drainage layer. If you’re interested in existing projects and their viability as a design strategy in other cities, read on about King County, Washington and the feasibility, challenges and benefits of green rooftops. New York City, for example, implemented the Green Roof Tax Abatement to further incentivize green roof construction.

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(Getty Images)

4) Community and school-based gardens promote citizen engagement.

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(Getty Images)

If getting dinner is a social activity, then growing dinner can be, too! Cities are increasingly offering plots of land for residents or employing community garden programs to encourage citizen participation in the urban garden “movement,” strengthen neighborhood ties, and promote volunteerism. But gardens can also reinforce community bonds by providing a medium to donate food to local assistance programs, like the Sharing the Harvest Program in Seattle, and offer work to at-risk populations. For example, The Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California provides job training and transitional employment support services in which trainees learn to grow food on a three-acre organic farm. The organic produce is then disseminated throughout the Santa Cruz community through a CSA program and Farm Stand. Green Youth Farm in Chicago alternately educates teens from low-income communities on sustainable urban agriculture and employs local high school students to work on city organic-farm sites. Recent studies show that school garden programs can positively impact student academic performance, and improve the physical, social and emotional health of students. Cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York City offer school gardens programs that connect kids to the environment and instill a sense of appreciation that will extend beyond their schooling careers.

5) Food waste can be reduced by composting.

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(Getty Images)

This last reason to “Go Gardens” stems from the fact that, according to the US EPA, roughly 28 percent of municipal solid waste generated in 2012 was attributed solely to food waste and yard trimmings – both of which are desirable compostable products. With a total generation of 251 million tons of trash and only a recycling and composting rate of 34.5 percent, there is much room for improvement – and this is where gardens come in. Compost is defined as “organic material that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants,” essentially serving as a natural fertilizer to improve soil health. Not only does composting reduce landfill waste, but it’s cost-effective and helps increase crop yields.

While you can compost on your own in a bin outside, many cities offer curbside compost programs at no additional fee, similar to that of Salt Lake City, Utah. Here, the yard and vegetative waste is delivered to the city landfill compost operation, and is offered for sale in the form of wood chips, mulch, and compost throughout the year at $30/scoop (one scoop is equivalent to three cubic yards). In comparison, topsoil and mulch can cost anywhere from $60-$150 for three cubic yards. The NYC Compost Project hosted by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts composting workshops and provides assistance to community gardens, schools, and organizations interested in composting. Turning waste into valuable agricultural inputs only enhances the environmental and health benefits of urban gardening.

Allison Paisner headshotAbout the Author: Allison Paisner is an intern with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.