Urban Farms Sprout Across the Country

Urban Farms Sprout Across the Country

Gray asphalt and abandoned lots in cities are being turned into farms as city dwellers grow fruits and vegetables in the shadow of skyscrapers.

By Susan Cosier/Photograph by Cyrus Dowlatshahi
Published: March-April 2011

Taking over marginalized land can have significant environmental benefits as well. For instance, plants growing on slightly contaminated land can also help remediate the property. "We deal with lead, and also revitalize our soil and bring life to a community as opposed to bring harm," explains Barbara Finnin, director of Oakland's City Slicker Farms. Lead travels through a plant, accumulating in the root, stem, and leaves, she says, but doesn't end up in the fruiting body. At the farm, they test the soil and, after capping the asphalt with mulch, teach people how to garden on two-foot-high beds. (Finnin recommends that farmers with lead-contaminated property throw their plant waste away instead of composting it.)

To help identify potential risks before farmers dig in, the EPA offers grants to local governments for testing soils at brownfields--former industrial sites contaminated by hazardous substances. There are currently upward of 20 urban farming projects that receive this funding, enabling cities to begin the remediation process. "EPA brownfields grants are working to help a number of cities and towns clean up sites for urban gardens, farms, or greenhouses," says David Lloyd, director of the EPA's Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program. Communities use the funds to turn the polluted lots into small-scale farms, stabilizing neighborhoods and allowing people to spend time outside, he adds. 

These little oases also help reduce runoff. Studies conducted at the University of Portland, Michigan State University, and Penn State University show that gardens and green spaces in a city absorb more than half the rainwater that falls on them. Rain that falls on impermeable surfaces like streets and sidewalks collects oil and trash before pouring into pipes that are easily overwhelmed by even small storms. In cities that have combined sewer and drainage systems, less than an inch of rainwater might push pipes beyond capacity, releasing a toxic slurry of untreated human and industrial waste into estuaries, rivers, and oceans. The pollution can make it unsafe to swim, and kill aquatic organisms nearby. When there are more city surfaces that can absorb that water, less effluent gushes into the drains.

In addition, birds and bees benefit from the rich soils and the variety of plants that urban farms bring. In a study being prepared for publication, Jennifer Hopwood of The Xerces Society, a nonprofit focused on invertebrate conservation, found that a wide variety of native pollinators, like bumblebees, sweat bees, and leafcutter bees, visit squash blossoms on urban farms in St. Louis. In 25 lots, she found that squash bees were the most abundant. These hairy insects nest underground, often at the base of squash plants. After emerging, they are vastly more effective pollinators than nonnative honeybees are. They visit plants of both sexes instead of just the nectar-rich female flowers, pollinating them right before dawn, when temperatures are cooler and honeybees are still inactive. "Urban environments are often ignored in conservation, but I believe they can be important habitat for a number of animals, including native pollinators," says Hopwood. "These squash bees were able to find gardens that were brand new and had just been abandoned lots before being planted with fruits and vegetables; they allowed them to survive within this urban matrix."


One of the biggest criticisms of city agriculture is that it's inefficient compared with industrial operations. Farmers have to truck their produce to farmers' markets, and customers often shop both there and at grocery stores, which means multiple trips--frequently by car--to buy food instead of one-stop supermarket shopping. Even so, factory farms' environmental footprints dwarf those of urban farms. Agriculture accounts for six percent of our annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the EPA, and that doesn't even account for the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides, oil and gas for tractors, equipment, or trucking and shipping. Industrial operations use more than a billion tons of pesticides and fertilizers on crops every year, which can contaminate groundwater and wash into waterways, causing dead zones. Companies transport food 1,500 miles on average before it arrives at a grocery store, and as many vegetables mature on a refrigerated truck, they lose vitamins and nutrients.

"I say think of everything it is, not everything it's not," says Bruce Sherman, head chef at North Pond in Chicago, who buys fresh produce from City Farm year-round and gives Dunn his food waste. "It's about building a community; it's about building relationships; it's about bringing tastier, healthier food into the food system. I don't think it will be as efficient as the big system, but I think we need to understand that's okay, that there's a trade-off there."

In low-income neighborhoods, urban farms are bringing fresh produce into areas where it can be far easier to find fast food than a grocery store. In these so-called food deserts, with a little compost and some hard work, many farms are able to sell produce to local residents who can often use food stamps or buy the vegetables at discounted prices. And the farms themselves provide employment for a small number of local residents.

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Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is former senior editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @susancosier.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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