The Sustainability and Importance of Urban Agriculture

Santino Panico, a graduate student in the the Environmental Studies program,  examines the intersection between biodiversity and industrialization.

Any individual seriously concerned about ecosystems, biological diversity, and sustainability will conclude that the current state of the natural environment is ripe with systemic problems that require urgent solutions. The dilemmas of population growth coalesced with urban development, resource extraction and consumption, and the modification of natural systems are straining the limits of Earth.

Politicians and leaders worldwide continually refuse to acknowledge economies of scale and external limits. Instead, they rely on the invisible hand of the free market to guide and benchmark the progression of “man,” exacerbating biodiversity loss, global climate change, and resource depletion. Since long before the industrial era, humans have conveniently framed environmental problems as external from our own existence—external from the systems we have created: the technological, socioeconomic, philosophical, pedagogical, and individual, yet interconnected systems that fuel this globalized machine.

A shot of our urban farm.
A shot of our urban farm.

As the number of sustainability issues plaguing the world continues to increase, one that deserves considerable attention is the industrialization of food production. Today’s agricultural practices are largely unchanged from that of the Green Revolution. Occurring shortly after World War II, the Green Revolution was planned and executed through the collaboration between science, the Federal government, and the private sector as a means to increase food yields. To accomplish this goal, the widespread use of fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides was applied to large swaths of land, substituting natural processes such as nutrient cycling and biological control. This mechanization focused solely on the efficiency of monoculture crop production and mass irrigation systems. While the Green Revolution doubled yields allowing for cheaper food (mainly in the form of grains) and a rise in income for some farmers, the unintended consequences were/are vast. Monoculture cropping resulted in agro-biodiversity loss as well as the depletion of soil and ground water resources. Speaking of water, fertilizer runoff has contaminated a plethora rivers and yielded “dead zones” throughout the United States.

Indeed, the food industry is driven by the dominant social paradigm of neo-liberal economics, where plentiful has no meaning and bigger is always considered better. The majority of farms across the world rely heavily on pesticides, inhumane methods of factory farming, and large transportation systems requiring infinite amounts of petroleum. Overall, the average grocery store vegetable will travel on average, 1,500 miles from a massive conglomerated farm to the consumer’s plate. In order to constrain both environmental and health impacts of such a process, it is essential for people to understand how their food is produced and where it comes from. Furthermore, our politicians and leaders worldwide must begin to seriously consider sustainable methods of food production, such as that of urban agriculture.

The World Health Organization has estimated that by the middle of the 21st century, worldwide urban population is to more than double, increasing from 2.5 billion in 2009 to 5.2 billion by 2050, intensifying resource extraction and consumption (WHO, 2014). As urban populations continue to expand, cities will need to generate applicable sustainable action plans to meet the concurrent increase in food demand. What better solution for these mega-metropolises than urban agriculture? When one thinks of urban agriculture they most often imagine community and private gardens maintained by the Earthy, crunchy, hippy type. Maybe at a point in time that was the case, but today it is much more than a counter-culture movement. In addition to producing vegetables and fruits for personal consumption, urban agriculture is expanding to include not only growing plants and raising small animals such as goats and hens, but also the “processing, distribution, marketing and sale of food products and food by-products, such as compost” (Hodgson, et al., 2011). Urban agriculture also presents opportunities for “educational or demonstration purposes, neighborhood revitalization or economic development, healing or therapeutic purposes, sale or donation, or a combination of the above” (Hodgson, et al., 2011).

Overall, community leaders are now discussing urban agriculture as a possible solution to weathering the storms of global climate change, air and water pollution, energy security, and numerous health issues including diabetes. It can also increase access to wholesome fruits and vegetables, especially in low-income neighborhoods or food deserts that historically have limited access to affordable, healthy foods (Specht, et al., 2014). This type of food production also provides opportunities for public health programming to improve nutrition knowledge and attitudes, as well as dietary intake (Hodgson, et al., 2011). The economic opportunities presented by urban agriculture are numerous as well. They can aid in decreasing public land maintenance costs, while increasing local employment opportunities and capitalize on underused building structures such as rooftops, roadsides, and vacant property (Mallach, 2006). Urban agriculture can also increase property values, and produce multiplier effects through the attraction of new food-related businesses, including processing facilities, restaurants, community kitchens, farmers markets, transportation, and distribution equipment (Kaufman & Bailkey, 2000). Lastly, it can provide many environmental benefits. Through the productive reuse of contaminated land, brownfields are often used for urban agriculture processes. As an increase of plant foliage, it can reduce storm water runoff and air pollution, and can increase urban biodiversity and species preservation (NRC, 2010).

In highlighting the importance of urban agriculture, I believe it is imperative to get my hands dirty and put this knowledge to use. This semester I look forward to learning about, and applying new skills at the NYU Urban Farm Lab. The Urban Farm Lab will be an enlightening experience not only in food production, but also in community engagement, both at the university and local stakeholder levels. In overcoming the numerous issues humanity and the planet currently face, applicable solutions are what is essential to inspire people to act. Urban farming is a tangible need for cities and communities worldwide, and I hope my time at the Urban Farm Lab will help me demonstrate this point.

Hodgson, K., Caton, M., & Bailkey, M. (2011). Investing in Healthy, Sustainable Places
Through Urban Agriculture. Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable
Communities, 5(1), 1-16.
Kaufman, J., & M. Bailkey. 2000. “Farming Inside Cities: Entrepreneurial Urban Agriculture in
the United States.” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Working Paper. Retrieved from
Mallach, A. (2006). Bringing Buildings Back: From Abandoned Properties to Community
Assets. Montclair, N.J.: National Housing Institute.
National Research Council. (2010). Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st
Century . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Specht, K., Siebert, R., Hartmann, I., Freisinger, U., Sawicka, M., Werner, A., Thomaier, S.,
Henckel, D., Walk, H., & Dierich, A. (2014). Urban Agriculture of the Future: An
Overview of Sustainability Aspects of Food Production in and on Buildings.

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