Urban Farming: Growing Food in the City

A growing number of urban farmers are finding that they don’t have to choose between the penthouse views and the land spreading out so far and wide. They’re creating green acres right where they are.

| March/April 2003

  • The Garden of Eatin at 25th and Dickinson in south Philadelphia thrives near a decaying elevated railroad track where drugs are openly exchanged. A group of neighbors grow kale, cotton, black-eyed peas, okra, corn, lima beans, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and blackberries, as well as roses, calla lillies, and an occasional Christmas tree.
    Photo by Michael Ableman
  • Kids from the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, California, share in the harvest, some of them tasting freshly picked produce for the first time in their lives. The market garden, installed by the Center For Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens (805-967-7369, www.fairviewgardens.org), was established to provide jobs and food to the local community.
    Photo by Michael Ableman
  • Kids from the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, California, share in the harvest, some of them tasting freshly picked produce for the first time in their lives. The market garden, installed by the Center For Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens (805-967-7369, www.fairviewgardens.org), was established to provide jobs and food to the local community.
    Photo by Joe Coca

The most productive farms in North America no longer stretch across the great Midwestern expanses or nestle in warm, fertile southern California valleys. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) agriculture census, the most efficient farms, in dollar value per acre of land, flourish in the bustling centers of New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. There, city folk grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, and flowers and raise fish, poultry, and honeybees—more often than not organically.

Referred to as city farming, urban agriculture, urban farming or metrofarming, growing food “in the cities for the cities” has taken the lead as the most transformative urban renewal movement of the past five years. Just as agriculture once built the United States, it is now reconstructing the hopes of its cities. The list of benefits created by urban farming begins with improving nutrition, boosting local economies, feeding the hungry, creating jobs, decreasing fossil fuel use, improving air quality, and saving water. But this ancient common denominator—food—is also organizing communities in remarkable ways.

Neighbors in Vancouver are forming urban farming coops that collect rain runoff and share compost and tools; Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Boulder, Colorado, harvests more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables each year solely to donate to Community Food Share; Revision House in Boston offers the women it shelters the opportunity to become self-sustaining food growers; and Food from the Hood in Los Angeles teaches street kids how to earn a living farming on vacant lots.

Jump-started a few years ago by Y2K qualms, concerns about chemically treated and genetically altered foods, and the mushrooming clamor for organic produce and ethnic foods, urban farmers are embracing the personal, communal, and financial benefits of “growing their own” and are inventively creating sustainable food production methods that thrive in urban atmospheres. Bucking the “bigger-is-better” industrial farm mentality, dedicated city farmers are earning up to eight times the average U.S. income growing produce for the metropolitan marketplace on as little as an acre of land. Edible landscapes replace water-guzzling lawns; unused green corridors are leased from city hall and cultivated; rooftops become plant nurseries; brick-clinging peas crowd three-inch cracks between houses and sidewalks; and whiskey barrels on driveways imitate traditional Mayan milpas with a cornucopia of corn, squash, and beans.



“We need to rethink our idea of what a farm is and where it resides, what we see in our mind's eye when we think food system, how much land it takes to feed a community or neighborhood, and what is possible in an urban area,” says Michael Ableman, author of On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm (Chronicle Books, 1998) and founder/director of The Center For Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California. “Perhaps we should consider whether we can continue to feed an increasingly urban world from food produced and transported far from that world.”

Going to market



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