Neighborhood Green Space: Guide to Urban Farms

How Cities Transform Dead Space into Urban Farms

Our conception of agriculture has changed radically in the past 50 or 60 years, and that shift has caused global upheaval in the industry. In America, as well as other countries, industrialization and urbanization have resulted in a diminishing percentage of the population being directly involved in food-growing. Concerns about the economic, social and environmental costs of big industrial agriculture have many people looking to smaller-scale, localized farming. In a sense, we’re seeing a turn back to the old model.

A case in point is urban farming. In some of the world’s biggest and liveliest cities, the concept is being touted as a hot, new sustainable trend, and a means of growing food for the planet’s largest and most densely packed populations, on a local level. As with so many cultural movements, however, there’s a great deal of precedent to refer to: City vegetable plots and livestock pastures used to be commonplace.

The initial decline in urban farming was due in part to exploding human populations, intensifying development pressure and transformations in the food-growing industry. For generations of American children, the idea of a “farm” became inextricably linked with a rural landscape.

This conception is beginning to reverse, courtesy of increasing concerns over the economic and environmental costs of industrial food production and long-distance food transport, as well as the poor dietary choices of a rising proportion of the world’s population. Today’s urban agriculture takes a cue from the past, while drawing on the special advantages of modern urban technology.

Technological Innovation and Sustainability

Many urban farms emphasize organic and sustainable methods, partly because these ventures are coming of age in an era where more and more people are skeptical of big agribusinesses, and partly because of the special demands of raising animals and produce amid the dense population of the city. The desire for self-sufficiency, and the realities of limited space, have encouraged creativity and technological innovation.

The ECF (Efficient City Farming) Container Farm is a groundbreaking system founded on “aquaponics,” an integration of aquaculture and hydroponics. The container farm treats fish waste and uses it to supply nutrients to vegetables grown in the same facility. With plans to make these container farms available to any operation that wants one, ECF is also installing “the world’s largest rooftop aquaponic fish and vegetable farm” atop its Berlin headquarters in an old brewery malt house.

Aquaponics is also involved in another large-scale urban-agriculture initiative: Chicago’s The Plant. This off-the-grid venture, occupying a meat-packing building in the Back of the Yards section of the city, will strive to provide locally grown food, as well as a home for sustainable vendors. Food waste generated by The Plant and other nearby businesses will power an anaerobic digester, producing heat and electricity for the operations. The benefits of this system extend beyond food availability and energy efficiency.

“Such systems can also serve to create jobs in the inner city areas, as well to provide avenues for community engagement,” writer Akhila Vijayaraghavan notes on Triple Pundit.

Farms in the City

Urban farming initiatives are often centered on vast tracts of unused or under-used city infrastructure, such as abandoned factories and warehouses, parking lots and rooftops. Once thought of as wastelands, these forgotten corners of the city now yield healthful food for residents.

A recent overview of big-city farming on Cool Hunting suggests the ambition of these rejuvenations. For example, Lufa Farms is a Montreal-based operation that grows organic vegetables and fruits atop an office building. In Milwaukee, a one-time crane factory is now the four-acre farm of Sweet Water Organics, which sources everything from fish to vegetables for restaurants in the city. Bees raised on Brooklyn rooftops provide pollination services for the city’s vegetation, cultivated and otherwise, along with delicious honey.

Neighborhood Green Space

Urban farms don’t just provide healthy and delicious produce to city-dwellers; they also fundamentally alter the cityscape itself. Neighborhoods previously dominated by somber or decrepit industrial buildings and parking lots suddenly have a working green space that provides beauty and sustenance for the community.


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