Urban agriculture: good food, good money, good idea!

This post comes to us from Professor John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School, specialist on the question of urban development.

Urban agriculture on a grand scale is nothing new to American cities. The most successful home front effort during World War II was the growing of Victory Gardens by residents in every city and town in the country.   The United States Department of Agriculture reports that Victory Gardens produced an estimated nine to ten million tons of fruits and vegetables, more than 40% of the nation’s crop, through the nearly twenty million gardens planted in Americans’ backyards and instilled the art of canning into urban life.   

Today, distressed American cities such as Detroit can greatly benefit from urban agriculture once again both economically and socially, as well as environmentally.  Urban agriculture increases economic prosperity by creating jobs and developing new, local industries.  Additionally, it improves the health and safety of residents by providing wholesome food and greater access to well-maintained green spaces, fostering a sense of community, building social capital and organizational capacity, and uniting residents around a common purpose.  Urban agriculture improves the local environment by removing blight from vacant lots and returning a green landscape to the city’s neighborhoods.   

There is an increasing demand for locally grown food in America, especially in local restaurants and grocery stores.  The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that demand for locally grown food will rise from the $4 billion market in 2002 to a $7 billion market in 2012.  Importantly, money spent on local agriculture stays within the local economy.  Detroit’s enormous vacant land inventory of nearly 50 square miles in the aggregate could provide wholesome vegetables and fruits for a large percentage of its population, as well as its restaurants and retail food outlets.  Today, there is little, if any, demand for the city’s vacant land for traditional urban uses. 

Investing in urban agriculture is a smart business decision.  Approximately every $1 invested in a community garden yields $6 worth of fruits and vegetables. Researchers in Ohio estimate that “urban farmers can gross up to $90,000 per acre by selecting the right crops and growing techniques.” In Philadelphia it is estimated that “urban market gardens” earn up to $68,000 per half acre.  Projections are that locally grown fruits and vegetables in Detroit could generate $200 million in sales and approximately 5,000 jobs.  When vacant land becomes clean, productive, and more attractive to existing and new residents through agriculture, the city’s housing values will benefit and, in turn, its tax base.  Access to quality food will promote healthier lifestyles for city residents.  The lack of access to healthy and affordable food harms the health and wellbeing of Detroit residents and contributes to both hunger and obesity, which pervades the city. While most Detroit streets are dotted with convenience and liquor stores, the city has no major food chains.  A study of all food stores in three low-income postal codes in Detroit found that only nineteen percent (19%), or fewer than one in five stores, carried a minimal “healthy food basket” (products based on the food pyramid).  As a result, city residents have limited access to food other than fast foods and poor quality, highly processed and highly caloric foods.  

Detroit ranks fifth in the United States for its obesity rates.  The lack of access to healthy foods is one of the leading causes of obesity in Detroit.  In addition, locally grown food is more nutritious than food shipped to the city.  When produce is transported long distances and subjected to heavy chemical preservatives, it loses nutritional value.  Furthermore, the recreational activity that gardening promotes leads to a healthier lifestyle (as well as health benefits through horticultural therapy).  

The secondary effects of urban agriculture are potentially unparalleled.  Farms and gardens imbue a sense of community, pride, and belonging. Urban agriculture benefits youth education, tourism, and community development through school programming, work programs, and other agriculture-related activities. It can make the city attractive to new residents and improve the lives of current residents.

Cultivating blighted and unstable areas in Detroit could also reduce criminal activity.  Vacant lots become illegal dumps for refuse and are gapping holes in the cityscape, while vacant houses are subject to trespass, vandalism, and arson.  Farms and gardens can increase safety because the land will be occupied and monitored by those who farm and use it for agriculture related activities, thereby eliminating the need for the city to police and maintain the vacant property.  

Local food production reduces the need for packaging, refrigeration, storage, and transportation of food, decreasing energy usage and costs associated with the production of food.   Additionally, harmful environmental problems can be minimized.  Rooftop gardens, for example, are known for “harnessing rainwater that can overwhelm urban sewage systems.” They also keep buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, leading to reduced electricity usage and smaller utility bills. Furthermore, properly managed urban agriculture can turn wastewater and other agriculture byproducts from agricultural activities, such as composting, into resources that can be recycled and used again. 

Much has been said about the need to achieve economic justice in reshaping Detroit’s economy for the 21st Century by assuring that all residents benefit from future economic planning.  No activity has greater potential for realizing economic justice than urban agriculture, if city land is made available on a widespread basis to residents to help meet their nutritional needs.  An important caution is that land being considered for agriculture should be tested for soil contamination, particularly lead, and remediated first before planting begins.  Let widespread growing begin!

Useful links: OECD work on agriculture

Guest author

5 comments to “Urban agriculture: good food, good money, good idea!”

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  1. Baye Kambui - 13/09/2010 Reply

    If urban farming can work in Mumbai, it can work in Detroit and other cities.

    Until some real estate investor aggressively speculates that the plot of land being used to grow carrots would be a better host for a high-rise building. Local governments may have to “hard code” some green spaces where the math makes sense.

    Imagine if urban farmers received a proportionately similar level of support to what the big farmers and food companies receive. Get ready for the the fireworks display…

    song currently stuck in my head: “affinity” – alice coltrane

  2. Kaye LaPointe - 13/09/2010 Reply

    Poor urban planning has put us where we are at now…..Los Angeles had extremely poor planning decades ago…our generation and future generations will pay the cost of inadequate planning of open space, community gardens and tiny parks could make a big change in our cities. All this needs to start on the local level in cities by watching and becoming involved in local council meetings and government. Vacant lots could become an untapped source of food for low income families. Cultivation and clean up could be done by volunteers. I hope everyone is starting to do more than just think about these options……

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