Thoughts on Urban Agriculture

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My father, a proud "farm boy," recently summed it up this way: "Urban agriculture is great for education, but I don't see it feeding very many people." As the fashion gathers steam, my own feelings have been mixed. On the one hand, I love food, I love fresh produce, and I love being able to bike my compost to the local farm.

On the other hand, I am an urbanist. I believe a sustainable future depends on bringing density back to our city neighborhoods. And farming is a low-, not a high-density, land use.

Frankly, I have a hard time understanding why so many of the young New Urbanists who loathe sprawling subdivisions, who fight to keep big box stores out of their cities, at the same time welcome the use of urban land for farming. All of these uses are incompatible with a vision of urban sustainability -- walkable neighborhoods, ubiquitous mass transit, and industrial-scale resource efficiency -- that is built entirely on people living and working closer together.

A commercial production farm, the kind that can feed an urban neighborhood, fits in that neighborhood's ideal land footprint about as comfortably as a commercial airport.

But in many of our cities, real estate lies fallow, so why not farm the land? Certainly growing food is better than nothing. There is, however, an opportunity cost to not looking more strategically toward the future. As the population continues to urbanize, high-density residential and commercial uses will need that fallow land -- and they will take it. Most of today's bright new urban farms will not be around to educate, much less feed, our grandchildren. Meanwhile, we need this generation of agricultural pioneers to tackle an urgent, and largely un-sung, crisis in the food system.

I go to the farmers' market, the fish market, the food co-op. I do my best to eat local crops, in season or preserved, and I reserve meat for special occasions. Maybe I'm even a little self-satisfied, but at least I'm doing my part, right?

I recently had a conversation with one of my local farmers, as I bought his kale and sweet potatoes, that sobered me up. This man is obsessed with sustainability, and he's given it a lot of thought, not to even mention the amazing feat of starting and running an organic family farm. He has studied every way to work the land, from GMO to permaculture. His conclusion is that no form of industrial agriculture is sustainable. He says, either we all go back to subsistence farming -- no more high tech or coffeeshops, art museums or public universities -- or we will be living on borrowed topsoil.

Even the best organic techniques, once industrialized so that you and I can have jobs outside the food system, currently burn through topsoil faster than it can be replenished. In some parts of America's breadbasket, topsoil is being depleted at ten times the rate it can be renewed. And that's to say nothing of the massive energy costs of plowing, fertilizing, pest control, and irrigation.

It's possible that no known way of farming on land can produce the food our population needs without consuming resources we can't renew.

If so, then we need new techniques, or else far fewer people. Here is where "urban agriculture" might just be the ticket. Typically the term is used to describe farming inside the city. What if instead we used it to mean farming by the logic of the city?

The city is the special ecosystem reserved for human processes, for engineering, for The Grid. It's our beehive. Call it "unnatural," but nature is full of pockets dedicated to one species' needs. Our beehive is designed to contain the functions of society in a microcosm that maximizes their efficiency and effectiveness. Ideally, then, it gives us what we require and leaves the rest of earth to the rest of life.

"Urban agriculture" that romanticizes The Land and seeks to bring it back to downtown is, fundamentally, anti-urban. It's like planting a tree inside a beehive.

A genuinely urban agriculture would not de-citify the city in favor of nature, but rather citify crop growth for the sake of human sustenance. Urban agriculture's goals then should match those of urban housing or entertainment: to serve the needs of humans in a relatively closed loop, using the least amount of land, energy, and other natural resources necessary.

I have watched the debates over vertical farming with interest. Most nay-sayers -- whether pro-industrial types who doubt farming's place in urban architecture and economies, or back-to-the-landers who view vertical farming as yet another industrial (read: unnatural) food source -- there is a common premise that food is something that must come from dirt and sun. It turns out, though, photosynthesis doesn't need dirt or sun. As marijuana growers have known for some time, hydroponics (not to mention aeroponics) obviates the need for soil, pesticide, and plows; and grow lamps can keep a crop lush even in a concrete bunker.

If water, heat, and transport -- requirements of agriculture no less than of housing -- are more efficiently delivered to an apartment block than a suburb, it stands to reason that crops grown in an urban warehouse may require fewer resources per yield than those spread out on acreage. Add to this that soil-free growing techniques consume a small fraction of the water and fertilizer (much of it wasted) on even an organic soil-based farm; and the possiblity that new LED grow lights may even take less solar energy to grow an indoor acre than would fall naturally on that acre outside. This technology is in its infancy still, no doubt in part because it doesn't even "look like" agriculture to most people. Imagine how far it could go if our young urban farmers pushed it for a generation!

The upshot may or may not look like space-age broccoli skyscrapers. Architecture isn't really the point -- and, for my part, I want to see what can be done with the buildings our cities already have -- but, vertical or not, our urban communities will require genuinely urban farms.

%s1 / %s2



Here, here!

In order for us to live sustainably, we really do need to look more closely at the way that we use the space we have inside our cities, and indoor growing is certainly one of the components to that. Rooftop gardens are another.

BTW, the point you make about marijuana growers brings up another interesting thought. The prohibition of mj has led to a great number of advances in indoor growing, including the search for more energy-efficient ways to grow indoors. The energy cost of most indoor grows is really WAY out of proportion to what ordinary land-based agriculture should be. It would be fantastic if some of those highly skilled marijuana growers could come out of their hidy-holes and teach the rest of urban society how to grow food in an extra bedroom.

Click here to leave a comment the old-fashioned way, without using Facebook