In our previous blog post we established that there are some issues with our current food system. Can urban agriculture be of any help?
Urban agriculture is…
a very simple concept! It encompasses any act of producing food in a traditionally ‘unconventional’ space (a.k.a. – not the countryside). Within this, however, is an almost infinite variation in the type, scale and purpose of the agricultural activity being undertaken.
Ideas and projects around U.A. can range from:
- huge, utopian visions for integrated urban food systems…
- through grassroots, community based farms and gardens…
- all the way down to micro-scale, individual produce!
Boosting food system resilience
FAO statistics suggest that urban and peri-urban (the transition zone between urban and rural) food production already supplies around a quarter of the world’s urban population. Localised food production can:
- (sometimes) reduce carbon emissions related to transportation (think: the processing and refrigeration required for this process, not only vehicle emissions)
- insulate regions and communities from increasing volatility in food prices, reducing vulnerability to poverty and famine
- bolster local economies, whether through formal agricultural industry providing jobs and exports (e.g. in post-industrial American cities) or informal operations providing goods for consumption or commerce.
- emancipate communities, regions or even nations from geopolitical vulnerability related to food supply, enhancing the substantive freedoms and wellbeing of those involved.
- (particularly in developed, high consumptions societies) produce an increased awareness of the cost (both in resources and time) of food production, and lead to reductions in househould waste through regulated consumption patterns or the recycling of food waste in gardens or collective farms.
Rising popularity of beekeeping in New York City creates local agricultural business and supports local biodiversity.
Regulating high urban metabolisms
Plants are, on the whole, very healthy things to be around. Life in urban cities throughout which plant life has been squeezed out for ‘practical’ or ‘economical’ reasons are linked with higher prevalence of certain types of disease and death, and mental disorder.
An important part of exploring this aspect of U.A. is understanding the many forms urban growth can take, and the fact that food production need not be its sole (or even primary) purpose!
- plants have a significant cooling effect, mitigating the influence of thermally reflective materials like asphalt, or metal. This is especially important in cities which are becoming ever more energised (industrially, commercially and climatically).
- many plants have the ability to filter toxins and contaminants from air – incidents of this deployment range from an office complex in Delhi maintaining hundreds of houseplants, to biotic ‘green wall’ filtration systems.
- Belts of mixed shrubs and trees have been found to effectively reduce damaging noise levels from heavy traffic, industrial activities etc, and houseplants can reduce indoor volume.
- vegetation types found in natural wetlands have been found to effectively remove pollutants from rural and municipal waterways. Combined with innovative waterway design, systems like these can be used to simultaneously treat waste water while supporting valued ecosystem services.
Plants can effectively cool hot city streets.
Now, while this is fantastic array of potential benefits, it is all replicable through conventional policymaking or technological innovation. This doesn’t detract from U.A.’s value as an alternative, more efficient path to the above goals, but the following sections illustrate the unique attraction of bringing agriculture into our cities…
Fostering healthy people and communities
- improvement of cardiovascular function through regular phsyical activity
- improved bone and muscle condition through load bearing and stretching activities
- health benefits associated with increased fresh air & sunshine (especially during winter months)
- nutritional benefits associated with higher intake of fresh produce (from both personal produce and general consumption patterns
- reductions in risks of depression and other mental disorders through heightened interaction with greenspace and nature, and “sense of achievement and wellbeing”.
These benefits are increasingly valuable in a world where sedentary, indoor lifestyles are major threats to human health through the increasing prevalence of obesity, depression, etc., and are especially beneficial for growing elderly populations looking to stay active.
Not only does urban agriculture support personal health, but it has been found to strengthen the very fabric of our communities through a variety of mechanisms.
- in many urban areas the majority of land is private or state owned, with opportunities for community ownership few and far between. Creating urban farms and collective gardens can provide an avenue through which people can come together to own and manage a piece of land – a practical and representational space for the local population.
- This process also facilitates the regeneration and securing of ‘vacant’ or ‘blighted’ land by: improving aesthetics, encouraging community supervision, and creating trust between users who act as a barrier to crime and vandalism often found in abandoned brownfield sites.
- urban agricultural operations act as conduits for socialisation and conversation – the community garden becomes a forum for more than just horticulture, and often become societal microspheres in which social, political and economic processes occur in miniature.
- It is common for participants in UA projects to report a heightened sense of purpose, empowerment and ‘belonging’. The subtle, yet pervasive, effects that growing and working together has on the way we interact with our fellow citizens can bring benefits across society, from crime to economic activity, to personal wellbeing.
So there are a variety of positive outcomes to be had from involving ourselves in urban agriculture, and promoting it within our communities. However, there is one last aspect to U.A. that needs investigating – what exactly is it about tending to plants that creates these effects in us, and distinguishes it from all other community activites?
Valuing food systems & connecting with the organic world
The invention of agriculture was arguably the most important event in human history. It is the foundation of our entire civilisation as we know it. The first blog post in this series illustrated that this foundation is facing unprecedented threats. Urban agriculture allows the urbanised inividual, community and society rediscover the crucial importance of sustainable food production, and more conscientiously manage the time and resources required, at every level.
Urban agriculture is special as it stands at the intersection between so many of the pressing issues facing us today:
- sustainability and humanity’s role on Earth,
- food justice and food sovereignty,
- political and economic freedom,
- the constitution of the contemporary community,
- the challenges to our health and identity as one of billions of ‘urban citizens’.
For many, urban agriculture is a practical and accessible way in which to stay connected to the natural (or less controversially, organic) world. The seemingly innate attachment to natural systems, green spaces or even the colours blue and green suggests a evolutionary dependancy on remaining close to ‘nature’.
While agriculture disrupts and repurposes ‘natural’ rhythms for human benefit, the emerging discourse of sustainable agriculture is nested within attitudes of respect for, and co-operation with, planetary systems much larger than ourselves. It supports a holistic redifinition of ‘nature’ that includes and accepts our particular symbioses and relationships with other organic systems as part of the natural system. This reconciliation of human activity with other biophysical forces suggests that U.A. could act as a bridge between the traditionally polarised philosophies of ecocentrism and anthropocentrism – they need not be mutually exclusive.
For many, coming closer to ‘nature’ is a source of wonder and serenity – almost spirituality – that feels like an essential piece of the human condition.
Contemplating our meagre place within an infinitely complex planetary system, that is simultaneously benign and utterly unforgiving.
Setting aside time for careful examination of the intricate minutae that accumulate to form the world we inhabit.
Personally producing and curating life that, in turn, sustains our existence and dictates who we are.
Urban agriculture is not only an innovative, effective solution to multifaceted human issues, but situates these issues within a larger worldview that challenges the philosophical basis of our relationship with the planet. This can provide us with fresh insight into how we perceive and interact with the world around us, at every level.