By the year 2050, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. In the face of climate change and rising energy prices, it makes more and more sense to grow food in and around cities: Why schlep fruits and vegetables thousands of miles across the country or import them from abroad when you can grow them closer to home? But as urban populations swell, there’s increasing pressure to grow more food in less space.
Enter the innovative trend in urban farming.
Urban farming has been building globally for decades. Today, urban farms provide more than half of Beijing’s vegetable supply, and this local produce costs less than what’s trucked in from afar. Vancouver, Canada doles out low-cost leases for community food gardens on 284 plots of city-owned land. In Havana, Cuba, more than 70 percent of the produce is local and organic. In Sweden, developers are planning to build a 177-foot skyscraper that farms vegetables at the perimeter of each floor.
And though the U.S. is late to the game, we’re starting down the right path. Just eight years ago, when Jeanne began designing her first urban project — a 5,000-square-foot farm at the edge of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo for Green City Market (one of the biggest farmers markets in America) — it was hard to imagine the colossal growth in urban farming that we’re seeing today. The farm at the zoo is now an instructional space for urban farming and composting techniques, hosting tens of thousands of visitors a year, including groups of soil and agrarian scientists and scores of Chicago public school students.
The movement is taking place not just in parks and zoos, but on commercial rooftops and in abandoned inner-city lots, on balconies, decks, and fire escapes, along sidewalks and medians, around government buildings and on cleaned-up industrial sites. These unlikely growing spaces now collectively span hundreds of acres in and around Chicago, and tens of thousands of acres in cities across the nation. Even New York City, where there hardly seems to be room for grass, let alone farms, is getting in on this. (There are an estimated 14,000 acres of unused rooftop space where food could be grown in the city — an area that’s about 15 times bigger than Central Park.)
Here are 5 benefits of urban farming (and don’t miss the story that continues below the slideshow):
Beauty 1 of 5
Planting farms in the city beautifies neighborhoods with lush, colorful plants while bringing healthy food to residents.
Pictured here is the Edible Gardens in Chicago's Lincoln Park Farm in the Zoo.
Community Empowerment 2 of 5Most urban farms are being planted in food deserts -low-income communities that have little access to healthy food. Lifting up communities in need is one of the most important goals of the urban farming movement. Urban farms offer productive communal areas that unite neighbors and raise health awareness and morale among residents. Photo Source: Jessica Winderl
Job Creation 3 of 5The organization Growing Power has 20 farms in and around Milwaukee and Chicago spanning a total of 200 acres, providing produce to tens of thousands of people. The organization has 110 employees and pays $15 an hour (much higher than the average pay for rural farm labor). Photo Source: Mjmonty, Flickr
Saving resources 4 of 5Growing food close to where it's eaten cuts out the resource-intensive steps of packaging, un-packaging, and re-packaging produce that gets trucked in from the hinterlands. It also saves on the massive quantities of fuel burned in refrigerated trucks, ships and airplanes transporting fresh food. Urban rooftop farms like the pictured one above in Brooklyn can also help insulate buildings and save on electricity bills. Growing fruits and vegetables locally also reduces spoilage and waste of produce that rots and bruises when traveling long distances from farm to fork. Photo Source: Gotham GreensAri Burling
Reducing storm water runoff 5 of 5Cities collectively spend billions of dollars a year managing storm water runoff that can flood sewage systems and pollute nearby water bodies. Urban farms absorb rainfall during storm events and help city planners manage the burden of runoff. Photo Source: KOMUnews, Flickr
For all its promise, however, the urban farming movement has some detractors — namely those who argue that it doesn’t make economic sense to turn urban real estate into farmland. It’s true that as cities grow, real estate will become scarcer and more valuable. But the rising costs of energy and greenhouse gas emissions will make long-distance farming increasingly expensive. And new growing methods are getting ever-higher yields from smaller growing spaces — both indoors and out — improving the economics of urban farming.
People have been growing food in cities since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. At the height of World War II, American citizens grew 20 million victory gardens in their yards and parks, producing 40 percent of the nation’s vegetable supply. Now urban farming pioneers are redefining victory gardens with high-tech growing methods.
In the coming weeks we’ll introduce you to all sorts of innovative techniques, ranging from vertical farms to hydroponic “sky farms.” They may seem weird and space-agey, but whether the future of food will be grown in the soil or in the sky, under sunlight or pink LEDs, there’s a good chance it will be better for our kids and grandkids, and for the planet, than the chemically treated stuff grown thousands of miles away that now fills our grocery store shelves.
In a word, the future of food is looking up.