What’s the Point of Urban Farming?

Some people’s enthusiasm for urban farming is downright infectious. See, for example, this article: Will Allen and The Urban Farming Revolution, by Ethan Zuckerman.

Will Allen is redefining farming. His farm is a set of greenhouses in a corner of Northwest Milwaukee, walking distance from the city’s largest housing project. His farm doesn’t just feed 10,000 local residents – it’s a source of jobs, of training in polyculture and transformation of waste into food, and a model for the future of urban farming….

Now, Zuckerman’s use of the word “revolution” might be just a tad hyperbolic, but it certainly seems like reports on urban farms are showing up with increasing regularity. (Just last week, from Indianapolis’s Chanel 6 News: City Looks For Gardeners To Green Vacant Lots.)

In addition to the benefits of readily-available, fresh, local produce, many people have pointed to other benefits of urban farms, like letting inner-city kids learn what fresh produce looks like, and giving city dwellers more generally a sense of where their (too-often processed) foods come from.

Others, of course, have pointed to a range of hurdles, such as lead (see “Gardeners: Beware the lead in your soil”) and zoning issues (see “Cabbage-Gate: Georgia Man Fined for Growing Too Many Veggies”). But none of these seems insurmountable, given the will do do so.

But as even fans of urban farming such as Jason Mark have admitted, the real point of urban farming can’t be to try to make cities self-sufficient in terms of food. Mark writes:

Urban farming is never going to feed us. We don’t have the land or, really, the know-how to be food self-sufficient. We’re not going to be growing wheat in Golden Gate Park or rice on Palo Alto’s Moffett Field anytime soon. Anyway, why should we want to? Cities exist to be centers of art and culture and commerce — not grain fields.

The answer, according to Mark, is that the benefits of urban farming aren’t environmental or nutritional; they’re social.

According to Mark:

Urban farming’s most valuable crop, though, is something that’s difficult to measure. It’s the harvest we gain when we come together around the ancient task of sustaining ourselves. Everybody eats — and that means everyone can be involved in the work of growing our own food. At the end of a long-day in the asphalt-surrounded garden, the most important crop we find is community.

That seems about right to me. But more to the point, I think, is that urban farming (or even just having a garden) doesn’t have to have one, single point. It can, and probably should be, be many things to many people.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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2 Responses to What’s the Point of Urban Farming?

  1. What the current frenzy over urban agriculture is missing is a recognition of the distinction between commercial and non-commercial farming initiatives. Much of what is dubbed urban agriculture is a movement driven by advocates who take pleasure in food growing as part of a lifestyle, or activists who hold strong opinions about the negative effects of our industrial food system. Ironically, a point that has gotten lost amid all our zeal to reconnect with the source of our food is that farming is an occupation. It not only takes passion. It requires talent, training, knowledge and business savvy. It is no different than any other highly skilled profession. As the co-author of SPIN-Farming, I developed an online learning series on small plot commercial farming that has helped hundreds of new farmers get started in business around the U.S. and Canada using backyards and neighborhood lots. A free calculator on the SPIN-Farming website, at http://www.spinfarming.com/free/, quantifies the dollar value and earnings potential of backyard farms. A simple formula converts square feet into thousands of dollars worth of food. The next important step for cities that are struggling with how to harness the benefits of urban agriculture is to convert some of the energy and enthusiasm surrounding local food into viable farming businesses. This will require training a large and diverse number of residents in urban farming and microenterprise development and getting them up and operational quickly. The time is now ripe for the professionalization of urban agriculture. It will then not only deliver the social and environmental benefits touted by the advocates, but it will also be an industry that generates significant economic benefits as well.

  2. Pingback: Backyard Chicken Ethics | The Food Ethics Blog

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