When one imagines the quintessential farm, perhaps the furthest image from mind is that of a cityscape. Instead, agriculture evokes visions of picturesque fields, waves of grain and quaint farmhouses owned by straw-hatted, tractor-owning men. This picture, though pleasant, is a stale one: farming has changed dramatically over the years, having diversified to match growing populations and rapid urbanization.
One of the biggest changes in farming over the years has been the introduction of industrialized agriculture, a system of intensive food production that applies factory methodology to farming in massive, single-purpose facilities. A smaller change has been the resurrection of urban farming: the practice of cultivating and distributing food from a hyper-local source.
Urban farming is the antithesis of the post-WWII industrial farms that produce meat, grain and other foodstuff in large quantities. A more concentrated, environmentally-friendly and community-based approach to food, urban farms let communities provide for themselves what they can grow close to home.
While it may not match our preconceptions about agriculture, urban farming is an age-old practice that makes a lot of sense in city communities.
Urban farming: A history
The idea of urban farming is a much more organic one than industrial farming. In fact, it’s been around since at least 3,500 BC, when Mesopotamian farmers set aside plots amidst their growing cities. It’s been documented in ancient Egypt and Machu Picchu; 19th century London, Paris, and Germany; and in 20th century Israel and America.
Though such farms have earned a reputation among hip young urbanites, in America the idea first grew as a necessity rather than a trend. In times of economic depression, low employment and war, community gardens emerged as a way to sustain large communities, beautify city spaces, and keep people uplifted and involved.
In the 1970s, city communities suffering from suburbanization and the US manufacturing collapse were forced become self-reliant, resulting in a “garden renaissance.” Burnt down buildings were turned into green spaces for communities to grow crops, combatting inflation and urban decline.
Community gardens caught on even more in the 1990s as a means to breathe new life into struggling communities. Eventually, they also became trendy among the environmentally conscious. Since urban farming is far more sustainable than constantly shipping in food, it’s easy to see why.
Surprising as it may seem, urban farming is actually a return to the past, and a departure from the relatively modern idea of farmless cities. Many cities boast extensive urban farm programs, having revised their local codes to allow for urban agriculture.
Today and tomorrow
Today, urban agriculture is enjoying new prominence. A 2014 study found that land being cultivated in urban spaces adds up to roughly the size of Europe — about 1.1 billion acres. While much of this exists on the outskirts of cities, 166 million acres are located in urban cores.
In some areas, real estate may compete with urban farms or even overtake them. But the two can and do work together symbiotically: in many US cities, real estate developers and urban farmers have formed an oddly affable relationship. Since both are booming, real estate developers will sometimes seek out small-scale growers to augment their plans. At the same time, urban gardeners have sought out the services of luxury builders.
Though it’s unlikely urban farming will ever overtake industrial agriculture, it’s likely to remain an environmentally-friendly supplement for city neighborhoods and communities. As city planners and urban farmers work together in the future, extraordinary means could be accomplished, from vertical greenhouses to underground or rooftop gardens, tilled by and for the people.