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What Is Urban Agriculture?

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 29, 2022

Community gardens and farmers markets continue to pop up in the U.S. These urban agriculture programs can improve access to food, create jobs, beautify areas, and provide education and volunteering opportunities.

Also known as urban farming, urban agriculture refers to growing and/or distributing produce and livestock.

While it creates much-needed food (especially in food deserts, where fresh food can be hard to find), urban agriculture also creates challenges. Access to land, farming costs, environmental pollution threats, and public health concerns can make it difficult for farms to thrive.

What Is Urban Agriculture?

If you grow or distribute agricultural products in an urban or suburban area, that’s known as urban agriculture. It can include:

  • Breeding or raising livestock
  • Beekeeping
  • Fish farming (aquaculture)
  • School gardens
  • Farmers markets
  • Farm-to-institution programs
  • Growing plants in water (aquaponics)
  • Producing seeds
  • Rooftop gardens
  • Growing flowers
  • Vertical gardens

You may think that urban farming refers to food production, but it goes beyond that. Related urban agriculture initiatives aim to use food waste or divert viable produce so it doesn’t go into landfills. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Composting and Food Waste Reduction cooperative agreements help local governments start compost spaces that give urban farmers compost, which can boost soil quality. There are also private and state initiatives, depending where you live.

How Does Urban Agriculture Work?

Urban agriculture programs can work differently, depending on the type of program. For example, a farm-to-institution program would grow or transport fresh foods to schools, hospitals, and other institutions. An organization or government department may start something like a community garden.

People and groups manage programs in different ways. Community gardens may rely on volunteers to work the land and give out food. Other programs may hire people to grow or distribute produce.

An urban agriculture program can be private or receive funding from the federal or state government. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture has loans and grants – as well as guidance on how to launch a program – to help people and groups with urban agriculture programs.

How Does Urban Farming Impact Health?

Urban agriculture can positively affect a community’s health by providing food security, community relationships, and overall health. In areas that have community gardens, more people eat fruits and veggies. Good nutrition is linked to chronic disease prevention. Working in gardens can improve mental health, boost physical activity, and get people involved in their communities. These programs can also provide jobs, and that is tied to better health. Gardening also has been connected to increased well-being.

There can be downsides to urban farming that affect health, involving potential soil and water contamination risks. If a person eats produce grown in contaminated soil, they could get sick. If the farm or project closes, it can take away food access (as well as the opportunity for improved mental health).

Can Urban Agriculture Reduce Food Deserts?

Food deserts are areas where people cannot easily get affordable, nutritious food. People in these areas may have food insecurity, which means not being sure how they can feed themselves or their families.

Creating community gardens or hosting farmers markets in these areas can reduce the number of food deserts. The operations just have to be sustainable and beneficial to continue.

In many developing countries, urban agriculture can be essential in terms of producing food. But these countries may not have access to or funding for some of the more sustainable gardening methods that keep farms producing food that’s safe to eat. For instance, some authorities see it as a public health risk because the farms may attract mosquitoes that spread diseases.

Is Urban Agriculture Sustainable?

If the program is managed well, it can serve people in the community in the long run and be a productive source of food. Growing food where, or near where, people eat it can cut down on transportation costs. Food waste reduction and compost programs can also benefit the environment by reducing landfill waste and keeping the land nourished. Community gardens and other urban agriculture programs can raise property values, too.

In terms of environmental sustainability, agriculture does impact land – and not always in positive ways. Poorly managed farms can create odor, noise, or water runoff.

People have to be engaged to keep the farm running. Farmers must keep the soil and water safe, and manage soil erosion. Using wastewater can create a risk because it could spread disease in soil or water, or contaminate food.

What Are the Challenges of Urban Agriculture Programs?

It can be tough for people to get land to start an agriculture program in urban or suburban areas. In urban areas, there is not a lot of open space for larger farms. There are regulations on where you can run urban agriculture initiatives.

After everything it takes to get a farm up and running, a farmer or group needs to manage operating costs. They’ll need equipment, irrigation (a way to water plants), and the like. Your town may have rules that limit what you can do, including whether you can raise livestock on your property.

Raising livestock in urban areas comes with special concerns. You have to work to keep animal waste from polluting the environment, including potential contamination from any pesticides or antibiotics.

What Materials Do You Need for Urban Agriculture?

Depending on what kind of urban farming project you desire, you probably need land or space. You may be able to get space free if you’re starting a community garden or farmers market and you can use a city park. Location is vital and can be a good indicator of a program’s success.

In other cases, getting space may involve getting money upfront, insurance, and the right environmental assessments of water or soil pollution. A town or city may require fees for zoning and land use. You may need to provide other environmental plans to give details of how you will care for the land in the future, as livestock can damage it. There may also be insurance costs involved, not to mention the costs of equipment.

Starting a community garden can be relatively simple, especially if the town lets you use existing land. Expenses may only need to cover seeds and tools if the city has water access nearby and doesn’t charge for it.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Agronomy for Sustainable Development: Give Peas a Chance? Urban Agriculture in Developing Countries. A Review.”

Animal Frontiers: “Global Effects of Changing Land-Use on Animal Agriculture.”

American Planning Association: “Urban Livestock.”

Aurora University: “Plants and Policies: How Urban Farming is Transforming Cities.”

BMC Public Health: “Scoping Review of the Impacts of Urban Agriculture on the Determinants of Health.”

Clinical Medicine Journal: “Gardening for Health: A Regular Dose of Gardening.”

Community Food Security Coalition: “Health Benefits of Urban Agriculture Public Health and Food Security.”

Environmental Evidence: “What Are the Impacts of Urban Agriculture Programs on Food Security in Low and Middle-Income Countries?”

European Journal of Nutrition: “Critical Review: Vegetables and Fruit in the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.”

Health Affairs: “Improving Individual and Community Health Through Better Employment Opportunities.”

Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior: “Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Urban Community Gardeners.”

Loyola Marymount University: “Urban Gardens Aid in the Fight Against Food Deserts and Climate Change.”

National Research Council, The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary, National Academies Press, 2009.

Population Reference Bureau: “Urban Agriculture Increases Food Security for Poor People in Africa.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Urban Agriculture Toolkit,” “The Promise of Urban Agriculture: National Study of Commercial Farming in Urban Areas (Summary),” “USDA and Urban Farming,” “Urban Agriculture Programs at a Glance.”

Urban Farming: “The Urban Farming Coexistence Model.” 

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