Seattle Parks via Flickr Creative Common
Seattle Parks via Flickr Creative Common

As more emphasis has been placed on the importance of air quality and building health among builders, developers, and architects, urban farming has also gained popularity in cities. Largely due to influential fans like Michelle Obama and Bill de Blasio, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., have become pioneers of the movement, and have launched urban farming programs with the hope of fighting food shortage in poor neighborhoods.

But are these programs really able to achieve what they intend to? Recent research conducted by Raychel Santo, Anne Palmer, and Brent Kim of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future drills into the urban farm movement, and discloses the real benefits of urban agriculture. As it turns out, urban farming isn't as rosy of an option to aid poverty in cities as it's sold to be. In fact, the research finds that side effects of urban farming found can range from class segregation to worsening global warming.

A number of case studies have found that urban farms and gardens … have been led by mostly white non-residents in predominantly black and/or Latino neighborhoods, unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefit of such efforts.
Topiarius via Flickr Creative Common
Topiarius via Flickr Creative Common

Obviously, urban farming is not some evil that needs to be excorcised, but it's important that programs and initiatives are not promoted as a solution for problems of a much larger scale.

In this VOX article, Brad Plumer breaks down three fundamental truths about urban farming, two of which frame the movement in a critical light, but still have underlying benefits.

1. It won’t feed the entire city.
"The more realistic hope is that community gardens and urban farms can provide some families with an additional source of healthy, low-cost produce. That's a worthwhile goal in itself, and there's some evidence that people who engage in urban farming eat more fruits and vegetables."

2. The social benefits are not always inclusive.
The social and economic benefits of urban farms are notable, as they can "serve as sites for education, youth development, and skills/workforce training opportunities," and their association with "improved neighborhood aesthetics, reduced crime, and community cohesion" have been shown to increase property values in areas where they're established.

However, multiple studies from Johns Hopkins have found that "urban farms and gardens … [are] led by mostly white non-residents in predominantly black and/or Latino neighborhoods, unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefit of such efforts." To mitigate this issues, the researchers state that it's essential for residents of the communities where urban farms are established to play an integral role in decision-making and leadership.

3. It not always more environmental friendly.
"Some studies have noted, if urban farms take up too much land and increase sprawl, they could actually end up making global warming worseby increasing overall driving. Cities only have finite space, and sometimes the greenest thing you can do with a vacant lot is build more housing rather than grow a bunch of plants." Some organizations argue that urban farmers used harmful pesticides, and water less efficiently than large-scale operations as well, but Johns Hopkins research shows "less-obvious environmental benefits," like providing habitats for pollinators, mitigation storm-water runoff, and cooling down the heat that radiates in concrete jungles during the summer.

Plumer's bottom line is that urban farming can still teach us to better appreciate food.

People who participate in a community garden learn what it takes to grow different crops — and appreciate how difficult it actually is. They can better grasp the seasonality of different fruits and vegetables ... they can learn why food waste occurs. They can see firsthand the the ins and outs of a complex, vital system most of us have lost touch with.


Read more details about this study and additional commentary from Plumer on VOX >>