I first became interested in urban agriculture in graduate school when a discussion about how to make cities more ‘sustainable’ turned to the topics of food security and food deserts. This pushed me to explore how landscape architecture can and should not only be about aesthetics but also about achieving ecological, social and functional objectives. Urban agriculture does this by adding a layer of productivity to our urban spaces.

I, along with a team of classmates who shared my enthusiasm for productive landscapes, applied this strategy in a competition entry called ‘Growing the Hydrofields’

So what is urban agriculture?

We don’t usually think about it but the common produce we buy has generally traveled quite a distance to get to us, blueberries from Chile, green peppers from Mexico, strawberries from California, or cherries from Washington. What’s so silly about our current food supply is that all of these and many, many more can be grown right here! Lately, as the general population has become more eco-conscious, there has been an increased interest in growing food locally, within our own cities. There is definitely good reason for all the buzz; traditional agriculture methods present some significant drawbacks:

  • 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for irrigation, resulting in high levels of contamination from chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels)
  • 20% fossil fuels in the US are used for agriculture, which leads to emissions and poor air quality
  • 37% of the earth’s land is currently under agricultural production, with more being converted every day, contributing to habitat loss, deforestation and threatening wildlife populations
  • focus on market driven, overproduction as opposed to growing food for people as they need it — 30% of what is harvested is lost to spoilage and infestation during storage and transport

What are the benefits?

Urban agriculture is a powerful strategy for many reasons. Through different forms of urban agriculture, food can be produced year-round using significantly less water, producing little waste, with less risk of infectious diseases, no fertilizer runoff, and no need for fossil-fueled machinery or transport from distant rural farms or even different countries. Here are a few more advantages:

  • more efficient land and resource use
  • opportunities to grow food ‘closer to home’
  • food security / subsistence
  • connection to how and where food is produced
  • more opportunities for creative interventions
  • social inclusion of disadvantaged groups and community development
  • potential supplementary household income
  • many environmental benefits such as: water quality and quantity management, recycling urban wastes, reduced food miles, improved microclimate, soil conservation, improved nutrient cycling

For some, urban agriculture a social movement and for others it’s a survival tactic. In developed countries, wealthier advocates often see it as a means of participating in a social movement, advocating for change to a large scale food system perceived as being unhealthy and dysfunctional, as well as participating in a movement for ‘sustainability’ to feel closer to where and how their food is grown. In developing countries, or poorer areas of the world, urban agriculture is often simply a matter of survival.


Urban Agriculture in Chicago

Here in Chicago, there has been a strong push for urban agriculture. There are many organizations, including Growing Power and Advocates for Urban Agriculture, that have started projects throughout the city. The Chicago City Council has recently approved a zoning code amendment allowing for more widespread urban agriculture.

And the challenges?

The deployment of urban agriculture in cities raises many important, often challenging questions about public versus private land ownership, the access to food of different social classes, labor, and the practical question of the viability of feeding large numbers of people from smaller spaces and the associated carbon footprint.

As the world’s populations continue to shift to urban areas, there will be an increased demand on our food supplies. This is a problem that many disciplines – architects, landscape architects, community organizers, horticulturalists, economists, politicians and those in public health – are looking into.

Many landscape architects work within the overlapping realms of people, cities, ecology, economy and agriculture; this area is ripe for the field of Landscape Architecture to act as a leading force to help design solutions!

I’ll be posting more on this topic – the movement’s history, current systems and technologies, and critiques as well. Let me know if you have a favorite urban agriculture project and where it is.