Could Large-Scale Urban Farming Actually Work?

An example of an urban farm in Brooklyn.

One of the coolest ideas that has come about through the whole “green” and “sustainable” movement, in my opinion, is that of urban farming. I mean think about it. You’ve got all of this space in a city just sitting around doing nothing. Completely empty lots that not only are eyesores to the community, but a drain to the city’s tax dollars. Add to this the fact that numerous studies have shown that poor, urban populations are much more likely to be obese with all of the resulting medical problems associated with it, and it is easy to see where the idea came from.

True, there is a big difference between correlation and causation. Are people in these neighborhoods more prone to obesity because fast food is abundant and cheap, or is fast food abundant and cheap because urban dwellers are more likely to buy their greasy, fatty goodness?

Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that inner cities could use more access to fresh, inexpensive produce. So what better way to provide it than growing it in their own back yards?

However, there is a caveat to this idea – can it work? Is there enough vacant space in your typical big city to even come close to supplying the community’s needs?

If you take a look around the globe, the answer would seem to be yes. Studies on the state of enw York and the Willamette Valley in Oregon have shown that regional initiatives can produce enough fruits and vegetables for the local populations. And even big cities like Shanghai and Beijing are reportedly self-sufficient in vegetables, though not fruit. But what about America?

Since no previous research exists, Kathryn Colasanti – a student in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University, decided to find out by using Detroit as a case study recently published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

Colasanti’s methods were pretty straightforward. She looked at the current levels of produce consumption, the seasonal availability of the crops typically eaten, how much vacant land Detroit has to offer and the acreage actually required to provide produce to the local population.

The levels of consumption were attained by using a 10-year average of data from the USDA Economic Research Service, which showed that the actual consumption of Detroit residents is four times less than the daily recommended levels for fruits and three times less for vegetables. Whether or not these numbers would improve with cheaper, locally produced fruits and veggies is an open debate, but it couldn’t hurt.

Colasanti also looked at which fruits and vegetables were eaten in what amounts and during what times of year. She assumed that even if there was enough land to produce enough corn to meet the requirements of all vegetables for the people, that nobody would want to eat that much corn. As for the land, she only counted vacant parcels – none with vacant buildings currently on the lot – located within the city limits and owned by the city, county, state, county land bank or state land bank. She didn’t count parks and recreational land, because nobody wants to see Central Park or the local state penitentiary turned into a soy bean farm.

Finally, she looked at what would happen if all of the land were used strictly for farming using the best modern techniques versus if some of the land instead were used for greenhouses and storage facilities in order to prolong the season of some of the most popular varieties of produce.

Her results? In her own words, “In the end, meeting a substantial portion of current Detroit fruit and vegetable consumption seems feasible given the amount of vacant land we have catalogued and the assumptions we have made, even if yields on par with the commercial level of productivity are assumed. Supplying the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables may not be feasible unless yield levels akin to high-productivity, biointensive production are achieved.”

Colasanti estimated that half of the 4,800 acres of vacant land in Detroit, combined with investments in modern biointensive methods and storage facilities, could meet the recommended daily doses of fresh produce – at least those that are capable of growing in Michigan – for the entire city of Detroit. And even if non-super-productive methods of farming were used, they could still produce enough to meet the actual current consumption levels.

There are, of course, some problems with the study. It assumes that these land parcels are – at the very least – going to be growing produce at the levels of commercial farms. Chances are pretty good that most urban farms actually are going to be maintained by the local residents at levels more customary to a back yard garden.

But still, it’s a promising study. It proves that at least for one city, converting its vacant, ugly eyesores into beautiful, fragrant, green fresh gardens isn’t a complete waste of time when it comes to actual payoff in production.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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