The Future of Urban Farming

Exhibit by: Shea Schwesinger


Today urban agriculture and community gardens are making a comeback in cities. While many experts say community gardens are the most studied of the two, intensive urban farming is also being studied as a way to improve the livability within cities today. It holds promise to make our food system, and cities themselves more sustainable for the future.

What is Urban Agriculture and how is it different from a garden?

Urban Agriculture is defined as growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and raising animals within cities. While cattle need more grazing space than can be accommodated in a city, some livestock that are being raised in the cities include chickens, bees, and rabbits, which are the most popular. How urban agriculture differs from gardening is that the food grown is often sold or donated, instead of being consumed by the those who take care of it. Urban agriculture can include methods such as rooftop farming, farming in places designated as brown fields, and vertical farming.


Classic poster promoting Victory Gardens during WWII.

Urban Farming in the Past

Urban farming and community gardens are not new concepts. The United Kingdom and the United States both utilized urban farming during WWII. These gardens were called Victory Gardens, and supplied 40% of the vegetables grown in the United States at the time. The produce generated also functioned as a way to supply soldiers overseas, and help people living in cities stretch food rations further, thus preventing a food shortage.

WWII on the homefront - in the victory garden

Two ladies working in their Victory Garden ca. 1940s

Victory gardens were planted in schoolyards, rooftops, peoples yards, and in window boxes. As detailed in this video below, the further back in time we look, the more dramatically different the food system was than what we know today.

Our Current Food System and Health

Our current food system can contribute to a host of health problems. Diet-related diseases are on the rise, not only in the United States, but all over the world. The rise in diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes can all be traced back to the food we eat. The high sugar, fat, and salt content in the processed foods and fast foods that dominate many diets are contributing factors for these ailments. According to a CDC report, contributing factors for the rise in childhood obesity in the US include, “Sugary drinks, limited access to healthy affordable foods, and increasing portion sizes.”  One or more of these factors often come into play with the limited choices available in urban and suburban areas where people live. In this video from Jamie Oliver, he discuses the many issues that our current food system places on our health.

Because of the limited choices available, some of the hardest hit places are in low income areas.

fast food signs

Food Desert as denoted by the number of fast food restaurants

Some of these areas are considered to be “Food Deserts”. A “Food Desert” is defined by having an overabundance of fast food restaurants, and convenience stores, while having a shortage of real grocery stores. This video outlines this issue in relation to South Central Los Angeles, and the steps that Ron Finley, who is know as “The Guerrilla Gardener” has taken to begin to remedy the situation.

Our Current Food System & The Environment

Today much of the food within cities is imported from other places; in fact, in the United States, food deliveries on average total up to 1,020 miles, while in total our food system requires that food to be moved an average of 4,200 miles. All these miles traveled contribute to harmful CO2 emissions. Cites contribute up to 70% of total global CO2 emissions, leading some to believe that  creating greener cities could become an important part of possible climate change solutions. Another key part of the issue is the sustainability and security of our current food system. Intensive agricultural practices may not be sustainable in the long term. The perpetual planting of only one type of plant causes soil nutrients to be depleted, creating the need to annually apply chemical fertilizers, whereas rotating crops would ‘exercise’ the soil and return nutrients to it. A second issue surrounding cities is known as the Heat Island Effect, which is created by vast uninterrupted stretches of concrete and asphalt.

Heat Island 1  Heat Island 2According to the EPA, Heat Islands are areas which have a higher temperature than the surrounding area. Heat Islands are caused by making physical changes to the landscape, by replacing vegetation with buildings, and roads. These wet surfaces that helped regulate heat in an area, are replaced with surfaces that instead just get and stay hot. According to the EPA’s website Heat Islands contribute to, “increased energy consumption, elevated emissions of air pollutants, compromised human health and comfort, and impaired water quality”. One way to combat this is by introducing vegetation back into a city.


Note the roof with a garden and the roof without.


Here you can see the temperature difference between the two roofs.

Looking to the Future

Cities are expected to continually increase in size as their populations grow. Some believe that the world population will surpass 9 billion people by 2050,  and by 2030 it has been projected that 60% of the worlds population will live in cities. As more urbanization takes place around the world, some worry that other types of land use practices will begin to encroach onto land currently utilized for agriculture. The combined want of better food, and solutions to climate change, have moved to the forefront of some peoples’ conversations.  Today to resolve both of these issues, individuals, cities, and even some urban planning companies are trying to find solutions to bring farming back into the city. They are trying to find ways to utilize existing space to accommodate agriculture into already crowded cities.

Food: Part of the Problem, and Part of the Solution

Community gardens saw a resurgence in the 1970s, and continue to make their way into urban areas today.  Urban farming also has a long history in societies. The goals of urban farming are to reduce the amount of miles that food travels, to make healthier foods more readily available, and to provide more food stability within urban areas. Doing this would also create more green spaces within a city, curbing many of the environmental issues found in cities today. How this is done takes on different forms in different places, and in many large cities throughout the world urban farming is popping up, as roof top gardens, and roof top greenhouses. While examples of urban agriculture are numerous, some cities have taken it to next level by creating commercial rooftop farms such as in New York City.

New York

According to World Population Statistics, New York, which has the largest city population in the United States, houses 8.337 million people, which equates to 27,550 people per square mile. New York, like many cities, has begun to add roof top gardens to buildings within the city. According to the Urban Design Lab, at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, New York has 38,256 total acres of available roof top space that could be utilized for farming. While it may seem like an unlikely place, New York City has become a leader in urban farming. One organization working to build urban farms within the city is Five Borough Farm

This organization has created four types of farms found around the city:

1.Institutional farms: These farms are found at schools, hospitals, prisons and at public housing. There are  117 public school gardens, and 245 of the other types currently.

Gotham Greens is a commercial farm located in Brooklyn it measures 15,000 square feet and produces 100 tons of leafy greens.

2. Commercial farms: These are for profit farms located in the city. Currently New York has three, located around the city.

3. Community gardens: These are gardens that are located on public land, and maintained by residents.

4. Community Farms: These differ from a community garden, in that they are operated by nonprofits that engage with the public, and also offer educational programs.

Tokyo, Japan

According to World Population Statistics Tokyo, has an estimated population of 13.2 million, and a “population density of 15,663 people per square mile”. Tokyo is also home to a few innovative takes on urban farming. One company called Pasona O2, which is a recruitment firm located in Tokyo’s business district, has turned some of its office space into 43,000 square feet of urban farming space. This project aims to feed their employes, and educate the public about farming too. The building utilizes vertical farming to cut down on energy use, a roof top garden, and also has garden space in the basement, in fact it is best known for the latter.  Among the 200 species of fruits and vegetables grown within the building, they grow rice in the lobby, herbs in the cafeteria, and tomatoes from the ceiling. To do this they utilize both soil and hydroponic growing techniques.

While these cities represent only two examples of urban farming, they are important examples, because of the projected growth coming in these cities. Both of these examples are considered to be megacities, or a city with a population over 10 million people.

chartoftheday_1826_population_growth_in_the_worlds_megacities_n          Many cities are beginning to integrate these types of ideas into their infrastructures. A number of cities are also offering incentives, and grants for building rooftop gardens, and green roofs on new buildings. The EPA details on their website the steps needed to make one of these roofs, as well as a list of incentives and contacts for many cities within the United States.

The future

So what is the future of urban farming? There are many organizations that working toward solutions to integrate urban agriculture into cities, One company from the Netherlands, called Except is working towards integrating urban farming and sustainability into architecture, and city planning. One project that they are currently working on is called the Polydome, while not yet realized, this greenhouse would utilize a wide variety of crops and animals integrated into an eco-system, the company estimates that even a small Polydome could supply food to a large population.  As interest and needs grow, perhaps we will begin to see more projects like this in our cities as we move into the future.


Visual example of the Polydome concept.






This video from the company explains how the Polydome would work.

Additional Resources:   Sources:

Ackerman, Kubi, comp. “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City.” (2012): 1-111.Http:// Urban Design Lab at the Earth Institute Columbia University.
Golden, Sheila, and University Of California Agriculture And Natural Resources. “Urban Agriculture Impacts:Social, Health, and Economic A Literature Review.” Urban Agriculture Impacts: Social, Health, and Economic: A Literature Review
Grewal, Sharanbir S., and Parwinder S. Grewal. “Can Cities Become Self-reliant in Food?” Cities 29.1 (2012): 1-11.
“Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.” Inhabitat Sustainable Design Innovation Eco Architecture Green Building Pasona HQKono Designs Comments.
Specht, Kathrin. “Urban Agriculture of the Future: An Overview of Sustainability Aspects of Food Production in and on Buildings.” Agriculture and Human Values 31.1 (2013): 33-51.
“Urban Agriculture.” Urban Agriculture. Virtually Green
“Urban Heat Island: Baltimore, MD : Image of the Day.” Urban Heat Island: Baltimore, MD : Image of the Day.