Urban Farming: Growing Food in a Sprawling City

The next time you enjoy a farm-to-table meal in a city restaurant or a friend’s urban pied-a-terre, the “farm” may be mere steps away from your table.

Urban farms are springing up worldwide through any concrete crack foodies can find. As farm-to-table dining trickles down from haute cuisine to fast food, and with increased desire for chef-quality ingredients for home cooking, demand for locally sourced fresh produce is soaring. Concurrently, modern urban sprawl is choking farms around cities, limiting supplies.

With land at a premium, new methods incorporate vertical farming: planting into walls (a larger scale of a home-gardening technique), using three-stories-high A-frame conveyors to rotate plants through water troughs as Sky Greens in Singapore innovated in 2012, and potentially converting high rise buildings into greenhouses. The last suggestion is the vision of ecologist Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm. Urban gardeners are a resourceful bunch, converting tiny spaces into lush Edens and regularly rotating crops to most efficiently use their limited land.

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In Chicago years ago, my friend Chef Art Smith introduced me to the rooftop vegetable garden at the Gary Corner Youth Center in the city’s often challenging south side. High above concrete streets, students training in sustainable agriculture and the culinary professions gathered fresh microgreens for sale to high-end area restaurants, including Smith’s Table Fifty-Two. As “locally grown” produce, it would garner an especially high price.

Did I mention that it was a 14ºF day, with six inches of snow on the roof? Current farming technologies enable urban growers to cultivate food grown even closer to where its eaters live, despite conditions.

Neighboring Detroit is urban agriculture’s epicenter, a hub for big ideas. With the city unable to tend acres of abandoned houses, a green movement of urban farmers sprouted, committed to stewarding the land. This corps of growers transformed previously barren terrain into responsibly agriculturally productive grounds for citizens of a struggling city. Some sell food for profit, some feed neighbors, and some are corporations doing good (such as General Motors’s Cadillac Urban Gardens). One of the effort’s leaders, Greening of Detroit, is a nonprofit that provides technical assistance to farmers, education, and access to locally grown food.

 

Watch a video of farmers planting gardens in cities.

 

In Washington, D.C., a company called BrightFarms took over 10,000 square feet of underdeveloped land in Anacostia to build a produce greenhouse close to urban supermarkets and create “green collar” jobs for the community. Unlike many local farms, BrightFarms has relationships with and sells to large chains like Superfresh, Pathmark, and Giant, thereby positioning local food in the mainstream food supply chain.

Most of us who study food systems agree that something drastic needs to change soon. Growing food thousands of miles away from where eaters live, guzzling resources to transport that food in refrigerated trucks across the country or the globe, only to have produce that simply doesn’t taste as good at the end of the long supply chain, simply doesn’t make sense. Innovative urban gardening requires less time, transportation resources, and money and produces better food. Sounds like a way to feed a planet approaching 9 billion.

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This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.

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