Urban Agriculture Is ‘Growing’

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Once a niche, small-scale practice, urban agriculture is gaining traction in the U.S. and globally as municipalities grapple with challenges related to food security, equitable access to nutritious options, and environmental sustainability.

With the United Nations estimating that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2025, experts agree that it is vital for cities to implement policies that support equitable urban farming practices.

Recently, higher education institutions across the country, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the University of California (UC) system, and the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy (CUNY SPH), have expanded their research, education, and outreach efforts to support urban agriculture, particularly in ways that benefit underserved and marginalized communities.

A paper published in January by researchers representing universities in Florida, Michigan, New York, and Illinois — specifically UIUC’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences — recognizes urban agriculture’s potential role in bolstering the sustainability and resilience of these regions and proposes a framework that comprises three phases for cities and institutions interested in scaling up support of urban farming.

Chloe Wardropper, PhD, an assistant professor of natural resource policy and management at UIUC and a co-author of the study, emphasizes the importance of addressing environmental, health, and equity concerns in this endeavor.

“The first phase of growth would include expanding individuals’ interest in, knowledge of, and access to resources to undertake agriculture in urban regions,” says Wardropper. “This phase should be followed by institutionalization, or the transformation of rules and organizational support for urban agriculture. Third, economic and market growth would increasingly support and diversify urban food.”

In addition to its involvement in the study, UIUC’s Illinois Extension in Cook County, which includes Chicago, offers numerous programs that support equitable urban farming, most notably through its Master Urban Farmer Training Program. The 12-week program is open to educators, local community members, gardeners, and entrepreneurs who want to learn how to effectively farm in the city.

Similarly, UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources plays an important role in supporting urban farmers throughout California. Research projects and community resources teach community farmers about topics like food safety and handling, zoning laws and agriculture regulations, and business management. These help with navigating the challenges that come with setting up urban gardens and farms.

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm in Sacramento, for example, is one of the efforts initially supported by UC. On a half-acre of land in the city’s underserved South Oak Park neighborhood, owners Chanowk and Judith Yisrael cultivate fruit, vegetables, and herbs.

Not only does the farm provide access to healthy food in an area often classified as a food desert, but it serves as a space for community engagement and empowerment. Through workshops, youth programs, and various advocacy efforts, the Yisraels encourage others to create community farms and, in doing so, champion urban agriculture as a tool for improving health equity and social good.

CUNY SPH researchers Nevin Cohen, PhD, and Rositsa Ilieva, PhD, recently published two studies that examine the existing challenges related to urban agriculture, particularly carbon outputs and a lack of overarching municipal policies to support the practice. Cohen and Ilieva tout the benefits of urban farming, such as providing spaces for socialization and enhancing the nutritional health of the surrounding communities, but highlight the need for greater investment and policy support in these projects.

“As mayors, urban policymakers, and city planners seek to instit-utionalize urban farming into mainstream urban policy and develop comprehensive urban agriculture plans, it is key that we gain a deeper and holistic understanding of urban farming and its interconnected social and environmental dimensions,” says Ilieva.