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THE NEW GREEN: Farming... in the heart of the city?

By Kelsey Sullivan
On March 28, 2014

Urban agriculture has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, and it may be easy to assume that the practice is a recent convention or just another hispter fad. In reality, there is actually a long and culturally significant history of growing food in urban settings. As noted by the blog "Sprouts in the Sidewalk," the origins of modern urban agriculture are believed to be the "allotment gardens" that surrounded European villages in the 1700s. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European immigrants replicated these plantings when they arrived in America's impoverished urban districts. In fact, there have been several urban agriculture movements in America alone, including Detroit's "potato patches" in the years 1890 - 1930, the City Beautiful movement (in roughly the same era), the Liberty Gardens of WWI and the Victory Gardens of WWII, "relief" gardens during the Great Depression, and the modern community garden movement which began in the 1970s. Of course, it can be argued that traditions of city-farming stretch back much further into history, beginning with the very first cities in Mesopotamia.
   But it is true that urban agriculture has taken on new forms and significance in the modern era. The Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security (RUAF) Foundation, summarizes the importance of urban agriculture in an era of rapid globalization and urbanization: "Urban agriculture plays an important role in enhancing urban food security since the costs of supplying and distributing food to urban areas based on rural production and imports continue to increase, and do not satisfy the demand, especially of the poorer sectors of the population." RUAF suggests that the largest benefit of urban agriculture is its increase in local food security and healthy nutrition. In urban settings, a low income more readily translates into a lack of food than in urban settings. Furthermore, the costs of importing food from rural areas are rising quickly, and this trend is only expected to continue in the coming decades.
Perhaps less obvious are urban agriculture's contributions to a more equitable society and a healthy environment. RUAF states that: "Several examples exist of municipalities or NGOs that have initiated urban agriculture projects that involve disadvantaged groups ... with the aim to integrate them more strongly into the urban network and to provide them with a decent livelihood." In terms of the environment and resource-use, urban agriculture works to "close the loop" of production and disposal by turning urban waste into usable materials. Some cities, for example, have implemented compost-collection systems that collect organic wastes and utilize them as compost in agriculture projects (San Francisco has collected over 100 million tons since it began composting over 15 years ago). City wastewater can be diverted in the same way and used for irrigation purposes. By turning "waste" into "food," urban agriculture replicates natural systems, which many experts assert is the key to making our human systems sustainable. The more we replicate natural systems - which are always recycling, replenishing and self-sustaining - the more secure our human systems will be.
A quick Google Images search on urban agriculture will reveal the exciting and astonishing forms that urban agriculture has taken on in the 21st century, including green roofs, vertical farms and unbelievable futuristic structures replete with greenery and irrigation systems. If you find yourself living in an urban area in the near future, there is certain to be an opportunity to get involved in urban farming!

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