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Urban Agriculture: A Developing Asset in City Sustainability

By Molly Neylan (’21)

City life can be costly, be it in terms of rent, food prices, or more broadly, the urban environment’s resource usage. Cities have long been considered an uneven sink of resources, with the aforementioned reliance on imported foods–particularly fruit and vegetable-based foods–leading to a sense of food insecurity across nations of varying socioeconomic and development levels.

Among them is the United States itself, where many city programs are taking cues from urban areas in South America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands in ventures into urban agriculture. When you think of urban farming in the U.S., you might think of trendy rooftop gardens, but this practice spans far further than just that. Urban agriculture can range from involved systems of hydroponics and aquaponics–often kept within repurposed freight containers–to community gardening initiatives at both ground and roof levels aimed at building a connected social community based around a sustainable project. As a whole, urban agriculture serves as a valuable potential tool in not only breaking down food insecurity in cities, but also combating the climate effects propagated by urban life.

        With cities home to now almost 80 percent of the U.S. population, but comprising only about 3.5 percent of the country’s landmass, there exists a disparity between green and urban spaces. Urban heat islands have become somewhat commonplace, as reflective surfaces on large buildings create a substantial high-temperature area–and car emissions only exacerbate these temperature spikes. As the popularity of urban farming increases, so too does the vegetation cover present in these cities. Rooftops and vacant lots alike provide intuitive gardening opportunities within the city landscape, and new green spaces that take advantage of such areas serve to reduce the heat island effect and make cities safer and more sustainable as they shade the surfaces of buildings, deflect radiation, and naturally release moisture into the atmosphere for a cooling effect.

        With regards to the great population-to-landmass divide, the implementation of urban farming can relieve the strain on rural ecosystems as well. This could not only potentially reduce some of the reliance on outsourced foods, but also theoretically lessen the climate risks posed by high-yield industrial farming operations.

        While offering a means of softening the blow of climate shifts connected to city life, urban agriculture has also shown promise as a propagator of “metabolic pathways” that form a new urban ecosystem. This can include the regulation of small-scale climates, the consumption and reuse of waste rich in nutrients, and the creation of new niches and habitats for key wildlife such as pollinators.

Out of all means of urban agriculture, rooftop gardens have been most extensively studied in their use of urban organic wastes; in a 2018 study, this was relegated to green waste mixed into the experimental soil, accompanied by differing levels of crushed wood, woodchips, and potting soil. While the introduction of waste material into urban agriculture is largely a gradually implemented process–especially in the case of wastewater, which requires intensive management to eliminate pathogens–the use of composted organic food waste is a simple and widespread practice.

Composting receptacles are an essential component of any urban farm. U.S. cities often have high metal content in their soil, and these contaminants can make their way into plants grown in said soil. In Boston, under 2013’s Article 89–which outlines zoning requirements for city agriculture–composting is considered an accessory to an established farm, and is encouraged in order to increase the quality of local soil.

The city of Boston provides a number of opportunities for the development of urban agriculture; among them, a focus on community gardens has swept through the city as a solution to the loss of green spaces within cities as a whole. Initiatives to expand and promote community gardens in Boston are backed by organizations such as TD Bank and The Trustees, the latter of which has supported 55 of the over 200 total gardens throughout the city.

As of May 2018, the city of Boston has created a three-year partnership with TD Bank to enforce the community aspect of numerous community gardens, organizing events described as “design projects, community-building events, and skill-building workshops.” Such programs can aid in establishing a culturally constructive presence for these urban green spaces, in addition to their potential as a next step in sustainability and combating climate change.


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