Local and sustainable foods are becoming a highly touted mantra in America, with much of this interest coming from metropolitan centers—where 80 percent of the U.S. population lives. Urbanites seeking to reconnect with their food are meeting the farmers who grow their food at farmers markets, purchasing weekly farm shares through community supported agriculture and dining at restaurants that focus on local and seasonal delights. But getting to know farms and farmers outside the city isn’t the end all! Growing food within urban environments is another key aspect of a truly healthy and sustainable food system. Food grown in the city doesn’t have to travel far to urban markets, restaurants, and dinner tables, so it can use less energy and provide a wonderful educational experience close to home.
In addition, it’s also an important strategy for combating food insecurity—the lack of access to affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods—in many cities. Numerous inner-city neighborhoods lack a single grocery store, but are crowded with liquor stores stocked with highly processed and overpriced packaged foods. These urban “food deserts,” which are disproportionately communities of color, may already face environmental justice issues such as high pollution levels, and health problems like asthma, caused by particulate pollution, are only exacerbated by poor diets. With no access to affordable nutritious food, residents in food deserts also face high rates of obesity and diabetes.
Urban gardens and farms can be oases in these deserts, providing nutrient rich food right where people need it. Animals can be part of the equation as well—raising chickens can provide enough eggs for a family, apiaries provide honey and valuable pollination services, and fishponds, and even milking goats are becoming more common in cities, providing meat protein and milk. Urban areas are not newbies to food production but are playing an important role across the globe—the United Nations estimates that 15 percent of the world’s food is grown in cities—and the practice is certainly not new to the United States. During World Wars I and II, the U.S. government encouraged city dwellers to grow some of their own food in “victory gardens,” to take pressure off of food supplies for the troops. Today, advocates of urban agriculture are redefining victory as local control over an economically sound and socially just method of food production. This summer a team of 200 volunteers planted a victory garden in front of San Francisco city hall as a part of Slow Food Nation. The temporary organic garden contained a variety of edible and native plants and serves as a prime example that growing food in the city is not only possible, but beautiful as well.
While urban parks and green spaces often serve aesthetic purposes, urban agriculture is an example of a way these spaces can be productive as well as attractive. Colorful food crops, fruit trees and pollinator attracting flowers can be incorporated into existing green space to provide lovely, educational and delicious additions to traditional park spaces. At Romanowski Park in Detroit an urban farm and education center now exists alongside soccer fields. In cities across the country, community gardens and commercial farms have also sprung up on previously vacant lots, creating community spaces and healthy food on abandoned and neglected property.
Fresh, nutritious food grown right in a community is a powerful means for bringing people together. These farms not only grow food for people to gather and enjoy at the table, they also provide green spaces for people to congregate and learn hands on where their food comes from. Organizations across the country are using urban agriculture as a way to bring their communities together, to provide jobs for youth, and to teach people about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating. In Massachusetts, The Food Project provides internships on their urban farms to teach urban and suburban youth not only about farming, but also about responsibility and teamwork. In Oakland, City Slicker Farms builds backyard gardens for low-income families and provides them with supplies and garden mentors, and the chance to sell their produce at a weekly farm-stand. In Milwaukee, Growing Power runs a two-acre educational farm, complete with chickens, goats, greenhouses and a composting system, and leads workshops for city dwellers. An offshoot of Growing Power has begun in Chicago. A testament to the respect that urban agriculture is getting these days is that Will Allen, Growing Power’s founder and chief executive officer, was just awarded a Macarthur “Genuis” Grant. These are good times to be a gardener.
Of course urban agriculture isn’t without its challenges. Many urban soils lack nutrients, or worse, are contaminated with heavy metals. Luckily, there are affordable soil testing services that can alert city farmers to lead levels in their soils, and ways to deal with contaminated soil. Folks can plant in raised beds filled with uncontaminated soil, or add organic matter to contaminated land to dilute heavy metals. Urban composting is a winning idea on many fronts; it’s an opportunity to recycle food waste locally and to create nutrient rich additions to poor or contaminated urban soils. Certain plants also absorb much less lead into their edible bits. It is better to grow plants with edible fruits rather than leaves or roots in contaminated soil. The growing field of phyto-remediation is exploring ways in which certain plants and fungus can even be used to clean up contaminated soils. City farmers are also often faced with difficulties is securing land for long-term use. Hopefully, as chicken coops and beds of collard greens continue to sprout up in American cities, our city governments will realize they are something worth investing in!
A few (of many!) urban gardening organizations:
Growing Power in Milwaukee 
The Food Project in Boston 
City Slicker Farms in Oakland 
Romanowski Park/Greening Detroit 
The Community Food Security Coalition 
Food Routes Network  is linking communities with their food “routes”.
UMass soil testing lab 
By Logan Rockefeller Harris