Urban farming might be something fun to discuss over an Imperial IPA at your local craft beer bar while listening to vinyl records being played in their entirety, but is it really helpful for the community and the environment? A new report from John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future says it’s probably not as big of a net positive as people would like to believe, calling into question the actual benefits of urban agriculture.
To put it in terms some urban farming fans will understand, the 33-page paper published this month, entitled “Vacant Lot to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture,” found that urban farming is a lot like the new Radiohead album: all the hype and acclaim surrounding it might be bigger than the value of the project itself. “We often hear people saying, ‘We’re going to rebuild the city, create jobs, and feed people [through urban farms]’ and these things are, in my opinion, largely aspirational,” Anne Palmer, one of the report’s authors, told Civil Eats. “It makes me uncomfortable that these groups are devoting a lot of energy and resources to something that might not be a panacea.”
The report looked at 167 studies of community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture and noted a number of contradictions within the practice. “Some neighbors of urban farms discuss the community improvement benefits – such as the cleaning up of vacant lots – more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the production of fresh local food,” the report states in one example. Elsewhere, the authors state, “Urban agriculture may not always provide environmental benefits, and could in some cases lead to net negative ecological impacts.”
Overall, the report doesn’t condemn urban farming, but it encourages people to be more realistic about its real world benefits and, as an extension of that, continue to take a more scientific approach to its impact. “We don’t want it to be the thing people point to and say, ‘This doesn’t work,’” Palmer said. “Urban agriculture could be really important to the food system but we don’t have the information we need right now to measure that.”
And Palmer isn’t above sounding a bit idealistic herself. “Growing food is such a powerful act,” she was quoted as saying. “Growing your own food is transformative—and that is something I don’t think you could capture in any study.” I think I read something similar in a review of the new Radiohead album.