According to the United Nations, some one-fourth of all agricultural land is seriously degraded. As a result, people are now turning to untapped urban land. In fact, some 800 million people a year worldwide are practicing urban agriculture. Beyond creating green spaces, urban agriculture may aid those who don't have secure access to food. In the U.S. alone, some 49 million Americans experience food insecurity and another 23 million live in food deserts where there is little fresh produce or public space. To fight insecurity, many Americans, even those in poorer areas, are taking food production into their own hands: Some 38 percent of households or 41 million people grew vegetables, fruits, or herbs on their property.
(Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations; RUAF Foundation and Feeding America; "Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities," Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute )
While growing food breaks the law in many U.S. cities, innovators like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin, are now changing regulations to accommodate the growing numbers of urban farmers. In those communities, many types of private and public spaces -- front and backyards, courtyards in multi-family complexes, abandoned lots, and building rooftops -- can now be legally transformed from unproductive spaces into low-cost sources of nutrition. In Washington, D.C and Portland, homeowners can even lease out their yards to local organizations and reap the benefits. In Cleveland and Detroit, abandoned lots owned by the city are leased at almost zero cost to farmers if they promise to grow things on them. In Chicago, the rooftop of one youth center was redesigned as a farm and now produces 1,000 pounds of organic produce each year while teaching urban kids where food comes from. (Sources: Backyard Farmer; DC City Farmer; Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, ASLA / Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago, Illinois and "Keeping Urban Farmers Safe," The Dirt, ASLA)
Commercial urban farmers are also starting to make money on rooftops. In New York City, the Brooklyn Grange, a 40,000 square foot farm, grew some 15,000 pounds last year. Underutilized spaces can be leased out for around $1 a square foot, creating enough financial incentive for urban farmers to take root. Another great idea being considered: big-box stores could lease out their massive rooftops to farmers, and then purchase the food there to re-sell. However, many landscape architects argue that for these new urban agriculture projects to really work, they need to be knit together into a network. Produce grown in neighborhoods can be distributed via farmers’ markets, shops, coops, food banks, even mobile storefronts. With local networks in place, nearby suburban farms can also participate, finding new markets and creating a more healthy food system in the process.
(Sources: “Farm the Rooftops,” The Dirt, ASLA and "Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities," Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute)
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