Urban Farming: 5 Cities with Thriving Urban Farming Initiatives

urban farming
(Last Updated On: April 21, 2022)

As the saying goes, “Times, they are a-changing.” And it is the truth, particularly in the farming industry. The last hundred years or so have seen major shifts in how we perceive our sources of food. While there are two million farms across the United States, farmers make up just 1.3% of the labor force. Those two million farms are a steep decline from the 7 million that had been in existence less than a hundred years ago in 1935. 

Today, we have more people to feed and fewer farms to feed them with. This gap has given rise to a new wave of farmers who are challenging the idea of what a farm is, and introducing the growth of urban agriculture across America. These pioneers are taking action in their communities and are growing fresh, healthy produce. They are providing jobs, beautifying neighborhoods, and offering access to healthy foods in areas where those options are sparse.

There are cities across the United States where people have taken matters into their own hands and changed the times themselves, inspiring others to do the same. Here are just five of the numerous American cities that have embraced urban agriculture. 

Urban Farming in Denver, Colorado

urban farming tomato

Photo courtesy of Mile High Urban Farming

Denver is home to a very vibrant urban agriculture scene. In Denver, the city is looking ahead and giving a platform to both people and groups to lead sustainability efforts in the Mile High City. In the last decade, urban farming in Denver has grown rapidly.

Denver feels strongly that urban farms showcase the benefits of sustainable farming, and do it on a local scale. In particular, there are 9 Urban Farms In Denver Changing How We View Food Production. The missions of these farms range from sustainable food education, the promotion of good health, building strong relationships with local food systems, and food justice.

Also located in Denver, Denver Urban Gardens, or DUG, has the largest independent network of food-producing community gardens in the country. There are 190 community and school-based gardens across metro Denver. DUG puts its focus on reducing barriers to fresh, healthy, organic food. They provide access to space, knowledge, and resources to anyone that wants to grow their own produce.

Colorado State University has an extension office Urban Agriculture – Denver County Extension that will answer any questions or concerns regarding urban agriculture. They can help with soil testing, crop planning, insect and pathogen identification and can also connect you with other local, regional, and national resources.

Urban Farming in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

urban farming shovel

Willow Zef volunteers at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

In Philadelphia, they also have a desire to create urban agriculture opportunities. In neighborhoods across the city, there are about 470 gardens that are operated on 568 parcels of land. Many of those areas where the gardens are located are areas with a high concentration of households whose income is at the poverty level. 

The challenge that is facing Philadelphia is that, while the benefits of these urban farms are recognized by the city, most of these farms do not own the land that they tend crops on. One in three farms is in gentrifying areas, which are areas where land values are rising. The construction rates in these areas are among the highest in the city.

Spurred by urban farmers, Philly created its first-ever urban agriculture manifesto in 2019. City officials, like the urban farmers who brought their case before them, recognize the many benefits of growing food in the city. However, productive urban farms are threatened each year in Philadelphia. The urban agriculture manifesto aims to stop the trend and to help preserve urban farms across the city.

The city of Philadelphia has established the FarmPhilly | Programs and initiatives. This program supports urban farming on Parks & Recreation land. FarmPhilly supports 60 farming projects that include community gardens, vegetable farms, orchards, youth education garden, and a public greenhouse for growing seeds and plant cuttings.

While urban farmers in Philly face challenges, the city does see the value of such efforts and has taken steps to preserve and support urban agriculture in their city.

Urban Farming In Chicago, Illinois

urban farming

Clara Schaffer Park picture from Urban Growers Collective website

Chicago has nearly 32,000 vacant lots across the city. That is a lot of potential for urban agriculture in Chicago. The city of Chicago distinguishes between community gardens and urban farms and states where each is permitted to establish themselves, and they also have regulations that an urban farm needs to follow. 

According to the city, a community garden is usually owned or managed by public entities or community-based organizations and maintained by volunteers. Any produce grown on community garden sites is for personal use or charity. 

Urban farms, on the other hand, grow products that are intended for sale on a nonprofit or for-profit basis. As such, a permit is required to operate an urban farm in Chicago and is prohibited in all residential and certain business zoning districts. Fencing is required for urban farms along with landscaping, parking, and screening.

There are some successful urban farms in Chicago, and among them are Urban Growers Collective and Gotham Greens. Gotham Greens is a 100,000 square foot greenhouse in Chicago that was built after the success of the first 75,000 Gotham Greens greenhouse reached capacity. 

You also have the opportunity to explore Urban Farming with Tower Farms – Vertical Farming Systems. This form of urban farming allows you to grow food without soil, and in locations within a city, such as a rooftop. This tower form of urban gardening is located in a most unlikely place, it is in the Rotunda between Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 of the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. 

What started as a public school project, The Urban Canopy has turned into a farm with a point of view as to how food should be grown in Chicago.The Urban Canopy seeks to create a more sustainable, nutritious, and equitable local food source for the community.

Urban Farming In Detroit, Michigan

urban farming detroit

Not only home to Motown music, Detroit is also home to over 2,015 urban farming initiatives. Sometimes referred to in conjunction with The Greening of Detroit, urban farming in Detroit has grown over the years. 

Supported in these efforts by organizations such as Garden Resource Program, Keep Growing Detroit works to promote urban agriculture with a thriving local food system.

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is a decade-old project that has become a model for agricultural development in an urban setting. Their mission is to “use urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community to empower urban communities, solve some of the social problems facing Detroit and develop a broader model for redevelopment for other urban communities.”

As was written in an article in Yes! magazine, In Detroit, A New Type of Agricultural Neighborhood Has Emerged. The article goes on to say that “Detroit’s agricultural neighborhoods, whether or not branded as an “agrihood,” are attractions for newcomers to the city. Gardens, to some, signal safety in a city that has for many years been labeled as “the most dangerous” or “most violent” for many years”

Examples of urban farming include D-Town Farm, a seven-acre organic farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park. They grow more than 30 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs. This urban farm has four hoop houses that help to extend their growing season. Large-scale composting and bee-keeping help to round out their efforts to produce good, clean, sustainably grown food.

The Earthworks Urban Farm is a 2.5-acre farm located on the east side of Detroit. If interested, you can take a self-guided tour of the farm which is a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. 1.5 acres of the farm are certified organic. This urban garden was created to connect people to each other, the land, and their food. Today, the garden has a hoop house for year-round production, a community orchard, and an apiary.

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has been growing healthy food in Detroit’s North End for over a decade. This farm grows over 33 varieties of vegetables and fruits and produces value-added products such as herbal teas, eggs, spices, and jams.

Urban Farming In New York City, New York

urban farming nyc

Vegetables and herbs growing in aquaponics systems at Oko Farms in Brooklyn, NYC. Courtesy of the Department of City Planning.

Urban agriculture in New York is greatly encouraged by the city. The Department of City Planning, NYC Parks, and the Department of Small Businesses have established a portal called NYC Urban Agriculture to inform businesses, property owners, and the public about agriculture in New York City. These initiatives include personal gardening, community gardening, and rooftop greenhouses. The agricultural uses also extend to commercial farming and indoor farming such as hydroponic and aquaponics.

According to the NYC Urban Agriculture website, agriculture in the five NYC boroughs has countless benefits to New Yorkers. This site encourages you to become a part of the agricultural community in the city and offers resources and programs to help you grow in the city.

NYC Parks GreenThumb claims to be the largest community gardening program in the nation. At their site, you will be able to find out how to start a garden, find a garden, and various garden resources. There are over 550 community gardens on city property. That does not include 745 school gardens, 700 gardens at public housing, and over 100 gardens in land trusts.

Randall’s Island Park Alliance is a 40,000 square foot environmentally sustainable garden and outdoor classroom. With over 100 raised beds, two greenhouses, and four rice paddies, this urban farm promotes rainwater capture, crop rotation, soil fertility, photosynthesis, pollination, and botany.

NYU Urban Farm Lab is the first urban agriculture project on a landmarked site. A consortium of groups funds the Urban Farm Lab which is directed by food studies professors and maintained by students enrolled in the Urban Agriculture class. The farm is used year-round for teaching and research about urban agriculture in New York City.

From a small start in 2011, the Battery Urban Farm began at the request of eight students from a neighboring high school for a vegetable garden. Today, over 5000 students from 100 schools and community volunteers grow thousands of pounds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, grains, and flowers.

rooftop urban farming

Photo courtesy of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm website

Three stories up, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is growing fresh food. Internationally acclaimed, this vegetable farm sits atop a three-story warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. With a stunning view of Manhattan’s skyline, this 6,000 square foot rooftop supports an organic vegetable farm.

In Conclusion

In areas where grocery stores are sparse, urban agriculture can fill the gap with fresh, healthy produce. Not only can this help to decrease food insecurity, but it can also be a platform for education. In this day and age where food comes from a grocery store shelf, children are not reliably accurate in identifying the origins of common foods, with 41% thinking that bacon comes from a plant. Getting children involved in urban farming changes the way they think about the food they eat.

The beauty of urban agriculture is that it can be done in your backyard, on your window sill, or on the rooftop. Whether your space is big or small, if you are wanting to feed yourself or contribute to your community, urban farming bridges many gaps and can improve food insecurity and food safety.

Other resources:

The United States Department of Agriculture published this Urban Agriculture Tool Kit for those interested in urban farming. The National Geographic reports on urban agriculture around the world and how others are farming and gardening.

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