Growing food is one of the most biophilic activities there is, with the potential to connect us with terra firma and to one another. Growing food involves knowledge of weather, water and nutrient cycles, and place. It means being outside, engaging in physical exercise and activity, and it delivers positive emotional and psychological benefits.  Food-producing gardens help us in many different ways: they provide important green spaces in cities and opportunities for respite and contemplation, even as one pulls weeds and waters plants.

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KTPH  Garden; Photo by Pauline Ang

From a biodiversity standpoint, the healthy soil needed to grow food that we can eat, whether on a peri-urban farm field, or an urban corner lot, is home to an amazing array of organisms, harboring many different species of insect, worms, and other organisms (a major premise of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative).

Urban agriculture in cities around the world continues to grow in popularity, amounting to a global movement, borne from a need to address serious food insecurities in some cities, and in others to improve public health and quality of life.  Biophilic at core, the desire to grow food represents a tremendous opportunity to creatively introduce and connect urban populations to the broader nature and living world that exists in cities.
Photo courtesy of Alice’s Garden, Milwaukee

Many of our partner cities and other cities we are studying have one or more impressive urban agriculture project underway. They range from the urban farm on the top of the KTPH hospital in Singapore, to the community gardens in Vitoria-Gasteiz’s green ring, to San Francisco’s abundant gardening and food production spaces, both temporary (such as Hays Valley Farm) and more permanent (such as the Tenderloin People’s Garden).  Spaces like Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee have become important neighborhood gathering spots and places that provide new economic opportunities for residents of the neighborhood.

Within the density of cities like New York, it can be difficult to find the physical space for an urban farm or garden.  However, Gary Nabhan, of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, says that urban farming might play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change in our future. A local food pioneer, Nabhan argues that farming must begin to adapt to conditions of serious heat and drought, and cities will play a key role.

In a 2011 interview with Nabhan, at UVA, he told me of the opportunities of climate change to “create really remarkable possibilities for using spaces in urban areas in a more dynamic way for food production.” Rooftop farms, installing gardens in the place of pavement, and cleaning up and converting brownfield sites in cities for food production, are just some of the new ways we can mitigate and respond to the effects of climate change using urban farming.   Cities are “potential test sites,” Nabhan says, “for how every place will have to deal with climate change.”

Tenderloin People's Garden

Despite these immense challenges faced, Nabhan exudes a sense of optimism about the future of food and the necessary role of cities. “For the first time the urban-rural divide is being broken down by city fathers saying ‘we need to recognize our role of power in redesigning food systems.’” He envisions a future in which urban residents “co-design” the growing spaces of the city, and is impressed by efforts such as the social enterprise Windowfarms, founded by Britta Riley, which has grown into an online network of some 40,000 urban growers, producing food in small scale hydroponic systems in cities around the world. 

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Windowfarm, photo byNikolai Popov

These many small scale food interventions and urban innovations, from community orchards to schoolyard gardens to rooftop bee-hives, represent invaluable chances to re-connect to nature, and to take back, at least in some small measure, the sacred responsibility of feeding ourselves.

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.