FAST COMPANY 07/14/23
By Michael Shank and Kate Lee
There’s a new movement cropping up in city governments across America. It’s apolitical enough that it can avoid the polarization that comes with other climate initiatives. And it’s easy to incorporate because it spans many aspects of city governance and life, with a variety of benefits that meet a wide array of city goals.
It’s the creation of a city office focused solely and specifically on urban agriculture. Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston are among the urban adopters to hire a “director of urban agriculture” in recent years. But increasingly, more and more cities are introducing such a position. There are now more than a dozen cities participating in a soon-to-be-launched Urban Ag Directors Network.
A director of urban agriculture provides valuable and impactful work that sits at the intersection of people and planetary health—the physical health of a community and the environment in which it sits. The mission and mandate of an urban agriculture office also transcends and cross-pollinates multiple city departments. It’s the nexus of many diverse focus areas for a city, from housing and health to public park use and zoning.
Urban land-use policies have traditionally favored residential and business needs and demands. And only has the recent escalation of the climate crisis highlighted the imperative of incorporating and preserving vibrant green space into city planning. Additionally, farming yields limited profits, making the cost of urban living hard for farmers. And only in recent years have we seen the growth in access to technologies that are expanding the ways we can grow produce without dirt or sunlight.
These changes make it the perfect time to incorporate agriculture into urban areas. There are five compelling reasons why cities should consider creating an urban agriculture office. But for these five reasons to be realized, and for such an office to be best developed, it’s essential to embed urban agriculture into the way cities do business and develop land-use policies.
For example, urban agriculture staff must be able to influence decisions about how city land is utilized and help weave agriculture into the traditional ways of urban planning and development. If not, the office risks serving as solely window dressing, and these following five reasons fail to germinate. With that, let’s explore the five reasons why cities should create such an office.
First, human health. When you view your city landscape as a potential agricultural playground, there’s plenty of easy picking that quickly becomes apparent in terms of improving citizens’ health. Increased urban agriculture improves local nutritious food access, reduces air pollution associated with the food supply chain, and mitigates urban heat-island effect with more green space, thus contributing to measurable improvements in our community’s physical health.
Second, community development. As we all know, the party always ends up in the kitchen. So much of culture and history is rooted in food. Food is community. Urban ag sites have a way of place-making for the benefit of centering community around food. When building out an urban agricultural agenda across your city, there’s also an opportunity to simultaneously focus on food sovereignty for communities, culturally appropriate crops identified by residents within that community, and land access for marginalized or underserved communities where access is often denied or compromised.
Third, education and entrepreneurship. Creating urban agriculture in every neighborhood provides a valuable opportunity to educate local schools and communities on where our food comes from, as well as skills-building in growing that food. This is knowledge and know-how that often eludes many urban dwellers. The urban farm becomes a training ground, then, in transferrable and employable skills for the workplace and marketable economic development opportunities for the community. Gardens and farms are a source of education across curriculum: history, culture, health, science, art—the potential is endless. And it provides so many transferable skills beyond just horticulture, from planning, forecasting, and so much math to marketing, customer service, and more.
Fourth, resilience. We all witnessed what happened when the pandemic disrupted food supply. It wasn’t pretty and puts us in a precarious spot for the next public health or environmental crisis. Given how reliant many cities are on food imports from other states, regions, and countries, local urban agriculture presents an easy opportunity to improve resilience to pandemic-related shocks to the food system. Consider it the latest movement in Victory Gardens, created in response to food security issues in WWI and WWII, but now a hundred years later.
Fifth, environmental sustainability. Lastly, but equally important, urban agriculture gives much-needed attention to urban biodiversity and pollinator habitat, which is not only essential to the food system but in short supply as cities continue to develop. Urban agriculture can be an important part of drawing down and sequestering carbon. We need to quickly capture and sequester the carbon that’s in the atmosphere if we want to cool the planet, and green space in cities is an important component of this climate agenda.
Now, to serve these five reasons successfully, an urban agriculture director needs the ability and agency to transcend silos of government—across the range of agencies and departments—to get this good work done. This includes ensuring that farms get the zoning and water access they need, as well as contributing to food-policy councils and sister agency working groups, and centering on community ownership throughout this process.
When urban agriculture directors are truly empowered to do this work, it’s powerful to witness what’s possible. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Office of Urban Agriculture administers a property tax abatement to private landowners who use their property to be used for urban farming. It also hosts Rooting DC, which brings 1000+ residents and regional ag stakeholders together for peer-learning and networking. And in Boston, within the Office of Housing, we’re seeing notable city investment—$300,000 of which was announced this month—to develop and renovate urban farms and community gardens in the Grassroots Program.
The impact of all this work is inspiring and now needs scaling out, especially post-pandemic when people understand the fragility of our food system. To cities out there, consider getting yourself an office of urban agriculture and a director to run it. Your communities will be healthier and happier for it.
Kate Lee is director of the Office of Urban Agriculture at the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment. Michael Shank is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.