October 1, 2015

In City Farming, supporters ask the wrong question of a great solution

Anne Palmer, Center for a Livable Future, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Every so often, I read a headline highlighting a study that proposes to prove cities are able to grow significant amounts of food.

These studies claim that urban farming can provide for the food needs of an entire city. For you urban dwellers, spend a day or two writing down everything you eat and then look at the land around you and consider the climatic conditions of your city.

Then, I implore you to ask yourself: Is this city land capable of feeding us?

The answer is, “Probably not.”

participation park

Baltimore, the capital city of the state of Maryland in the U.S., has created policy incentives for urban farming. In this participation park, urbanites are lending a hand to grow edible crops. Photo provided by Anne Palmer.

Urban farming might not be a catch-all, but the grass is still greener when agriculture is a city priority

Uncertainties aside as to the extent of the ability of city farms to feed urban populations, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about what urban agriculture can contribute to the quality of intercity life: green spaces, delicious and fresh food, improvements in biodiversity, capturing storm water, and economic opportunities.  Additionally, policy can cultivate opportunities for citizens who want to get their hands in the soil.

Jurisdictions throughout the United States have been supporting legislation to make it easier to produce food in urban areas. In our annual update of the food policy council directory for North America, twenty-two cities reported significant policy success in urban agriculture.

In 2013, my hometown of Baltimore developed its own urban agriculture strategy called “Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local.” This plan includes changes in the zoning code to allow for small animal husbandry and the City-led Power in Dirt initiative. The latter program motivated residents to adopt over 1,000 vacant lots to convert them into green spaces. This transformation results in neighborhood beautification, higher property values and community connectedness.


The Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore leads the Food Policy Networks (FPN) project, a program that supports the development of effective and robust food policy at the state and local levels by working alongside existing food policy councils, national organizations and other interested groups. Photo provided by Anne Palmer.

Urban agriculture is taking root across the country, and the world

Embedded in city government, the Salt Lake City’s Food Policy Task Force conducted a review of existing ordinances and opted to allow residents to keep bees, chicken and other fowl and supported additional urban food production. Structures such as hoop houses, green houses, and cold frames, were provided more lenient setbacks. They also expanded the definitions for diverse urban agriculture uses and allowances as they relate to community gardens, farm stands and urban agriculture.

Confronted with a bounty of vacant land, the Detroit Food Policy Council co-hosted community gatherings to educate and hear from citizens about urban agriculture, partnered with the City’s Planning Commission to draft the urban agriculture ordinances, and then helped to get the ordinances passed in 2013. A similar process for animal husbandry is now underway. Furthermore, the Council also authored a report that highlighted citizens’ concerns about the process of selling public land and offered recommendations for improvements in future land distribution efforts. As a result, the City’s Planning and Development office started the Land Sale Work Group, of which the Council is a member, to develop policies for the sale of city owned land for agricultural purposes.

While my work is mostly U.S. focused, I see this happening all over the world. Just yesterday I read about Kathmandu’s plans to provide rooftop and terrace farming training to 150 households in the capital in a bid to promote urban greenery.  Efforts around the world, such as those featured on the RUAF Foundation’s website give light to how coordinated to develop policy for urban agriculture holds positive results, and promise, to urban communities.

JHU collage

Working alongside local and state-level stakeholders, the Center for a Livable Future has contributed to the creation of green spaces where urban dwellers can farm. Featured here are school yard gardens across the City. Photo provided by Anne Palmer.

Urban farming in the City of Baltimore shows that hard work has high rewards

In the City of Baltimore, supplying the knowledge for informed policy for healthy food systems is no easy task. At the Center for a Livable Future, we provide this research by conducting food assessments and food system maps for city planners and others to identify opportunities for urban agriculture, and understand the interests of various stakeholder groups (farmers, community advocates, and business owners).


Food system maps and databases inform activities aimed at strengthening the City’s food systems by providing a spatial examination of Maryland’s current production landscape, from farm to table. Map provided by Anne Palmer.

Through the lens of a larger time frame, building strong, resilient food systems within the city are beneficial to ensuring that current and future generations of city dwellers can grow healthy food and improve their quality of life. When done with community leadership and strong engagement, urban agriculture has the potential to enhance relationships among residents, government, non-profits and the private sector.  Like all things worth doing, it requires commitment, trust and lots of hard work.

Learn More
Anne Palmer is the Program Director of the Food Communities & Public Health Program to manage food and nutrition outreach. 

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future works with students, educators, researchers, policymakers, advocacy organizations and communities to build a healthier, more equitable, and resilient food system. 

Read more on the Center for a Livable Future Blog: http://www.livablefutureblog.com/

Food policy council directory, 2015 Update. 

More From Anne Palmer

Comments are closed.