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Digging into Urban Farming

The challenge

We talk about Urban Farming as a strategy for climate change mitigation, but with so few cities doing it on a large scale, there are not enough data to make informed decisions. While growing more of our food within our cities has some clear benefits, we need to look at it in the wider context of green infrastructure projects and urban climate responses.

In this article

  • The hype around urban farming
  • What we (don’t) know and what we need to know
  • How we can start farming in cities now while building our knowledge base

Cities have a few advantages as venues to address climate change. We often talk about them as more efficient ways for people to live because of the shared infrastructure, reduced travel distances, and smaller residential footprints. With 60% of the worlds’ population expected to be in urban areas, and nearly 9% in megacities of 10 million people or more, the human impact on the environment is increasingly synonymous with urban consequences for the environment. As a planning specialist, Natasha Eichler is encouraged to see green initiatives being rolled out in her home city of Auckland.

“We have a really proactive Mayor and Council, and they’re trying to do the right thing” Natasha says. But she is aware of the scale of the problem, as well as the pressure that city officials often face from their constituents to do something. A lot of different solutions are being put forward as the best way for urban areas to reduce their environmental footprints, but so far Natasha has found that most of these initiatives pertain to with a few specific areas, like transport. She sees an opportunity for researchers to assist governments in choosing less conventional projects where they can maximise their return on investment. One opportunity may be to take a more holistic approach to greening city infrastructure.

Frustrated with increasingly unreliable global cooperation on environmental issues, particularly at national levels, City governments and businesses around the world have turned to the areas within their control. They are managing their own water resources, energy usage, transportation and networks.

“Lately urban farming is being talked about quite a lot as a way to see benefits across a variety of environmental categories ” says Natasha. “But very little action is actually occurring in that space. Most cities have robust strategies around things like transportation and flood resilience. Very few are tackling the problems associated with feeding our growing populations.”

In 2015, Auckland signed up to the C40 Cities initiative and committed to reduce carbon emissions by 2040 (with some targets as soon as 2020). Like many other cities, Auckland faces real risks from climate change including the increased likelihood of storms, droughts, and wildfires. Mitigating these risks will take a holistic approach to climate change action. Natasha and her team saw an opportunity to explore how urban farming might fit into that big picture. 

One technique for assessing the impact a product will have on the environment is to perform a life-cycle analysis. This involves determining and summing the impacts associated with all stages of the product’s life. For food, that generally involves the cost of growing the raw materials, it’s extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. From the cost of industrial farming, through to harvesting, distribution and packaging waste—what we eat, and where it comes from, can have a huge effect on our CO2 emissions.

Dense cities surrounded by suburbs with big industrial farms further away is the de facto form of urban living in most industrialised countries. Trains and trucks bring food into big box stores. Individual residents drive to those stores to buy their food and take it home. There’s a lot of transportation built into this system—referred to as ‘food miles.’ It seems like an easy win to grow the food closer to the people who consume it. But when she looked at the complete environmental footprint of agriculture, Natasha found that food miles have a far smaller impact compared with something like fertilizer use.

“Of course every bit helps, but we have to look at the whole picture as well to see what impact we can have with urban farming” she says. It used to be common for farming to happen near or even within city limits. Cities in Europe and Asia often have farmland in or right next to them. Though this is less common in Australia  and New Zealand now, post-war migrant communities would often farm their own yards and neighbourhood plots. The history of this can still be seen in the suburbs of our cities. But as cities have grown in scale, and mass agriculture has replaced home gardening as a source of food, we find ourselves in the strange position of not knowing much about how urban farming could fit into today’s world.

There are plenty of promises out there about how urban agriculture can benefit our cities. The plants will sequester carbon. They’ll also improve the quality of our soil by adding organic matter, encouraging worms and other life. This, in turn, can increase the water holding capacity of soil which is good for flood resilience. Finally, there’s the argument that urban agriculture will drive down our food mileage. If people started growing food in their yards again, they would go to the grocery store less, and rely less on industrial farming.

 

But in doing a review of existing research, Natasha found there were not enough cities doing urban farming, and therefore not enough data collected to fully understand the potential effect urban farming can have on climate change. Without good data, city planners and residents could find themselves wanting to do things differently but without a framework to make their initiatives as effective as they could be. We are looking for ways to support cities with the political will to do something by giving them well considered and thoroughly researched proposals for action.

After a review of the existing research, Natasha and her team found that while the benefits of urban agriculture could be numerous and positive, the scale of adaptation necessary to make an impact on the climate wasn’t all that feasible.

“You would need so much green space that you wouldn’t have a city anymore” Natasha says. To fill the city with too much green space, we would have to make other sacrifices, like reducing our urban density and likely driving up our CO2 emission in other ways, like our dependency on private vehicles. While there are high hopes that urban farming will help cities reduce their carbon emissions, the feasibility of it being implemented at a large enough scale will require that it is coupled with other existing strategies and investments. One area could be green infrastructure .

“There are lots of green spaces set aside in Auckland for things like parks, sport fields and flood mitigation, but they’re just generically ‘green’. We could do sustainable agriculture there and actually improve the soil quality and therefore improve carbon sequestration, reduce flood risk and also provide food to urban residents” Natasha notes. If a city already has a tree planting initiative, why not plant fruit trees?

In this approach, food production is a benefit of having more green urban spaces but not the main focus. By rolling out these programs as small enhancements to larger initiatives, cities and councils would require lower investment to kick off an urban agriculture project, and they’d be able to start gathering data needed to inform their decisions about when and how to do future projects to get the most out of them. 

“We shouldn’t over-promise,” says Natasha. “We should implement these programs in way that lets us study their real impact.” By adding urban agricultural projects into existing projects, cities can give themselves the opportunity to test ideas, gather data, and formulate plans. By helping to implement these programs with a focus on testable outcomes, we can help cities and councils figure out which initiatives would most effectively fight climate change before they invest more.

The benefits of urban farming may also expand beyond its direct influence on environmental footprint. Current research already tells us that when people grow their own food they are more aware and more engaged in climate issues and in their community. This is one more way that cities and councils could benefit from urban farming projects. Residents might even better see improvements in fitness and wellbeing in the process.

Cities have a huge number of conflicting priorities to consider, and climate change often takes a back seat to more pressing issues like housing shortages and congested transport networks. By integrating green thinking into already existing government initiatives, cities and councils can test, learn and improve their effectiveness in reducing environmental impacts.

Findings

  • Urban farming initiatives are positive, but may be overhyped. Growing food locally, has many benefits—like decreased food mileage and improved soil quality—but urban farming can’t stand alone as a strategy to fight climate change
  • A good place to start is to integrate urban farming into other larger infrastructure projects already being invested in and undertaken by cities.

This article was written by Keith Little, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Natasha Eichler
Natasha Eichler is a planner in our Auckland office.

Ask Natasha about:

  • Integrating urban farming into larger green infrastructure projects.
  • Rolling out projects with a focus on gathering data.
  • How growing their own food can help people engage with their environment and community.

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Research TEAM

Phil
Carter
Phil Carter in an Associate Principal working in cities and digital, based in our Auckland office.
Elizabeth
Halsted
Elizabeth is an urban and transport planner in our Auckland office.
Jaime
Gray
Jaime is an engineer in our Auckland office.
George
Alexander
George is a developer in our Auckland office

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