Agriculture in the city context

This post is by John Pham, a senior Biology major at the University of St. Thomas

As the populations grow and become more developed, people will tend to move close to urban environments bringing with it a myriad of issues such as microclimate changes, increase pollutions, and food deserts (Grimm et al. 2008). These problems, if left uncheck, only grow as the temperature rises, smog concentrations increase, and the population become more reliant on the limited selections of produce that are available to them. To combat these issues, urban agriculture has become a popular approach as a solution for many problems. Many locations have used urban agriculture before, such as Cuba, where they have had the majority of their caloric needs provided for by urban agriculture to feed its people. But for most cities, factors that throw communities off from urban agricultures are the stigma that comes with it, such as farms being dirty or a feeling of regressing to a less developed time. Therefore providing just food is not enough for cities to embrace the idea of putting farms into the cities, urban agriculture must also provide an economically sound plan, reduce the impacts on the environment, all while striving to better the community that surrounds it.

In successful urban agriculture plans, like the ones in Vietnam where they have greenhouses deep within the city or London where they produce and sell honey, with these there was a common theme within them. The successful plans were the ones that could provide profits and economical growth, without any economical value urban agriculture would not be sustainable. Urban agricultures are able to provide a bounty of profitability in methods giving values to vacant lots and by creating jobs. Vacant lots can be found in almost every city and some at high numbers, McPhearson found 7300 acres alone in New York City, these are all opportunities in which gardens or farms could be place while the land is not being used. To tend to these urban agriculture oppertuninties and for the farms to running at the maximum capacity they will need to create jobs to be filled by the people, the job creation will depend on how much one is willing to invest in the project but some have projected that the job creation from these urban agricultures could be, a study found that 4700 jobs could be created with the use of urban farms, this would then in turn generate $20 million in business taxes alone. The possibilities and opportunity for a profitable urban agriculture plan within a city is endless, but they will need a great plan to follow.

While being profitable, urban agriculture must also face the issue of reducing the enormous footprint they leave on the environment. In these major cities, it is estimated that 3%-8% of electricity demands are used to offset a city’s urban heat island effect, and this is energy and cost that could be used more efficiently. Urban agriculture is a method in which can be used to reduce these urban heat island effects and help make buildings more efficient. Rooftop farming is an example of one possible solution in which gardens are planted on top of rooftops to absorb the sunlight and heat. EPA has estimated that rooftop gardens would save about $200,000 in its lifetime, this while showing to reduced the urban heat island effect. People have been aware of raising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions, urban farms allow for people to reduce those numbers and cause an impact on the city that they all live in.

Urban Agricultures within the cities can be used to reduce greenhouse gasses in our cities, but they will also need the support of the communities. Without community support an urban farm risk the destruction and vandalism of its own people. But this would not be the case for all urban agricultures, as some have been shown to reduce crime rates (McPhearson 2014). It also gives the community a sense of value within the city as Amanda Lovelee, coordinator of the Urban Flower Field in MN, stated that the people would tell her they would watch over the field when she’s not around. This sense of value is what helps keep a community together and prevents them from mistreating the environment that it is in.

In conclusion, urban agriculture within a city will always be a challenge to implement due to various circumstances. Though the benefits that come from implementing such agricultures surely outweigh the cons, from the creation of jobs and more profitable methods in which we use vacant lots, to creating a more environmentally friendly and efficient city, to helping the community as a whole. Urban agriculture is a viable method that could be used within the city.

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Hot Outside? Plant some Bean Seeds!

The author of this post is Michael Chmielewski, a junior Biology major at the University of St. Thomas.

When I was in grade school, I remember growing beans in small amounts of soil contained in Dixie cups. Add the right amount of soil, water, place the germinating plant in the sun, and voila—up came a tiny sprout, which eventually matured into a full-grown bean plant. I remember being captivated by this seemingly miraculous process of lifelessness giving way to life in a matter of a few short weeks. Yet, as we grow older, to where does this awe recede? Many urbanites buy food at giant supermarkets, largely without knowing (or maybe even caring) where such bounty originated and how it was produced.

Green bean sprouts

Green bean sprouts

Growing produce for consumption is certainly no trivial process. Just like the bean plants, agricultural products require the right formula of nutrients, light, soil, and temperature to thrive and make it onto our plates. And in a world progressively compromised by issues such as environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, unprecedented human population increase, and the necessity for doubling global food production in just 35 years (Foley et al., 2011), employing sustainable agricultural methods has become all the more difficult—and necessary.

But before we throw up our hands in despair, consider this: steps are being taken globally to ameliorate these seemingly insurmountable issues; there is hope amidst the bleakness. Take urban agriculture— it reconnects the producer and consumer by contributing to local food markets, and may hold profound implications for the sustainable agriculture movement (Ladner, 2011). Let’s focus on a specific aspect of urban agriculture that may especially flourish in city environments: season extension due to the urban heat island effect.

Urban agriculture

Urban agriculture

The urban heat island effect, or the warming of a city environment as a result of anthropogenic activity, is commonly viewed as a deleterious impact of city life. The temperature in a city of 1 million inhabitants will have an average temperature 2°C warmer than adjacent rural areas, which can have compromising effects on human health, including heat stroke, hyperthermia, and increased mortality rates (U.S. EPA).

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

But while such warming may bring about injurious effects to city-dwellers, studies have shown that urban agriculture may benefit from the urban heat island effect.  Growing seasons may be increased by approximately 7-8 days in urban environments due to elevated temperature and higher atmospheric carbon concentrations (Roetzer et al., 2000; White et al., 2002; Ziska et al., 2003; Zhang et al., 2004). And where there is a longer growing season, there is also more produce, higher profitability (Galinato and Miles, 2011), and potentially greater carbon fixation—all of which could contribute to enhanced agricultural sustainability.

Sure, these benefits are appealing, but what about ameliorating the urban heat island effect? Even more, what if we could use this excess heat to prolong the growing season, while simultaneously cooling the adjacent urban environment? While it may sound too good to be true, studies inform that this may indeed be plausible. Urban greening has been cited as a means by which surrounding temperatures may be decreased in a city (Bowler et al., 2010), and if this is true, urban agriculture may also contribute to this phenomenon. Just think—we may be able to benefit from a problem while concurrently contributing to its solution!

As I was captivated by the bean seeds giving way to flourishing life in elementary school, so might this realization contribute to again instilling an appreciation for agriculture—especially when it may contribute to the greater well-being of urbanites.  As innovative humans, we can optimize environments (man-made or not) to meet our food production needs while minimizing the deleterious effects of current global agriculture. In this case, using the seemingly detrimental, anthropogenic urban heat island effect to augment temperature regulation may serve to enhance urban agricultural production, and garner newfound appreciation for the food that ends up on our plates. In a world faced with unprecedented global sustainability issues, urban agriculture may contribute to part of the sustainable solution—one bean sprout at a time.

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Recycling water through greywater systems

The author of this post is Angela Tipp, a senior Biology major at the University of St. Thomas.

Currently irrigated agriculture around the world is estimated at using 70% of the worlds freshwater, however, with the growing population, food yields will have to double by 2050 increasing the demand for water drastically (Ray et al., 2013). It is calculated that by 2025 around 800 million people will live in water scarcity (Greenwood et al., 2009). There has also been an increase in megadroughts and other severe storm patterns due to global warming and changing climates. This raises a problem in urban areas where there is an increase in impermeable surfaces due to concrete and compacted soil (Lye et al., 2009). In order to help combat a shortage in water new practices need to be implemented. It only makes sense that these practices start in urban areas where populations are high and the need for water is at its greatest.

Although rainwater catchment systems have been created for cities with the ability to collect ample amounts of water that can be used for watering gardens and potentially for drinking water, I will not focus on it. Rainwater catchment systems are a great way to collect water and save it, but there seem to be problems with rooftop runoff (i.e. heavy metals and bacteria). More research needs to be conducted to find a user-friendly way of collecting healthy rainwater in urban areas. Being so, I believe there is a better and bigger option available for saving and recycling water. Recently the topic of greywater has caught the attention at a large-scale and small-scale level; again I will focus on small scale in urban environments. Generally greywater (waste water from washer machines, dishwashers, and showers) is mixed with wastewater (from toilets) and is brought to a treatment plant. The wastewater/greywater mixture is then sent through four treatments before it is later transported and used for irrigation (Matos et al., 2014). The option that has been brought forth by Matos et al. looks into a simpler greywater treatment system that can be done at your own house (Matos et al., 2014). This system would potentially collect greywater straight from your house (or only from your laundry machine or a combination of other greywater sources) to the treatment area, which would need two to three treatments and then could be used for garden and grass irrigation in your lawn. This system can also be implemented at places like golf courses that use a large amount of water to irrigate their lands.Angela 1 2

When looking into energy consumption and CO2 emissions, Matos et al. found that the centralized wastewater system (WWCRS) tends to use more energy and generally releases more CO2 to the environment than a decentralized greywater treatment system (GWDRS) (Matos et al., 2014).

Not only does this reduce environmental impacts and recycle water at your own house, it can protect you from future droughts, drastically reduce the amount of overall water you are using at your house, and reduce the costs you have to pay for water usage.

Due to California’s drought and drastic water restrictions reaching a current 20% reduction of water usage, CA has been leading in finding ways to reduce and reuse water with the help of greywater activist Laura Allen. Allen has made easy and cheap systems for urban families to use and collect water from showers and laundry at their own house. More on the greywater activist Allen can be found at:
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Greywater treatment is a system that can be easily implemented today with the right tools. It will help reduce the use of energy and release of CO2 as compared to the traditional wastewater treatment plan and reduce the amount of water used in a house by recycling a large quantity of water. In the future it would greatly help with water shortage if this greywater system were implemented on a large-scale (i.e. wastewater treatment plants split waste water and greywater with different filtration systems reducing energy use and CO2 emissions among other benefits) for rural agriculture. This implementation would need a large sum of money, though, in order to split the greywater and wastewater treatments.

More information on CA municipal recycled water:

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The Green Side of Urban Agriculture

The author of this post is Taylor Schuweiler, a junior Biology and Environmental Science major at the University of St. Thomas.

In addition to expanding food production to help meet the needs of a growing population, urban agriculture has many other benefits. Urban agriculture has the potential to help offset environmental changes that have been caused by urbanization such as carbon emissions and nutrient cycling imbalance. In addition to providing people with fresh and local food, urban agriculture provides an opportunity to address environmental problems within our cities and try to improve our urban ecosystem.

Due to the large amount of transportation and industry that comes along with urbanization, cities are point sources of CO2. The top 20 largest cities in the U.S. produce more CO2 than the entire land area of the continental United States can even absorb (Grimm et al. 2008). This startling production of CO2 from cities is a concern as urban areas continue to grow. Urban agriculture has the potential to help with these concerns. Urban agriculture can help reduce net CO2 emissions by bringing food production and markets to the same location.

Taylor 1 1Minnesota is making the move to local agriculture. In Minnesota alone, there are 176 farmers markets selling local produce and other locally made products! In addition to farmers markets, urban farms such as Stone’s Throw ( are popping up around the Twin Cities that can reduce food transportation from thousands of miles to just a few blocks. By reducing the great distances that produce often travels, we are able to reduce transportation emissions (Deelstra and Girardet 2000).

In addition to the carbon emissions coming from our cities, it is important to keep in mind the nutrients we may be losing as well. In modern urban areas, nutrient cycling is not a circular process but rather a straight flow in and out of the city. Resources are continually funneled through cities with little thought as to where they are coming from or where they are going. This unsustainable nutrient cycle can be improved by urban agriculture through the recycling of food waste and water waste (Ackerman et al. 2014, Deelstra and Girardet 2000). Urban agriculture provides the opportunity for recycling food waste for use in compost which keeps the nutrients within the urban environment.

Taylor 1 2People in the Twin Cities are beginning to make the push for food recycling. Currently the United States only recycles about 3% of its food waste. In effort to improve that, Eureka Recycling has begun a zero-waste movement focused on bringing composting to St. Paul to reduce food waste (  The goal of the plan is to offer composting services to all St. Paul residents, either curbside or backyard, so that St. Paul may recycle or compost 75% of its waste. If all residents in St. Paul were to have access to food waste composting, we would be able to close the nutrient cycling and produce a large amount of nutrient-rich dirt to use for urban agriculture.

Together, the small environmental problems that urban areas face build up and put strain on urban ecosystems. Urban agriculture can help provide solutions to these problems and improve urban environments in addition to producing food for a growing population.

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Urban Agriculture: A Global Solution to Food Insecurity

This post is by Anisa Abdulkadir, a senior Biology major at the University of St. Thomas.

Currently, an estimated 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban cities (United Nations, 2014). This percentage is estimated to increase with growing urbanization. Consequently, city dwellers are no longer in touch with food production. Food travels extremely long distances, an estimated 1500 miles in the U.S before it arrives in grocery stores (Grewal & Grewal, 2012).

Bok choy on a 30-feet circulating A-frame in Singapore.

Bok choy on a 30-feet circulating A-frame in Singapore.

Although some may view it as a hippie trend, urban farming is proving to be a pragmatic method to solving food issues. Worldwide, a growing number of urban residents are turning to urban agriculture as a sustainable method of food production, bringing the farm closer to home.

For centuries, individuals and communities have been growing food in cities, leading to improved food security. A significant amount of urban farmers are producing food, which accounts for about 15-20 percent of the global food production (Milica, 2014).

Urban dwellers around the world are utilizing empty lots, backyards, and rooftops for food production. From Argentina to Japan, urban agriculture is playing an important role in food security. Some governments support urban food production (e.g. Argentina) and supply individuals with city lots to farm; while other governments are restricting urban farming for various reasons leading to the illegal farming on city owned land (e.g. Zimbabwe). Regardless, urban citizens all around the world are grasping the importance of food security and are willing to do anything to bring the farm closer to the city.

Some countries are utilizing an innovative approach to re-introduce farming to cities. For example, in Singapore, engineers have developed the world’s first commercial vertical farm to meet Singapore’s goals of food self-reliance (Krishnamurthy, 2015). These scaling “A” shaped vertical gardens are proving to be a feasible method of food production and a source of locally produced food.

On the other hand, Switzerland is taking another approach to produce food within the city. Using soil-less farming, the Swiss are utilizing aquaponics to produce vegetables and fish simultaneously. Roman Gaus and Andreas Graber have created rooftop aquaponics systems, which uses less water than traditional farming and no soil (Innovative Switzerland). By harnessing this relationship between plants and vegetables, they are able to produce tons of food and eliminate chemical fertilizers from food production.

While innovation may stimulate urban agriculture, in some countries, it emerged due to a lack of food on a national scale. Cuba is a prime example. Due to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost a major trade partner. Almost overnight, 2.2 million Cubans lost access to food (Clouse, 2014). To overcome this crisis, the Cuban government implemented a sustainable farming method. Residents used rural and urban land to produce millions of tons of food improving food access. Even to this day, Cuban national continue to farm urban land and ensure food reaches their tables.

Developing and developed alike, urban residents worldwide are utilizing urban space to subdue food insecurity. They are devising methods to grow food in their city homes by any means necessary. Governments and citizens alike are contributing to bring the farm closer to urban residents by implementing novel and traditional farming methods within the city.

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Farming What Works

The author of this post is UST senior Nick Cipoletti. The post is an assignment for BIOL 490 – Biology of Urban Agriculture. 

What remains crucial to the health of the global ecosystem is feeding the developing urban areas sustainably as they are projected to contain 95% of the global population growth (Grimm et al. 2008). It is often easy to provide a check-list of potential solutions when examining the potential to provide fresh produce to city settings through urban agriculture: install community gardens, reinforce industrial roofs to support rooftop aquaponic systems, or simply grow food on vacant lots. While these, among other, possibilities would assist in relieving the hunger found in food deserts in many urban areas, there needs to be further location specific solutions. So often it is the case that an individual finds a new technology or solution to a problem followed by uneducated statements claiming that their fix should be employed globally. Unfortunately for the practice of urban agriculture, there is not a one size fits all solution for each global urban area. Rather the potential to develop malleable solutions must be the central focus, installations that demonstrate change in response to location, climate, local food needs, and other urban agriculture parameters. Doing what works best for each region is more crucial than attempting to employ large scale semi-efficient solutions.

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, NY grows produce on 2.5 acres of commercial rooftop space

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, NY grows produce on 2.5 acres of commercial rooftop space

The local needs of a community or region must be addressed when examining the proper methods by which to establish urban agriculture. Thus the real struggle with urban agriculture, in whatever form it takes, is adapting best management practices to maximize both the profitability and resilience. In Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, urban agriculture was necessary to feed the country’s residents while also providing work for its inhabitants. Cuba farmed out of necessity and learned to adapt by growing food in nearly every urban vacant space, not only providing for their people but also doing so sustainably with minimal environmental impacts (Clouse, 2014). In Cleveland, Grewal & Grewal (2012) demonstrated that by adapting the most beneficial urban ag practices (a combination of vacant lot farming, personal lot farming, and commercial rooftop farming) to the area, the city can generate somewhere between 4.2%-17.7% (by weight) of its total food needs. Examples exist all across the world, bringing food to impoverished areas while acting in accordance with the resources and the location specific parameters. The Brooklyn Grange (pictured) grows food on 2.5 acres of rooftop in Brooklyn, NY. By producing local food the farm is able to feed the cities inhabitants while also absorbing city storm water to

Urban Organics, St. Paul, MN grows both produce and fish in an old brewery through aquaponics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, MN grows both produce and fish in an old brewery through aquaponics

lighten the load on the sewer infrastructure. By using the available space, what little exists in New York, the rooftops can be productive for multiple groups: citizens, the economy, and the sewer system. More locally Urban Organics (pictured) in St. Paul, MN takes advantage of indoor growing to avoid the unproductive winter season through aquaponics in which produce is grown with just 2% of the water necessary for conventional agriculture (Shemkus, 2014). By taking advantage of old/adandoned real estate and filling the existing markets with local and fresh produce, cities and local organizations such as Urban Organics and the Brooklyn Grange are capable of thriving based on location-specific demands to the urban agriculture market.


Urban agriculture has the potential to work in all city settings, be it through indoor growing, rooftop gardens, greenhouses, or some combination of other innovative production avenues. As described by Ackerman et al. (2014), cities have one of the highest potentials for agriculture due to the value which inhabitants place on the land. City dwellers recognize that land is a premium in urban settings, and by seeking to maximize the output of all land through agricultural innovation, cities can achieve higher levels of productivity as well as economic gain. Through an approach aimed at developing solutions that can be molded to meet the needs of specific locations, urban agriculture can play a more central role in providing nourishment to the majority of the world’s inhabitants.

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Can organic agriculture feed the world?

This post is an assignment for BIOL 490 – Biology of Urban Agriculture. The author is UST junior Parker Hewes.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

As humanity’s population expands exponentially, food is one common good that will always be required. Despite the availability of a McDonald’s on every New York street corner, food is not so common in many countries of the world. Currently, a billion people are chronically malnourished; bluntly, starving (Foley et al. 2011). With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, food production must double in order to sustain our rapid expansion (Foley et al. 2011). While increasing production by maximizing crop yields (intensification) and increasing cropland area (extensification) are inevitably required, reducing food waste, changing diet, refining sustainable technologies, and improving the quality of food are also vitally important for the sustainability and nourishment of our world and species. One proposed solution points to organic agriculture.

Parker 1 2Organic agriculture contends with conventional agriculture in regards to waste management, biodiversity retention, soil nutrition, and overall environmental impacts. Although the organic market has been gaining popularity among wealthy consumers, the concerns with organic farming seem to have been lost with all the hype. Namely, in regards to the global food crisis, the feasibility of organic agriculture is questioned. Even though the organic method may seem viable on a local scale, agricultural solutions should be targeting global impacts (Markowski et al. 2014). It is easy to support organic practices that seem practical at a small scale since starvation is often far removed from the areas where organic agriculture is thriving. However, when applying these methods on a global scale, a more in-depth investigation is required. Consequently, while organic farming presents a more sustainable approach to agriculture, some say that it may be most effective as a fringe activity for the wealthy, occupying only a fraction of worldwide production (dePonti et al. 2012).

Granted, if organic methods make a significant impact on even the smallest of scales, there must be some transferability toward a worldwide solution. Organic techniques such as composting, drip irrigation, crop rotation, increasing cropland biodiversity, and restricting pesticide and herbicide use significantly benefit environmental aspects that conventional agriculture has exploited (Cavigelli et al. 2013). Through organic agriculture, we have seen a significant decrease in soil runoff, soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, water and nutrient waste, biodiversity loss, and overall environmental impact (Pimentel et al. 2005). Consequently, the general public sees that a healthier, locally grown crop has been produced and is willing to pay higher prices for the “freshness and quality” of organic products. Since organic agriculture is still developing, the demand for these products enables inflated prices compared to the products of supersized agribusinesses. But what would happen if organic agriculture began replacing conventional farmland?

Considering yield statistics alone, if global agriculture shifted to primarily organic methods, the demands of an exponentially increasing population would require even greater efforts to intensify and expand production. The average yield of organic crops is 80% of the average conventional yield (dePonti et al. 2012). Furthermore, pesticides and herbicides success increases, the yield gap between conventional and organic agriculture increases, since organic methods have fewer successful methods for pest and disease control. Consequently, organic agriculture must occupy more land in order to account for the gap. Also, since we must see a 100% increase in food production by 2050 and projected conventional agriculture yields do not meet this criteria (Ray et al. 2013), the land requirement to increase organic yields is even greater. Finally, if the land used for human crops increases, the land used for livestock and for growing their feed must decrease. If a dietary shift does not happen voluntarily, it will be a necessity under organic agriculture’s rule (dePonti et al. 2012). And since organic agriculture relies on manure for natural fertilization, as livestock production decreases, that manure will soon become a limiting variable (Connor et al. 2013).

In order to sustain ecosystem services and our expanding population, decreasing environmental impacts must be emphasized as much as improving yields. By creating a hybridized method that includes the successes of each method, a temporary solution may be applicable. With organic agriculture’s environmental prowess and conventional agriculture’s elimination of pests and diseases, the methods that are already present in agriculture may provide the knowledge for future advancement. Albeit, extensive research is required to motivate the necessary technological and educational advances, but each small improvement in food production is a step towards global food security. With a unified, global effort, these efforts will maximize our impact for the world and minimize our impact on it.

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