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.


About Adam Kay

I study urban ecology and urban agriculture
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