During the Second World War, backyard victory gardens cropped up across America. These little back lots made a mammoth contribution to the war effort, growing up to 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables at a time when every morsel of food counted.
Modern urban farming has been compared to the wartime victory gardens. The comparison—and the claim urban farming can produce a significant amount of a city’s food need—may be overblown, but that doesn’t mean city farming isn’t having beneficial effects. In fact, when looked at closely, the amount of food urban farming produces is nowhere near as important as its other, less tangible effects.
Cities such as Detroit report urban farming in empty lots goes a long way to revitalizing a neighborhood. Farms and gardens are associated with an improved neighborhood appearance, an increased sense of community, and even less crime.
Socially, urban farming increases a sense of social bonds and community among those taking part in the farming. Few things bring a community together as much as tilling and tending the same soil.
Healthier Eating Habits
Despite the surplus of food the nation’s agricultural industry produces, many urban neighborhoods are so-called “food deserts,” where access to cheap, fresh produce is almost impossible. Urban farms won’t end food deserts, but the little rooftop gardens and empty lots do provide opportunity for neighborhood residents to acquire at least some fresh produce. If that access increases demand for fresh food, businesses will hopefully listen.
Urban farm advocates were optimistic urban farms would create jobs. While that hope seems unlikely to blossom, many cities are seizing the educational possibilities of urban farms, and using city gardens to teach kids about science and the environment, as well as sites for vocational skill training.
How much urban gardening affects the environment is open to debate. Vertical rooftop hydroponic gardens, for instance, can produce copious amounts of produce from a small growing area, but their environmental benefits are off-set by their energy consumption. Incorrect use of fertilizer and pesticides in empty lots can damage, rather than improve, the surrounding environment.
That said, there’s evidence a well-maintained urban farm has a positive effect on its surroundings. Plants help filter pollution from the air, and can cool neighborhoods in the heat of the summer. Gardens can also capture precipitation, reducing storm water runoff, and offer urban habitats for wild bees and other beneficial pollinators.
Increasing an Understanding of Food Production
Perhaps the greatest benefit of urban gardening is an increased understanding of how food is grown. Urban life can quickly separate us from the challenges and joys of growing our own food. Watching a bean plant thrive (or wither and die) reaffirms a city dweller’s connection to the land and the changing seasons.
So no, urban gardening is unlikely to feed the multitude in the near future, but don’t think for a minute that transforming an empty lot into a neighborhood farm isn’t still a worthwhile endeavor.