What is urban agriculture?

Wheelbarrows at Fenway Victory Gardens. PHOTO BY HALEIGH PATCH
Wheelbarrows at Fenway Victory Gardens. PHOTO BY HALEIGH PATCH

By Haleigh Patch

Urban agriculture is on the rise, but what exactly is it and who does it benefit?

Urban agriculture, or food production inside of a city, has grown by more than 30% in the past 30 years creating more opportunities for food sustainability. According to the FDA, food waste is estimated at between 30% and 40% of the food supply, yet there are still places that have a demand for vegetables. Urban gardening could be the key in reaching this demand and helping cities achieve self-sufficiency.

In Boston, the city passed Article 89 back in December of 2013 to support commercial urban farming in the city. According to Boston.gov, it now addresses a wide range of urban agriculture activities throughout Boston, most notably farming, and the goal is to bring the community together through farming and to give residents easy access to fresh food.

Regulations and requirements are determined by neighborhood. According to Interim Deputy Director for Downtown and Neighborhood Planning Kennan Rhyne, there are 10 farming projects that have been reviewed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency through the Article 89 Comprehensive Farm Review since 2013.

“Most of these farming projects are operated by the Urban Farming Institute,” says Rhyne, “Thats the most common one we see.”

There are multiple urban farms that include community gardens which are plots of land gardened by multiple people, residential gardens, which are private, and commercial gardens, which are maintained by farmers, along with community groups and other organizations that work together to help make urban farming a reality in Boston.

There are different types of farms or gardens that you can have in the city. There is hydroponics which is growing plants in nutrient-enriched water, an aquaponics farm that grows plants and fish or shellfish in nutrient-enriched water, rooftop farming that uses a rooftop to grow food as part of a profit or nonprofit company, freight farming which is using a steel storage box that’s repurposed for hydroponics or aquaponics, or any other innovative farming venture.

Boston offers support for people looking to start their own garden or organizations that need a little help There are multiple grants and microloans that people can apply for, along with training programs and business plans.

There are many advantages to urban agriculture including environmental benefits. According to Greenovate Boston, the average plate of food has traveled an average of 1,500 miles from where it was originally produced. This means a lot of carbon is burned to transport food all over the country, and from other countries as well.

By promoting urban agriculture, Boston is reducing its carbon footprint from “food emissions.” According to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Greg Watson, “we produce 5% to 10% of the food we consume and are dependent on climate change-vulnerable areas like California for the rest” in Massachusetts.

There are additional benefits from urban agriculture such as nutrition, along with physical and mental health. According to Lipid Resource Center, that aims to support health care professionals, working with plants outdoors benefits the mental health, mental outlook, and personal wellness of individuals. Urban agriculture also contributes to overall community health.

Hae-In Kim, deputy director at the Boston Mayor’s Office of Food Access, says with residential farming there are mental health advantages, but it also supplements their food budget and helps with financial flexibility, it also increases access to fresh fruits and vegetables. For farmers it is another way to be self-sustaining and to support the community. Most community gardens are areas officially designated as growing spaces. Most are run and owned by trustees of Massachusetts, who do a lot of the preservation and conservation work. The trustees provide a lot of support to help with long term sustainability.

However, there can be obstacles.  “Making sure that things make sense financially for both the farmers and the consumers, I think is a challenge,” says Kim.

Food production is not always the goal of urban agriculture. Sometimes it is about spreading health awareness, inspiring and exciting, and community building.

Zach Nowak a professor Harvard University who teaches a course in urban agriculture, says most urban gardens are more about people becoming a community. There are a lot of people who grow certain foods they brought from their home in new places trying to share a piece of them.

According to Nowak, some current trends regarding gardening are planting more perennials and fewer annuals so you get a lot more food in return and a lot less work. Perennial plants regrow every spring, while annual plants only live for only one growing season, then die off. Perennials include rhubarb, chives, asparagus, horseradish, kale, and artichokes. Some annual food plants include wheat, corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

There are multiple advantages of urban gardening that can be considered disadvantages as well and some people are not as optimistic about food sustainability.

“I personally think that if people think they are going to change the food system with a couple of garden plots in the city, it’s a fantasy,” says Nowak.


Some Boston residents may have residential gardens for their own personal use while there are also community gardens used to transport fresh produce to local restaurants or sell at farm stands. The Urban Farming Institute located in Mattapan manages seven farms in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan where it trains, educates and advocates for farming, along with growing and selling fresh produce.s

President and CEO Patricia Spence says that one of the main advantages of urban agriculture on top of food sustainability is community building. The biggest disadvantage is cost. She says it can be hard to maintain and do as much as you would like without the money.

“At the end of the day it all comes down to cost,” says Spence, “I think thats why there isn’t more urban farms.”

The Urban Farming Institute is a non-profit organization that relies on donations and grants they receive. According to Spence a lot of people have all these ideas on what they would like to do for urban farming but just do not have the money to do it.

One of the many contributions the farming institute does for the community is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is a production and marketing model where consumers buy shares of a farm’s harvest in advance. Consumers become CSA members by paying an agreed amount at the beginning of the growing season, either in one lump sum or in installments. Then in return, consumers receive a variety of freshly picked vegetables every week.

According to Spence, urban farming can help the environment in more ways than one.

“Not only does it help with reducing carbon emissions, it can also help with extreme heat,” says Spence, “this is one of those things that could go a long way if more people were aware of the benefits.”