England in the 18th and 19th century was a beating heart of activity, much of it illicit, some transformative. The launch of the Industrial Revolution was sparked by these and other factors, but a key theme evident throughout it’s history is the redistribution and reallocation of power in ever fewer hands for the sake of increasing efficiency. With that process came a few firm societal divisions: one could work in cities or the country side, each with their associated costs and perils. To work the land required capital for farming and the enclosure of land, offering both a financial and literal barrier to entry that drove many to factory work. The perils of the worker are well-noted, with the depressing reality noted with the Marxist theory defined during the mid-19th century generating enormous support in Sinclair’s turn of the century novel about factory workers in Chicago, The Jungle. But less conceptually prevalent in the mainstream is the acknowledgement of that divide, one that we must choose to cultivate in the countryside or create in the capitals. It prompts one to ask: why not both?
Humans need food, and humans are now urban dwellers, with an estimated 66% of the population forecasted to be living in urban areas by 2050. Urban agriculture, defined as the growth, processing and distribution of food in and around cities to feed local populations, has been touted as the future of agriculture by community planners and skyscraper architects for years. The evidence is all around – community gardens and even growing vegetables in one’s backyard are common practices, some artisanal and others for reasons more fundamental to the food security of a region. But as we look to meet the Sustainable Development Goals laid out at the turn of the century, what sort of role does urban agriculture play in addressing the common problems we face as a species moving into tomorrow?
The short answer is that it’s role is already being played; more than 800M people the world over practice urban agriculture (UA), with a statistically notable percentage of practitioners operating in the developing world. Current UA practices include working on vacant lots, community gardens, balconies, greenhouses and indoor farms, which fit into the categories of controlled environment agriculture (where environmental conditions are controlled; greenhouses and vertical farming are examples) and uncontrolled urban agriculture (where environmental factors are not controlled, as is the case in community gardens and rooftops farms). UA has been identified as a potential solution to address four different sustainable development goals (ending poverty, ending hunger, ensuring sustainable consumption patterns and sustainable resource management), and currently uncontrolled urban agricultural systems are far more prevalent than controlled for predictable reasons of cost and infrastructure limitations.
A 2015 UN Brief outlined that UA would require roughly 1/3 of total urban area to meet the global vegetable consumption of the current urban population. That is substantial – opponents of UA also state that each comes with risks. Uncontrolled environment agriculture can lead to excess nitrogen leaching into water systems or the spread of botanical disease. Controlled environmental agriculture, while less resource intensive than any other form of agriculture, is often simply too cost-intensive to be taken seriously. Building a $248M skyscraper and attempting to generate profits through the sales of cash crops is an idea that would give any accountant a measure of pause.
Policy-types can argue that regular farming also heavily subsidized, and the societal benefits of agriculture can provide non-monetary benefits that governments should support. But the true impediment to it’s growth may be the question of increasing efficiency at a quick enough pace to lower costs. Questions of land rights also emerge: is it efficient for a planner to allocate the finite resource of urban land towards farming, or increasing housing to keep costs lower for a growing population? Any individualized cost-benefit analysis will need to factor in the unknown variables of a changing climate and water stresses as well to understand what the explicit and implicit costs of investing in UA may have.
The Industrial Revolution reshaped the globe when power became concentrated and efficiency paramount. We sit now on the edge of the precipice dug by our predecessors working towards these very objectives. Perhaps letting a little more natural back into our cities would be a step towards reclaiming that old mindset – or perhaps it’s precisely that thinking that got us there in the first place. Either way, only one thing is clear – No rose comes without thorns, whether they grow from windswept fields or concrete jungles.