Urban Farms: Bad Idea?

Urban farming in places like Detroit (and elsewhere) has gotten a lot of good press, this blog included.

But the author of this piece, Richard Longworth says we shouldn’t necessarily be praising urban farming, but instead seeing it as a symptom of how far some cities have fallen. (We’ve written about Longworth, and his work at the Chicago Council’s Global Midwest Initiative before.) His suggestion? Better grocery options for central-city neighborhoods, including big box retailers like Wal-Mart.

Reading Longworth’s post reminded me of a speech I heard at last year’s GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange) conference in Cleveland. The speaker, from the Genesee County (Flint) Landbank, said some in the urban planning community mistakenly might assume inner city residents are always enthusiastic about having an urban farm in their neighborhood. This isn’t necessarily true though, she pointed out. Some residents who migrated to Flint (or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever) came from a background of being rural sharecroppers in the South. A sizeable number of folks in the Flint community she dealt with were not enthused about farming in their neighborhoods, they wanted where they lived to feel like a city. 

What do you think?



Filed under Featured, Green Jobs, Real Estate, sprawl, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

18 responses to “Urban Farms: Bad Idea?

  1. I like urban farms in cases where they’ve been located thoughtfully on appropriate sites, especially if it’s something the community itself has asked for and plans to use.

    But for the reasons stated above, I hate seeing them used as an excuse to fill in empty spaces and try to paper over economic, infrastructural or social holes in a particular landscape; I haven’t seen many firsthand but it strikes me as the sort of thing that would look like Blight 2.0 to residents who weren’t prepared for it, or had no plans to participate in gardening the land in question.

    Still, in the grand scheme of things, I’ll admit the most severely blighted cities might not have better options for an empty parcel of land in a dying neighborhood.

  2. Chris Spence

    They’re better than blight, but not as good as a business that brings in jobs and wealth. It’s a sad reality that the best use for some urban land is argricultural, but I’d rather have land maintained than derelict.

  3. schmange

    There’s no problem with urban farms, in my opinion, as long as we’re not developing greenfields 15 miles away at the same time. If we are, that just shows how backwards our development and land use policies are. It wastes resources and worsens inequality.

    Urban farms aren’t bad in themselves. But they don’t address the underlying problem of the abandonment of our cities. Would the resources be better spent preparing land for development and luring occupants? And how would that cost compare? I think that is something our communities should be considering. Why is this land fallow in the first place and what would it take to make it attractive to developers again?

  4. Special K

    Good points, all.

    I would also add that not all urban farms are created equal. Growing Power in Milwaukee (pictured above) has been highlighed as one that works within the local community, grows a variety of produce and trains local youths and gives them job skills.

  5. Urban farms must be legitimate businesses with real plans for revenue, employment, and growth. I have worked in community development for years in St. Louis, MO and I can attest to the anxiety many residents have about urban gardens and farms. They don’t want the vacant buildings and they don’t want the community garden. Most of the time, urban gardens produce new venues for the performance of whatever hierarchy already existed. The truth is, most of the examples of urban farms are actually just glorified gardens, with the outposts being named such because founders believe it appropriates greater meaning (they are, of course, fooling themselves). I had a meeting a few weeks ago with someone that predicted growing cotton was going to become a game-changer for urban areas – she dismissed me when I noted that traditionally under-served communities have an uneasy relationship with that crop. People need to be realistic, and they need to be starting agricultural projects that are born of real need and created to stabilize the community.

    The fact is, community development and revitalization strategies must be rooted in creating jobs and building skills – as well as reframing what cities are responsible for delivering to residents. We also need to encourage the permanence of urban farms, working to ensure that they are not merely transitional spaces – but an ongoing dynamo for the immediate community, strength, and identity. An urban farm that creates skilled jobs, has an added-value component, and desires to remain in a neighborhood is a powerful tool for development. Yes, their accomplishments have been limited, and they can require heavy subsidization, but, as a substantive response to food insecurity and vacancy, there may not be a better alternative. If large-scale urban farms can deliver a better quality of life, then we need to start thinking with a greater agricultural ambition.

  6. schmange

    I don’t mean to be too negative about this, but the other thing to point out is urban farms are a great big goose egg for the community in terms of property tax revenues. Also, I question the value of training kids for farm jobs in a globalizing, information based economy.

  7. Can anyone imagine a Walmart in a place like central Detroit or Gary? Large corporate grocers tend to not want to take chances on these areas. This why you have so many corner stores in distressed inner cites and so many food deserts.

    I’d like to hear more about the people in Flint who did not care for the idea of urban farms.


    Great comments and insight. It’s a shame that so often inner city resident’s desires and aspirations are left out of the conversation. Cotton? SMDH…

    • schmange

      Actually, we have a Wal-Mart in inner city Cleveland. The suburban style development is on a former steel mill and it is doing fantastic thanks to the high density surrounding it. Before it was there, the developer said Clevelanders spent almost $1 billion per year shopping in the suburbs. Now that money stays in the city. I think it is a big win. But some people aren’t happy about it.

  8. Anon

    If human progress was gathering->farming->industry->information, then this is two steps backwards. Maybe stealing copper is gathering, so we’ve regressed completely.

    I’ve had the thoughts expressed in this article over the last few years. I love vegtables and gardens as much as anyone, but this isn’t going to create much wealth for the people in these neighborhoods.

    Farming has been a low-margin, shrinking and consolidating industry for a century. It requires federal subsidies to be profitable even for corporate megafarms.

  9. Anon

    Walmarts do phenomenally well anywhere there is a poor population. Low income people want cheap stuff, and Walmart has it.

    There is a Walmart in Gary and one in Dearborn (probably because Dearborn could offer a bigger tax credit).

  10. Thanks for citing my article — and thanks for these balanced responses. Let me expand a bit on what I had in mind:

    I’ve got no objection to urban farms or other forms of small or local farming, because any source of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in the food deserts of Detroit and too many other cities, is better than nothing. But for the reason cited above, they’re no panacea.

    What we need is a vibrant economy and the good jobs and salaries that will bring in good groceries. That’s the real long-term solution. But in the meantime, what can we do? That’s where Wal-Mart (or any other big supermarket chain) comes in. Increasingly, these stores are seeking locations in cities — although not in the poorest sections of cities where they are most needed. Wal-Mart in particular faces political opposition, because of its well-known personnel and other practices.

    My suggestion is to make a deal with the devil. Let Wal-Mart locate a superstore in a city, as it wishes — but require it to open a number of smaller stores in food deserts, all well stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and wrapped meats. The city could give Wal-Mart the space (most of these neighborhoods have long-vacant retail space, much of it off the tax rolls), but Wal-Mart would have to commit to staying for, say, 10 years or so, and would have to run regular food and nutrition classes for local residents. Also, it couldn’t charge more than at its superstore.

    Who knows, they might make some money. And local residents would have a handy source of decent food.

  11. “although not in the poorest sections of cities where they are most needed.”

    Which is why Gary, Detroit, East Cleveland, and other hardest hit areas are food deserts.

  12. Pete

    Couple brief thoughts…

    -Sharecropping is not the same as urban farming.
    -Isn’t it preferable to have a locally owned supermarket in an intercity that keeps the money there? Why not shoot for that before turning to walmart for our salvation. They operate by the same principle as the industries that left rust belt cities – that is produce where it is cheapest and sell where it is most profitable.
    -I think it is a mistake to assume that we can leave food behind us. Most people know nothing about food which is problematic. The progression from gathering->farming->industry->information seems mistaken to me. Intelligent farming should be used in every stage of economic development.
    -Teaching youth to participate in knowledge economy is good. But so is teaching youth to make healthy choices.
    -Urban Ag is blowing up. Best practices will spread and make it prettier and more viable.

    Urban farming could be a luddite’s dream. Or it could coexist with other economies.

  13. In more positive news: A grocery store is coming to Youngstown’s Fosterville neighborhood, one of the area’s worst food deserts. Construction should be starting soon.

  14. Chris McDonnell

    One aspect of Urban Farming that deserves consideration is that unless on-site stormwater management practices are being utilized, it can be bad for the water quality of water resources. Farming requires the use of many chemicals. In rural areas, stormwater runoff carrying these chemicals usually percolates into soils surrounding the farm. In the case of urban farms, the impervious surfaces surrounding the farm serves as a conduit sending this polluted runoff directly into our storm sewers, and ultimately into our lakes and streams. In the Lake Erie basin, this chemical runoff issue is already a large problem and is the chief reason Lake Erie gets that terrible toxic algae bloom every summer. If one or two people are doing this, its not exactly a big issue. But if urban farms were to become popular, especially in NEO, this would have to be taken under serious consideration.

  15. J Thompson

    I’d like to remind those with the notion that urban agriculture is a sign of a city in utter decay that most paragon examples of modern cities living and progressing towards sustainability are ones with urban agriculture built into their city land use plans; such as Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, as well as Toronto and Vancouver, BC.

    Though many derelict cities have turned to urban agriculture for remediation, most often temporarily until other businesses take hold with the added visual and social improvements incited by the gardens and farmers markets attached to them, they are most definitely an indicator of sophistication, rather than degeneration. In this case, when most is destroyed by the industry many are still crying for, beautify and life will take hold and start anew.

  16. glen murray

    Urban farms, and any other activities that promote resilience and diversity of cities are a good idea.
    18th century Paris produced most of it’s fruits and vegetables within the city limits: http://www.chelseagreen.com/content/history-of-winter-gardening-the-17th-century-french-garden-system/

  17. Urban Farms are a great idea. I grew up in Cleveland and still have family that lives 5 minutes from downtown. The city has really deteriorated over the past 30-40 years and the lack of quality jobs and migration to the suburbs has accelerated the cities decline. Many of the food stores followed the migration to suburbia and what is left is fast food and liquor stores, quite the choice. Urban Farming will give people the chance to produce healthy alternatives to McDonalds and can provide a means to earn additional income and farming skills. One of my co-workers moved to the US from Europe a few years ago and in discussing the differences between the two she mentioned what a waste all the yards were here because they are full of grass instead of vegetables and she was shocked at the amount of water that we use to maintain our lush lawns. She made some very good points! If every city were to adopt some type of Urban Farming we could cut down on our dependence of foreign oil (oil is needed for transportation and production)and create healthier food alternatives for people living in inner cities. How can growing vegetables be a bad idea for our country?

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