The World Health Organization reported that in 2014, more than half of the total population of the planet lived in urban areas. While there are differences in the proportion of the populations that live in towns and cities between developing and developed countries, the WHO also predicts that in just three years time, by 2017, even in less developed countries where traditionally rural populations have been bigger, more than half of citizens will reside in urban locations. Feeding all those people is going to become increasingly difficult if we rely solely on traditional methods of food production – namely cultivating and harvesting food from rural areas and transporting in to urban locales.
One way of reducing the pressure on rural arable land is to actually grow food in the cities themselves. There are, of course, unique challenges to doing so – often a lack of space and securing enough sunlight amid the high rise buildings of city environments – but with innovative solutions and community dedication, as well as political will, it is eminently possible to grow fruit and vegetables, raise animals and even keep bees in urban areas. Indeed, it is already happening. In 2011 San Francisco passed city zoning legislation to allow agricultural activity in all areas of the city and redefined the parameters by which producers could sell their goods, making the local economy for small-scale producers boom. It is already reaping the benefits that growing food in cities brings, and these are all benefits that dovetail with the aims and principles of permaculture.
Urban agriculture can help bring communities together. Many schemes are community driven, and the produce is shared among local families. It gives communities a common shared goal and activity, one in which their efforts are rewarded at the same time as doing good for others. Community gardens and farms can become the centerpiece of neighborhoods. Urban gardening can also stimulate local economies, with consumers buying produce from small-scale producers, and the money remaining within the local area, rather than being siphoned off by multinational companies.
The location of urban agriculture sites can also provide education opportunities for children. It can prove prohibitively expensive to organize a school trip to a rural farm, but with urban farms often in their neighborhoods, schools can introduce children to food production and help them get a sense of where food comes from. Schools themselves can even start cultivation! Urban agriculture can also provide beneficial activities to other groups in society that are sometimes marginalized, such as giving ex-offenders opportunities to learn skills, and provide disabled people with means to get involved.
Reduce Food Miles
Growing food in the city means that the produce is being cultivated close to those who are going to consume it. This drastically reduces the food miles that go into the production of the edible produce. Food miles refers to the energy costs of food production, and includes the fossil fuels used to transport the produce to market – which can in some cases of modern industrial food production involve intercontinental travel – and the energy and water costs involved in harvesting, processing and packaging the food.
Fresh and Seasonal
Eating locally produced food also means that people are eating food at its freshest. The time between harvest and consumption is kept to a minimum, meaning that the food retains the maximum amount of flavor and the most nutrients. Urban farming also encourages people to eat seasonally. Too often consumers have got used to supermarkets providing all varieties of fruit and vegetables all year round. This means, however, that for much of the year, those varieties are imported, often from halfway round the world, adding to the environmental cost of transportation. Eating seasonally allows people to get in touch with the natural rhythms of the Earth and appreciate the variety of produce that changes throughout the year.
Having more plants in an urban area provides many benefits to the location. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and other noxious gases, while emitting oxygen as part of the photosynthesis process; so having more plants helps to increase air quality. This is also achieved by plant foliage filtering dust and debris from the air, which can be particularly useful in areas with high traffic density and thus greater emissions. Plants, particularly trees, can also mediate microclimates to improve living conditions. They can provide shade not only for people but also for buildings. Proximity to buildings can help cool them in summer and protect them from cooling winter winds, reducing the need for air conditioning and heating. Greenery in cities also helps to reduce the heat island effect, which is the increased temperature of the city in relation to the surrounding countryside caused by the absorption, retention and reflection of heat by the hard synthetic materials used in urban construction. The heat island effect results in more electricity use for cooling in summer and heating in winter. For the reasons outline above, greenery helps reduce this consumption. Having more plants also helps to reduce water runoff. This can be a particular problem in cities, where concrete pavements and roads cause storm water to runoff an, in the cases of heavy or frequent storms, can cause flooding as municipal drainage systems become overloaded. Plants take up water and the soil they need also helps absorb excess moisture.
Urban agriculture also promotes health – both physical and mental. Much urban farming is done in community gardens and initiatives, which encourages people to get actively involved in the cultivation of the food, increasing physical activity and – as any permaculture gardener knows – benefiting mental states by providing a means to get in touch with nature and to take time out from the hectic whirl that modern city living often comprises.
Urban farming can help to reinvigorate locations that have previously been abandoned or damaged. Often, urban gardening starts out by using derelict wasteland, and the growing of food can help not only to rehabilitate the soil, it can also make an area more attractive and provide a means of community bonding. Particularly in areas that have been hit by poor economic performance, urban gardens can offer a regenerative effect.