By Yuki Kato, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Georgetown University
In my nearly a decade of conducting research on urban cultivation, I have not met anyone who opposes the idea of growing food in the city. Some are avid gardeners themselves and others wished they had a green thumb. Yet, when I explain that I study the type of cultivation that is often called “urban farming” or “urban agriculture,” which is tended by full-time growers with an intention to feed others, many express skepticism: How can they grow food at a scale in the city? Do they sell the vegetables, and if so where? Can they grow enough to feed the city? These are all legitimate and fair questions, but they reflect our general lack of understanding about what it takes to grow food at a large scale in the city, and why such practices matter.
Measuring the benefits of urban cultivation requires us to go beyond the matrix commonly used to evaluate the productivity of community gardens or rural farms, such as the volume of food being produced, retention of heat, CO₂, and rainwater, creation of green jobs, or education of the public–though urban farming does deliver all of these benefits. This way of valuing urban farms overlooks its key social benefits, especially how the existence of urban farms responds to and challenges the capitalistic urban development that continues to exacerbate social inequity, including disparity of access to food, health care, and green spaces. The act of growing food in the city, therefore, is a tangible form of resistance, even when the growers themselves may not say so explicitly. The public understanding of urban cultivation has yet to recognize how it subverts social and legal norms.
One thing that many of us fail to recognize is that growing food in the city is not new, even in the US, where it has gained popularity and recognition over the last couple of decades. There has been a long history of immigrants and Black folks growing food for themselves in American cities. These gardens were not just a place of refuge and leisure for growers; they grew food and medicinal herbs that were significant for their cultural practices, while also supplementing their food budget by applying their agricultural knowledge passed on from their elders and ancestors.
This is where we must pause and ask why they grew food for themselves. The emergence of this type of local food production and consumption was not a result of the foodies’ obsession with the farm-to-table fad or the city government’s recognition that these spaces have value to the communities beyond economic property values. These urban cultivation practices were the marginalized communities activating their “collective efficacy” to regain control over their foodways, right to the land, and cultural identities despite oppression, segregation, and neglect inflicted by the white, capitalist urban political economy.
Why is this important to recognize? As urban cultivation grows, as it has in recent years, the practices and policies that are put forth, and more importantly the matrix by which these practices and policies are judged, must be fundamentally connected to its historical roots.
The exercise of a matrix based on resistance models is a pressing conversation as concrete policies and resources in the urban cultivation sphere are pushing up against the confines of the U.S. capitalist system.
What is least understood about running an urban cultivation project—regardless of what they grow, how they grow, for whom–is how challenging it is to even start one, let alone sustain it. The US Department of Agriculture established the new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production in 2018 and has been making more funding available each year to urban growers. Ensuring that these resources are distributed equitably and in a way that addresses historical injustices remains an unrealized goal. Research shows that the most crucial challenge for urban growers is land access and security. My research in particular has consistently found that securing long-term land access for urban cultivation is extremely difficult, especially in the cities undergoing gentrification where skyrocketing property values makes it prohibitive for the growers to own the land or even lease at a reasonable rate from private owners.
Public land access presents its own limitations due to the bureaucratic red tapes and long-term property planning by various agencies. For example, Washington, DC, passed the Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, which originally included an ambitious mandate for the Mayor to “identify at least 25 District-owned vacant lots for potential use for urban farming.” The 2016 amendment removed the specific number of land to be identified for urban agriculture, and after nearly a decade, only three city-owned lots have been identified and none have been developed into an urban farm.
Even if a grower successfully gains access to space, there are many other factors that threaten sustainability of urban farms. Seeking private investment requires the growers to present a business plan that would satisfy the potential investors, while going after increasingly competitive foundation grants could lead the organization to prioritize practices that match the funder’s interests du jour. Operating an urban farm necessitates the growers to engage with various local agencies on a variety of topics from water, food safety, to business licensing. Navigating the local regulation requires patience and legal savvy as most city agencies are not familiar with urban farming, thus do not have straightforward answers that could guide the growers to operate within the regulatory framework of the city.
Without permanent or long-term land security, growers’ investment in the space, including soil and horticultural infrastructure, is at risk of being displaced, as urban gardens are susceptible to the preemptive removal by the landlords or the developers that try to speculatively “clear” the land in anticipation of property value increase. The value that urban farms add to the space is not recognized by the capitalistic logic of urban development. Worse, whenever there’s a developmental pressure, urban gardens (including community gardens) have often been pitted against affordable housing as if these two were equally low-priority development goals that had to be in competition while luxury developments proceed.
Urban cultivation matters because of its many social impacts that are not always easily quantifiable or scalable, especially within the capitalist matrix. Urban growers do more than produce poundage of food; they build social connections with the residents, present alternative land uses, or organize communities around climate, food, and environmental justice concerns. True support of urban cultivation that values its social impacts requires us to recognize the historical land injustices and economic discrimination that shaped who had long been growing food in the city and how to ensure that the current popularity does not result in the whitewashing of these historical practices that were forms of collective efficacy. Otherwise it will end up becoming yet another fad or worse, become another tool of the green gentrification trend.