Urban Farms Sprout Across the Country

Gray asphalt and abandoned lots in cities are being turned into farms as city dwellers grow fruits and vegetables in the shadow of skyscrapers.

Red peppers dangle from staked plants, and rows of spinach burst from black earth. Ripe tomatoes weigh heavily on vines, as plump purple tomatillos sway in the wind. While this bounty could be growing nearly anywhere, the backdrop is unmistakable: the Manhattan skyline, which thrusts up behind the lush rows of this one-acre plot on a warehouse roof in Queens, New York.

Inspecting his crops, Ben Flanner, the 30-year-old head farmer at Brooklyn Grange Farm, takes hold of a bunch of greens and tugs, pulling up a bright-orange carrot. The dirt-streaked vegetable, like the rest of his produce, will make its way to a local restaurant or a farmers’ market. “I think it really makes sense to grow food close to where it’s consumed,” he says as he picks a spinach leaf, balls it up, and pops it into his mouth. The former E-Trade employee considered leaving New York to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer, but he didn’t really want to move. Instead, in 2009, he started Eagle Street Farm in Brooklyn, managing it for a year before planting his rooftop crops with a new team at Brooklyn Grange Farm. “There’s really nothing negative to say about urban farming. For me personally, this allows me to farm close to my community without having to leave the city.”

Similar farmsteads ranging from less than one acre to tens of acres are breaking ground in metropolises nationwide. On a one-acre lot in the heart of Chicago, 83 types of vegetables are growing; they include beets, arugula, kale, carrots, potatoes, and 30 tomato varieties. Detroit residents are getting their hands dirty in community gardens and market gardens, reclaiming the city’s many abandoned lots. A Philadelphia cooperative is sprouting produce that it sells at a nearby grocery store, and farm animals are running around yards in Oakland, California. Such operations may provide fresh local food to underserved communities, or sell veggies to tony restaurants. Although they don’t produce nearly as much food as their industrial counterparts, these urban farms do provide significant benefits: They reduce the miles food travels from farm to plate, cut down on rainwater runoff, and provide oases for insects, birds, and other wildlife. On top of that, they revitalize vacant lots, greening properties abandoned in the wake of industrial decay.

The trend harks back to World War II, when the federal government called on citizens to cultivate Victory Gardens in backyards and public spaces. Americans embraced the cause and planted 20 million plots. Today’s advocates argue that gardens next to large population centers make more sense than growing crops in large monoculture fields. “Cities are where the waste is, and that’s where the nutrition is. The food system can take the lead in a sustainability movement,” says Ken Dunn, who runs the nonprofit Resource Center and one of its programs, City Farm, a one-acre plot surrounded by busy Chicago streets. “The surge of urban agriculture can help us get back to our roots and find a healthy food system. It should sell food in the community and welcome school groups, not just be another industry that provides jobs.”


Sitting under a tent at City Farm, his black galoshes caked with chunks of food, Dunn is explaining why he started city farming 40 years ago. A strip mall and eight-story buildings abut the triangular plot just two miles from downtown Chicago and its towering skyscrapers. Verdant rows of lettuce stand out against asphalt streets abuzz with rushing cars. Dunn, who grew up in an Amish–Mennonite farming community, pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Then he set to work realizing his vision of a sustainable economy built on overlooked resources, such as empty lots, to create jobs and grow produce. Chicago, the third-largest metropolis in the United States, has as many as 20,000 acres of vacant land—half of which is city-owned, says Dunn. There are plenty of nutrients nearby to support crops. Any organic material, like food waste from restaurants or manure from horse stables used by the Chicago Police Department, can be turned into compost.

City Farm has two ongoing operations in Chicago, growing a combined 20,000 pounds of produce and providing three full-time jobs every year. The group leases the land from the city at the bargain price of $1 for 10 years. To ready the property, they put down a layer of clay and heaped compost on top, forming raised beds—a process that took about a week and cost about $50,000. Volunteers and students who take classes there sell the produce at farmers’ markets. Other clients include North Pond restaurant, which serves local, seasonal cuisine such as red-wine-braised cabbage and garlic scape mashed potatoes, and Frontera Grill, where celebrity chef Rick Bayless makes spicy salsa from City Farm’s habanero peppers. Three times a week Dunn personally drives his truck around to pick up organic waste from some of the same restaurants that buy the farm’s produce, hauling it to a composter. For him the slop sticking to his boots is a badge of honor. “In what other job can you see more than just a paycheck, but also a radish?” he asks. “Instead of grabbing space from development, we’re suggesting that agriculture work in the margins. We benefit from having these [lots] kept up and beautified.”

Taking over marginalized land can have significant environmental benefits as well. For instance, plants growing on slightly contaminated land can also help remediate the property. “We deal with lead, and also revitalize our soil and bring life to a community as opposed to bring harm,” explains Barbara Finnin, director of Oakland’s City Slicker Farms. Lead travels through a plant, accumulating in the root, stem, and leaves, she says, but doesn’t end up in the fruiting body. At the farm, they test the soil and, after capping the asphalt with mulch, teach people how to garden on two-foot-high beds. (Finnin recommends that farmers with lead-contaminated property throw their plant waste away instead of composting it.)

To help identify potential risks before farmers dig in, the EPA offers grants to local governments for testing soils at brownfields—former industrial sites contaminated by hazardous substances. There are currently upward of 20 urban farming projects that receive this funding, enabling cities to begin the remediation process. “EPA brownfields grants are working to help a number of cities and towns clean up sites for urban gardens, farms, or greenhouses,” says David Lloyd, director of the EPA’s Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program. Communities use the funds to turn the polluted lots into small-scale farms, stabilizing neighborhoods and allowing people to spend time outside, he adds. 

These little oases also help reduce runoff. Studies conducted at the University of Portland, Michigan State University, and Penn State University show that gardens and green spaces in a city absorb more than half the rainwater that falls on them. Rain that falls on impermeable surfaces like streets and sidewalks collects oil and trash before pouring into pipes that are easily overwhelmed by even small storms. In cities that have combined sewer and drainage systems, less than an inch of rainwater might push pipes beyond capacity, releasing a toxic slurry of untreated human and industrial waste into estuaries, rivers, and oceans. The pollution can make it unsafe to swim, and kill aquatic organisms nearby. When there are more city surfaces that can absorb that water, less effluent gushes into the drains.

In addition, birds and bees benefit from the rich soils and the variety of plants that urban farms bring. In a study being prepared for publication, Jennifer Hopwood of The Xerces Society, a nonprofit focused on invertebrate conservation, found that a wide variety of native pollinators, like bumblebees, sweat bees, and leafcutter bees, visit squash blossoms on urban farms in St. Louis. In 25 lots, she found that squash bees were the most abundant. These hairy insects nest underground, often at the base of squash plants. After emerging, they are vastly more effective pollinators than nonnative honeybees are. They visit plants of both sexes instead of just the nectar-rich female flowers, pollinating them right before dawn, when temperatures are cooler and honeybees are still inactive. “Urban environments are often ignored in conservation, but I believe they can be important habitat for a number of animals, including native pollinators,” says Hopwood. “These squash bees were able to find gardens that were brand new and had just been abandoned lots before being planted with fruits and vegetables; they allowed them to survive within this urban matrix.”


One of the biggest criticisms of city agriculture is that it’s inefficient compared with industrial operations. Farmers have to truck their produce to farmers’ markets, and customers often shop both there and at grocery stores, which means multiple trips—frequently by car—to buy food instead of one-stop supermarket shopping. Even so, factory farms’ environmental footprints dwarf those of urban farms. Agriculture accounts for six percent of our annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the EPA, and that doesn’t even account for the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides, oil and gas for tractors, equipment, or trucking and shipping. Industrial operations use more than a billion tons of pesticides and fertilizers on crops every year, which can contaminate groundwater and wash into waterways, causing dead zones. Companies transport food 1,500 miles on average before it arrives at a grocery store, and as many vegetables mature on a refrigerated truck, they lose vitamins and nutrients.

“I say think of everything it is, not everything it’s not,” says Bruce Sherman, head chef at North Pond in Chicago, who buys fresh produce from City Farm year-round and gives Dunn his food waste. “It’s about building a community; it’s about building relationships; it’s about bringing tastier, healthier food into the food system. I don’t think it will be as efficient as the big system, but I think we need to understand that’s okay, that there’s a trade-off there.”

In low-income neighborhoods, urban farms are bringing fresh produce into areas where it can be far easier to find fast food than a grocery store. In these so-called food deserts, with a little compost and some hard work, many farms are able to sell produce to local residents who can often use food stamps or buy the vegetables at discounted prices. And the farms themselves provide employment for a small number of local residents.

In Detroit, a city ravaged by the economic decline, the trend is proving vital to the city’s slow recovery. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development and urban agriculture for The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit, supports the growing network of farms in the city, where 30 percent to 40 percent of the land lies vacant. The Garden Resource Program (GRP), coordinated by The Greening of Detroit and in collaboration with hundreds of residents and community-based organizations, began in 2003 with 80 gardens. Now the GRP partners with 1,234 family, community, school, and market gardens and farms, and it grew 41 percent last year. The Greening of Detroit’s urban agriculture department connects landowners with aspiring gardeners—including many former autoworkers—and teaches them how to plant and grow produce. Participants also have the option of selling their harvest directly at farmers’ markets. About 10 percent of the crops overall are sold there or to restaurants.

“I don’t think I could have really predicted the kind of rapid growth that we’ve experienced,” says Atkinson, a native of neighboring Flint. She wanted to find a positive use for the abandoned lots left after auto plants closed their doors. When asked what she attributes the groundswell to, she lists a variety of factors: media exposure; Michelle Obama’s organic garden at the White House; the health scares from E. coli bacteria on spinach and salmonella in eggs; and hard work by urban farmers who see the environmental and community benefits of bringing a bit of the bucolic life into city confines. “There’s virtually no neighborhood, no block that’s not affected in some positive way by the gardens residents and other community-based organizations are creating,” she says.

In addition to nonprofits like The Greening of Detroit, city governments hit hard by dying industry and the Great Recession are starting to embrace urban farms as worthwhile investments. Cleveland officials recently announced that the city will be funding a $1.1 million, three-year project to train 20 Kinsman neighborhood residents to grow crops on a quarter-acre of land each. Those novice farmers, who currently earn an average annual income of just over $9,500, will then be able to sell their produce to schools, restaurants, and at farmers’ markets for a profit. The project could expand from six acres to 20 if successful. The first seeds may sprout this spring. That new life represents a fresh start for the farmers and symbolizes the deeper connection to nature that is taking root in metropolises around the nation.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2011 issue as "Urban Planting."