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Urban agriculture and its contribution to the food supply are the focus of recent Production Team effort

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Posted: October 26, 2014

City parks, abandoned lots, sprawling rooftops, and median strips — when put into production, these plots of land can become surprisingly fruitful urban farms and gardens. Given that the Northeast is home to several large cities, it only makes sense to ask what their capacity might be for meeting some of the region’s food needs.
The Production Team is in the process of assessing the potential agricultural contribution of the Northeast’s urban areas. Photo credit: Glenwood Green Acres, Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons

The Production Team is in the process of assessing the potential agricultural contribution of the Northeast’s urban areas. Photo credit: Glenwood Green Acres, Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons

"Urban agricultural production is largely under the radar. It's not part of what the USDA typically monitors and documents, so we know little about its contribution," explained Michael Conard, an architect and member of the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University's Earth Institute and a member of the EFSNE Production Team. "But what the contribution of the Northeast’s urban areas could potentially be and what that might mean for the rest of the region’s production is an important assessment to make."

Conard leads the EFSNE project's efforts to make such an assessment, and he is uniquely qualified to do so. In 2011, he and his colleagues at the Urban Design Lab released a report titled "The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City." It details their findings from a comprehensive assessment of all the city's land that might be conducive to growing food — anything from areas currently under production to underutilized open spaces, median strips, public housing lots, and rooftops that meet certain size and structural criteria. Their assessment involved collecting spatial data from a number of sources, including the New York Department of City Planning, the US Department of the Interior, and the USGS National Land Cover Database, among others. They also conducted on-the-ground research to assess the amount of city land that is already contributing to the food supply via community gardens and urban farms. Then, they coupled that data with crop production data from various sources to estimate how much food could be produced in the city.

Now, Conard and others on the Production Team are in the process of testing this methods in other cities in the region, including Baltimore, MD, Charleston, WV, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA, and Syracuse, NY.

"We’ve spent the last year calling people in each of these cities who are involved in urban agriculture in some way — non-profits, planning agencies, researchers, community gardens, urban farms — and asking open-ended questions to build a database of what's going on in each location," said Conard. "We did that both to find out what's going on in those other cities and also to test the methods that we used in New York, to see if it makes sense in other places and if it could be a model to follow in these other cities."

Along the way, he and his colleagues have heard some fascinating stories about the different points of entry people take to growing food in cities. "There are initiatives that we know about because they're formal. But there are hints of informality as well," he said, referencing one story he heard about a group of "guerilla gardeners" in Pittsburgh who anonymously plant nut trees and other food crops along highways and embankments around the city.

Conard has been impressed with how helpful and forthcoming people have been in response to his queries. "Of all the partners we've been working with and contacts we’ve been given, we haven’t encountered any resistance. Everyone has been interested and enthusiastic about helping. It's been quite a pleasure."

He expects that the assessments for the five cities will be finished by the end of the EFSNE project's fourth year. Then the team will analyze, through larger datasets, the remaining urban areas of the region. When complete, these assessments will complement the work of other Production Team members who are quantifying the capacity of the region’s more rural farmland.

More information about the Production Team's activities is available here.