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Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture

Johns Hopkins report examines the benefits and limitations to growth of agriculture in the urban environment

May 05, 2016


Urban agriculture is taking off and taking on new forms. Edible landscapes, rooftop gardens, and indoor farms now complement community gardens, backyard gardens, and greenhouses.

scope of urban agricultureA new review from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF)--an academic center housed in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences--provides an overview of the docu­mented sociocultural, health, environmental, and economic development outcomes of urban agricul­ture.

“While urban agriculture alone will not solve the many dilemmas of our food system, it can be part of a constellation of interventions needed to transform the food system into one that is more socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable,” says lead author Raychel Santo, a Program Coordinator with the CLF.

The researchers discuss demonstrated and potential benefits, as well as risks and limitations of urban agriculture. Urban agriculture’s most significant benefits center around its ability to increase social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement with the food system, though special attention should be paid to ensure that residents have a voice in decision-making around urban agriculture and economic development issues pertaining to their neighborhoods.

Further evidence suggests that urban, and especially peri-urban, agriculture plays a role in supplementing household, community and municipal food security. Converting unused land into purpose-filled green space provides important ecosystem services to cities. It may also improve the mental, physical, and social health of residents, as long as appropriate precautions are taken to minimize health risks associated with contaminated soils. While large-scale job creation potential has not been demonstrated, urban agriculture projects offer valuable opportunities for skills development, workforce training, and supplemental income generation.

The authors also address gaps in current literature and provide a summary of recommen­dations for framing the merits of urban agriculture. They suggest that further research, including case studies of how food policy councils, public institutions, and local governments use information to support urban agri­culture efforts, as well as evaluations of their impacts, could further comple­ment this analysis.

“Accurately interpreting and communicating the potential merits of urban agriculture is essential. If its benefits are overstated, or limita­tions overlooked, urban agriculture may lose the cultural and political support necessary to sustain the services and benefits it can offer,” says co-author Anne Palmer, director of the Food Communities and Public Health Program at the CLF. The authors conclude by stating that, “Many of the demonstrated benefits of urban agriculture efforts will only be achieved with adequate local, state, and federal governments’ long-term commitment of support.”

Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture” was written by Raychel Santo, Anne Palmer, and Brent Kim.