It hit the news recently that a vertical farm is coming to the Ironbound. The City of Newark, RBH Group, AeroFarms and the Ironbound Community Corporation are working together to repurpose an industrial site next to the Ironbound Recreation Center into a 69,000 square foot vertical farm. I have mixed feelings about this project, which I will elaborate upon over the next few posts, but I like what’s been happening in Newark recently, I like the work that RBH Group has done here and have a lot of respect for the ICC (I worked out of their offices for about 10 months and they do a lot of great work from general social services to education to environmental protection).
I have a serious problem with urban agriculture. Just to clarify, I have no problem with urban gardening or community gardens. I would much prefer to see a personal garden than the traditional lawn and community gardens provide open space and help create a sense of communities in neighborhoods. My problem is with industrial scale agriculture in urban areas. With the exception of a handful of cities, such as Detroit, there are better uses for land than agriculture.
A lot of the push towards urban agriculture seems to be a fetishization of the local foods movement. It makes a lot of sense to cut down the distance that food travels before reaching a plate from 1,000 or more miles to 100 miles. However, it seems like some people continue with the trend. Why have food travel 100 miles if it can travel 1 mile? Why have food travel 1 mile when it can travel 10 feet? How close is close enough? Ultimately there are going to be decreasing returns on localism as there are with anything else. It is much more important to focus on obtaining food from the local region than it is to be obtaining food from the neighborhood.
It is important to look at our transportation systems and particularly how freight is shipped. I used to work for a contractor to DHL in Grand Rapids, Michigan. DHL had a local sorting hub near South Bend, IN and another station in Traverse City, MI. Sometimes I would pick up a package in Reed City that needed to go to Traverse City, a 75 mile trip. That package would come back to Grand Rapids, be sent to South Bend for sorting and then be shipped to Traverse City the next day. The total mileage for the package would be around 450 miles. This package travelled six times farther than the shortest route. This certainly screams inefficiency. However, regardless of what happened, I had to drive back to Grand Rapids, a truck would be going to South Bend and later a truck would be sent from South Bend to Traverse City. These miles already existed. Adding the package only added marginal mileage in order to make the first and last legs of the delivery. Most likely less than 5 additional miles were added on the trip. Instead of a trip costing 75 miles of driving, it was essentially 5 miles: 15 times more efficient.
This same pattern exists in the agricultural industry; large amounts of crops are picked up from farms and sent to distribution hubs. These hubs ship to other hubs, and finally sent to grocery stores via trucks on optimized routes. It is the last mile to the individual consumer that is really inefficient. Here a small amount of food (compared to trucks) is delivered over several miles in an individual vehicle. While in distribution, the transportation energy used per unit of food is relatively small, but when brought from the store to an individuals house, this transportation energy per unit of food is much higher. If we really want to make our food systems more efficient, we need to focus our attention to how food moves from grocery store to consumer.
Perhaps the biggest problem with urban farming is that it takes a large amount of land (something vertical farming doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in another post). After doing a thorough and incredibly scientific study (aka looked at some blogs here and here), it seems that it takes roughly an acre of land to feed a person. There are roughly 15,000 acres in Newark which has just over 275,000 residents. Obviously an acre per person isn’t going to work here. If Newark used all of it’s land, it could provide 5.5% of the food needs of its residents (who no longer have any space to live). Using urban land for farming is going to require large amounts of land which could be used for better purposes.
In cities like Detroit, there is more land than people know what to do with. While Detroit is beginning it’s rebound, years of development are unlikely to use this land. Detroit is by and large an outlier in this situation. For the vast majority of our urban areas, the combination of existing infrastructure, dense street grid and frequent transit service make them ideal for redevelopment and reurbanization. These urban areas are inherently walkable, bikeable and sustainable. People in these places can walk to the grocery store or more preferably, to the farmers market. Compared to the suburban sprawl of the past 60 years, we do not have much urban space and we need to use it wisely. This land is immensely important in our efforts to become a sustainable society.
When farms are introduced into urban areas, land that should be put to dense urban use instead has one of the least intensive uses. Urban developments surrounded by farmland result in larger distances between destinations making it harder to walk and bike.These distances will result in more people feeling a need for a car. More cars means more parking lots and thus more distance between destinations. While the food might have fewer miles associated with it, the lifestyles of the people living in the area will have significantly increased automotive mileage.
Many of our urban spaces have swaths of vacant land or even worse, parking craters. How does urban agriculture compare to these potential land uses? Urban agriculture is better than vacant land and is certainly better than acres of surface parking lots. The biggest problem I see is that once urban agriculture moves into an area, it’s going to be hard to displace. Urban agriculture is quiet, doesn’t block views, doesn’t get in your way on the street and in general keeps to itself. Compared to a development (particularly the process of construction), this is a great neighbor. There is an inherent bias against development even when dealing with vacant lands and parking lots. This bias will be exacerbated when redevelopment is replacing a farm. If we allow urban agriculture to decrease redevelopment of cities, the result will be increased greenfield autocentric development in exurban areas. This isn’t a one for one relationship either. It is easy to get 30 units per acre in urban areas, whereas in exurban areas, you’re lucky to get 1 unit per acre. A loss of 1 acre of development in an urban area could result in 30 acres or more of new greenfield development.
Ultimately urban agriculture does not increase sustainability. By potentially spreading out urban development, the last mile trip for food is more likely to take place in a car than with active transportation. Furthermore, urban agriculture occupies space that can be put to more valuable, productive and sustainable uses. Because of this, industrial agriculture belongs outside of cities.
For my next post, I will address vertical farms. In the meantime, what do you think? Is urban agriculture good for cities or should it remain in the country?