Scaling Up Urban Agriculture

Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City / Trust for Public Space

Urban agriculture grows both food and communities – its direct and indirect benefits range from improved public health and strengthened ecosystems, to social cohesion and economic growth. The Design Trust for Public Space wants to fully scale up these benefits across New York City. And in doing so, they hope to integrate agriculture into the broader urban fabric.

In September 2012, we reviewed Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture (FBF 1) from the Design Trust and partner organization Added Value. Three years in the making, this first report sought to create a comprehensive roadmap for New York City to help stakeholders “understand and weigh the benefits” of urban agriculture in an effort to significantly increase local government support. FBF 1 thoroughly examined the policy aspects of urban farming, with the goal of connecting government policy with “the bottom-up grassroots movement led by farmers, gardeners, and landscape architects.” The report realized a need for better metrics and data. Now, the Design Trust has released its follow-up, Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City (FBF II) in partnership with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The first section of FBF II shows us their new methodology for measuring benefits and details how they developed this with farmers and gardeners. Motivated by the high number of studies that only suggest there are benefits to urban agriculture but don’t actually back them up with data, the toolkit uses twelve measurements, ranging from food production and composting to skills developed on the farm and healthy eating impacts. This toolkit was field-tested throughout the 2013 growing season. Simultaneously, Design Trust collaborated with Farming Concrete to further develop their existing online data platform for interpreting and sharing farm data. (Free for download, the toolkit is available at Farming Concrete’s website, where users can also register for access to their online data platform).


Design professionals, planners, and government officials will especially want to read sections two and three of the report, which illustrate best practices for “maximizing the benefits” of urban agriculture, and “scaling the benefits” through innovative models of integration with public land.

The report calls for integrating urban agriculture with the physical infrastructure of the city — by introducing compost facilities to ease pressure on waste-management, or creating rainwater-catching food production systems for stormwater management.

All of that integration will require design work. There are examples of creative use of landscape features (bioswales, raingardens) and structural elements (rainwater holding tanks also designed as seating), as well as special considerations for senior citizens (wider paths, more seating and shade, elevated planters to accommodate wheelchairs).


Farm to Table Assembly: Comfortable, easy-to-reach components for intergenerational community gardening / Alison Duncan, ASLA, with Metro Planters for the Central Harlem Senior Citizen’s Center

One innovative design proposal: Ecologically-healthy borders can be used to define the border between agricultural and non-agricultural public spaces. Using native plants in these spaces can increase forage opportunities for wildlife and attract beneficial pollinators. And permacultural models — such as those which use “guilds” of cooperative perennial plants at multiple levels (groundcover, canopy, understory, etc) to mimic natural ecosystems — could then increase diversity of both habitat and food and strengthen community through stewardship.

City greenways could also become the base infrastructure to achieve these strategies. Greenways already serve as important networks, so why not use them for agriculture as well? Most interestingly, the report suggests a model for greenways as “linear food hubs” that integrate cyclical food systems (growing, processing, distribution, compost . . . back to growing). In this model, farmers markets become hyper-local, served by growers within the greenway and serving consumers from the same. These networks can also build infrastructure for shared tools and equipment, resources, and knowledge.

FBF II also raises some questions without easy answers. For example, as agricultural public spaces throughout the city start accepting food waste, what are the best (low-cost) models for composting that also deter vermin? Rats and public space are not the best combination.

And how best to integrate community gardens into public green spaces? The report suggests putting community gardens in public parks. They identify the challenge of balancing a semi-private space within a fully public space and the associated pitfalls of potential theft and vandalism of garden plots. Recommendations include grouping public-use facilities associated with community gardens (toolsheds, compost) separately from private plots, designing adjacent spaces for complementary activities (nearby playgrounds for children, as parents or grandparents tend gardens), and “programming the fence” by growing vines or building bird-feeders into structures to increase their functional and aesthetic appeal.

Illustrative diagram of community garden in a park integrating native plant infrastructure and permacultures / Martin Barry & Barbara Wilks

These are a good start but don’t fully solve the issue of how to integrate urban agriculture into a dense city. Perhaps this is where landscape architects and other designers can more fully flesh out best practice designs to solve these issues.

With some 900 urban agriculture spaces, NYC is ripe for deeper city-community collaboration to further scale up urban agriculture. But designers, farmers and city officials elsewhere will also find some inspiration from this report.

Keep an eye out for the expansion of and the release of instructional videos and technical support networks as Five Borough Farm phase III gets under way in the coming months.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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