Ag Alternatives: Embracing the Weeds and Urban Agriculture

Tess Harper

The often-misquoted Henry David Thoreau once said, “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. However, in today’s ever growing, urbanized, technology-oriented world, how are people still able to hold onto this fleeting sense of what is wild?

Traditionally, wildness, often associated with wilderness, has been considered to be synonymous to “free from human influence”. According to Emma Marris in her controversial book Rambunctious Garden, this tendency gives a limited scope to the way that we define the wild, and really nature, around us. Further, she postulates that this way of thinking about the environment will continue to foster man’s ignorance and degradation of his surroundings. The argument for a more liberal characterization of the traditional definition of “wild”, to include abandoned city lots, highway median and roofs, would aid in creating a collective consciousness of the green space around us and the omnipresence of nature. Wildness can ultimately be found in your own, urban, developed backyard.

 Upon reading Marris’ book and her push for innovative conservation solutions, my thoughts immediately fell to the prospect of urban agriculture ventures. Although not a substitute to the hundreds upon thousands of acres of highly managed (and eroded) farmland in the Midwest, urban gardens can serve as a small step in the direction of eco-consciousness.

A city surveyor inspects an urban garden that lies near a elevated subway rail in Brooklyn, NY.

The push for “eating local” is at the forefront of the sustainable food movement that has quietly begun to sweep the nation. [i] This newfound awareness for food production and policy in the U.S has resulted in a surge of farmers markets and local food producers as well as consumer demand for their products, with “local food” sales estimated to be a nearly 7 billion dollar industry. [ii]

Urban agriculture seems to be the lovechild of innovative conservation solutions and American’s growing appetite  for locally harvested produce. For one, the increase of green space in cities in and of itself helps to decrease run off and increase shade in certain locations. [iii]Further, these added green areas could help to combat the “heat island” effect that currently plagues many cities through evapotranspiration that will effectively help mitigate high temperatures.[iv]

However, more in alignment with Marris’ argument is the fact that urban gardens help people reconnect with nature and their surroundings. By encountering gardens intermingled amongst skyscrapers, it becomes easier for people to intertwine the two and see the “wild” in their everyday lives. Further, people become more aware of where there food comes from. By producing fruits and vegetables on city roofs and abandoned lots, these ventures successfully limit the number of “food miles” between the consumer, you, and the sourcing of food as well make people more aware of the environment around them.

With population sizes increasing and with 6 out of 10 of us predicted to be living in cities by 2030, the adoption of more innovative agricultural solutions is a necessary step in cities all over the world. [v]  Again, although it is not a complete alternative to the traditional food system, urban ag is a viable supplement to our current industrial food sourcing model. What’s more, implementing these small farming ventures supports both sustainable agriculture as well as the expanded definition of nature in our everyday lives.

An urban agriculture venture in Seattle, a city that is taking initiative to implement urban ag friendly policy.

Through policy innovation and the implementation of urban agriculture infrastructure by nonprofit organizations and municipalities, our cities can move towards this model. For example, localities can help to aid in start up costs, a deterring factor for many average-income citizens, and incentivize urban agriculture by providing access to grants and low-interest loans.[vi]

Cities also have the power instill urban-ag friendly zoning laws, that allow for the protection of designated land from redevelopment while also encouraging farmers and gardeners to invest in infrastructure development. Through smart urban planning and land use codes, Seattle, for example, has created the opportunity for people to grow food in their yards for sale, host chickens, and build greenhouses in certain residential areas.[vii].

Local governments can and should create food policy councils to work towards the inclusion of local producers, urban farmers included. By creating a Department dedicated to communities or neighborhoods, these government bodies can start working to create community gardens, and community kitchens, both of which could be particularly impactful in low-income areas.

There are an unlimited number of steps that local governments can take to support urban agriculture. This sort of permeating change that will be needed to restructure our nation’s current food system starts with us – city and suburban dwellers who have a stake in where our food is produced. By holding our local legislators accountable on this issue, urban agriculture has the chance to flourish and change the future of urban planning and how we view our surroundings.

Urban roof top garden time-lapse









  1. Hannah Matschek

    I think that the current move towards urban green spaces is amazing and very much necessary. As the human population grows, particularly in areas like New York City, there is going to be a constant need for more spaces to contain these people and less available spaces for “wilderness” to exist. While I think that for-food ventures are obviously more productive, simply using rooftops as spaces for gardens as a way to mitigate impacts of heat and to better manage stormwater due to increased impervious surfaces in cities.

    My favorite urban green space is the High Line in the City. It was an abandoned freight line and now has turned into a hugely popular park and tourist attraction. I think it is an incredible use of a space that could otherwise be classified as useless or abandoned and has been a great way to introduce more nature back into the heart of the city. I think that solutions like this are going to become more and more common and I can’t wait to see what innovative solutions architects come up with.

    Here is a link to the website if you’re interested in seeing what it looks like:


    I believe that the development of urban agriculture is an incredibly progressive movement that has the potential to drastically change the average city-dwellers perspective on food production. However, it is unclear whether the main goal of local urban agriculture is to develop substantial local food markets or to reconnect city dwellers with nature. Both of these outcomes have their respective benefits, but I think that in order to make the movement more effective, regardless of its main objective, there needs to be a more clearly defined mission from non-profits and government bodies spearheading these projects.

    That being said, I am also curious as to the role of local agriculture in impoverished urban areas. Should government bodies be looking to provide struggling residents with local produce by funding urban agriculture before they focus more on providing residents with the essential food staples? Either way it is undeniable that urban agriculture taking place in any area lacking markets with fresh produce is a positive change. My last question pertains to sustainably raised livestock. Have there been any initiatives to raise livestock in relatively urban environments and reconnect people in urban centers with animals? I hypothesize that the results of this type of program could greatly decreased meat consumption in urban areas, as people would more closely associate their hamburger with a living, breathing animal.


    I wonder if the LEED certification for buildings can take into account more aspects relating to local agriculture. I know you get points for having a ‘green roof’ but what about points for setting up every patio and deck on a residential skyscraper so that it can grow plants? There must be some clever way to orient decks such that they all receive sufficient light to grow vegetables. Roofs aren’t really enough space, given how many people live in these buildings, so the many patios/decks on residential buildings seem the place to me to encourage home gardens.

    I also like the guerrilla gardeners who go out (illegally) and plant gardens in the middle of the night to make the area better for everyone.


    In a field that can often get bogged down with the gloom-and-doom statistics of climate change, habitat degradation, species extinction and the like, it’s always refreshing to get a breath of fresh air in the form of innovative sustainability when studying environmental science. Urban ag is a perfect example of a space where there is loads of room for innovation. Converting crumbling infrastructure into green space (both in terms of productive vegetation as well as simply trees/grass/flowers, etc.) can revitalize worn down areas of cities as well as instill eco-sensitivity and sustainable values in youth and volunteers. As Hannah previously mentioned, the High Line in New York is a dazzling success story for this kind of urban revitalization. Newer infrastructure also has great potential for green space conversion, as building plans can take into account how to more sustainably utilize roof and exterior wallspace for vegetation growth and sustainable architecture.

    In addition to bringing a balance into people’s spiritual void for nature in their lives, urban ag holds incredible potential for human health from a nutrition and environmental standpoint. Farm to table locally sourced produce not only reduces GHG emissions from transportation and waste from chemically-potent industrial farming complexes, but also provides healthy food to consumers free of industrial-grade pesticides or GMOs. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs like those run in the Triangle area by RTI International provide a sustainable alternative source of produce to families while guaranteeing local farmers a market that will purchase their goods and keep them in business. These kinds of programs certainly depend on proximity to arable farmland, but can serve as a great start to getting back to smaller scale food production that is better for the environment and human health.

  5. John Bowman

    Your commentary on the difference between wilderness and wildness is fascinating. I think you’re so right that the more humans celebrate pristine wilderness, the less we tend to appreciate the wildness that surrounds us. In some cases, the ability of wild organisms to thrive in hostile environments like cities is even more impressive than their ability to adapt to wild, natural environments.

    Do you think, though, that if we begin to accept “wild” public spaces as substitutes for truly pristine wilderness, we might become more comfortable with the idea of human civilization encroaching on wilderness untouched my man? While I agree that we undervalue wild spaces in urban and suburban places, I think there is still a different sort of value in pure wilderness.


    I think urban gardens and biodynamic farming are a very important part of food security as the population continues to grow. Growhaus in colorado is a great example of an operation like this benefiting it’s community. They have retrofitted a small the warehouse in Denver, to deal with the food desert in a low income area. They distribute local produce to the larger area then would have access to it otherwise. They also do outreach and educational campaigns to try and help community members that would not normally have agricultural experiences.

  7. Rui Wang

    The idea of Urban Ag reminds me of the distributive energy generation. While it may not be as efficient as the concentrated farming, it helps to utilize land resources in an integrated method. More importantly, just as what you wrote in the beginning, it introduces a dose of “wilderness” or at least “nature” to this self-segregating urban environment. I believe it can be one of the important steps for human shifting their conception of modern city design. Not to mention how educationally meaningful as well as the pure pleasure of having a greener living community.
    However, one thing that I found concerning about Urban Ag is the safety of the product. How would various environmental effects such as air quality, soil salinity as well as exposure to industrial and municipal chemicals have an impact on the cultivation of the vegetables? While I feel that introduction of urban agriculture will likely to enhance urban environment, I am more concerned about the impact on the plants. Therefore, it would be necessary to find out the most suitable type of plants for urban environment in order to optimize its utility as well and ensure food safety. I believe it will have to take proper scientific studies as well as careful development of supervising yet inviting policies for Ubran Agriculture to be developed in a sustainable manner.


    Also having read Marris’ work, I agree with the idea of revolutionizing the ways in which we look for nature. Cities create many opportunities to create and enjoy wildness in unique ways. In fact, one of my favorite places to experience nature is the Highline Park in New York City. An old railroad track was converted into a garden for pedestrians to walk along and enjoy native plants. The most interesting aspect of this garden is that the pathway comes within 3 feet of some buildings and you can actually see inside the offices and apartments. I love that nature has the ability to exist in an environment that is so innately human and industrialized.

    Something that may fit into the concept of urban agriculture is the inclusion of more farmers markets in cities. Local farmers can sell their produce to the growing number of urban citizens who demand higher quality foods. Community and rooftop gardens can also participate in an outdoor market. I’m not sure if urban agriculture would actually impact overall food production in the United States or if it would be sustainable without soil nutrient cycles that exist in large fields. However, I do agree that these urban gardens will have impacts beyond food production, like mitigating floods and reducing the concrete heat trap.

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