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The Future of Urban Agriculture

This week's interview is with Dr. Nevin Cohen - an Assistant Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies at The New School, where he teaches courses in urban planning and food systems.  Dr. Cohen's current research focuses on urban food policy, particularly innovative planning strategies to support food production in the urban and peri-urban landscape, public policies to engage citizens in sustainable food production, urban planning and food access, and civic agriculture in cities and suburbs. He has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from Rutgers University, a Masters in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley, and a BA from Cornell.  He runs the website and you can follow him on twitter @urbanfoodpolicy.

1. Your research focuses on urban planning and food policy.  If there were one local policy recommendation that would have the biggest impact on the most municipalities, (a "magic bullet," if you will), what would that be?

Food systems are just that – interconnected systems of people, infrastructure, soils, business relationships, national policies – and so they are not amenable to single solutions. But one role that cities are uniquely suited for is in creating the infrastructure to enable sustainable food distribution. That means wholesale markets that serve the needs of regional farmers; support for added-value processing businesses; the revitalization of dock facilities for waterborne food transportation; dedicated space for farmers markets; support for supermarkets and healthy corners stores.  I suppose I cheated by giving you five recommendations, but they all fall under the category of distribution infrastructure, which is one of the most significant barriers to sustainable urban food systems.

2) Urban Agriculture is often viewed as environmentally friendly - without any negative impacts.  In your experience, what is the "other side" of urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture provides a broad range of socio-ecological benefits, from putting vacant urban sites to productive use as community spaces to absorbing stormwater that would otherwise be discharged untreated into nearby waterways. The most common risk of growing food in the city is from soil that is contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. But most agricultural colleges offer low-cost soil testing, and if contamination is a problem, building raised beds is a simple solution. Another environmental concern that will become more significant as urban agriculture expands is the use of potable water for irrigation. Cities (with the exception of New York, which minimally treats its Catskill Mountain water and relies on gravity to get it to the tap) generally use a lot of energy to treat and pump water from distant sources.  Relying on municipal sources to water plants is more wasteful than harvesting rainwater, but rainwater harvesting requires infrastructure that many community gardens lack.  These two issues suggest the need for additional municipal policies: (1) municipal composting of organic matter to create clean soil for gardens; and (2) support for rainwater harvesting infrastructure in urban farms and gardens.

3) What is the Five Borough Farm Project?

A photo from Added Value, a Red Hook Brooklyn based organization (

Five Borough Farm is a project of the Design Trust for Public Space and Added Value, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that operates one of the city's largest farms, to create a citywide plan to support urban agriculture in New York City. Based on a detailed analysis of the city's current urban agricultural landscape, we will develop an evaluation framework to measure, in quantifiable and replicable terms, the ecological, social, and economic value urban agriculture brings to the communities it serves and to the city as a whole. Together with Added Value and many other stakeholders, the Design Trust will help city government evaluate what their role should be, and identify specific opportunities for agencies to support urban agricultural activity. The project will also create an interactive website to allow everyone involved with urban agriculture (including practitioners, policymakers, and supporters) to use the project's tools and findings and share their own expertise.

The motivation for the project stems from the fact that while urban agriculture is booming, no one has a detailed understanding of all of these activities, or hard data or tools to evaluate the benefits of agriculture as an urban land use. Your previous question, on benefits and risks, is on the minds of most policymakers who intuitively believe that urban agriculture is good and want to support it, but need the metrics to argue for needed public policies and funding. In a time of fiscal constraint, having good data is particularly critical. It's critical for practitioners as well, so our goal is to create tools so that urban agriculture organizations will be able to measure their operations and impacts better, which will help them grow food more efficiently and be able to demonstrate the benefits they provide to their clients, customers, stakeholders and neighbors.

4) The project is a product of the Design Trust for Public Spaces.  What is the nexus of design and urban agriculture?

A central urban design question is whether and to what extent agriculture is an appropriate use of city space, and if so, how food production can be incorporated into the built environment.  There is a great deal of creative design thinking around this question, at multiple scales.  Product designers and architects are finding ways to fit food production into buildings; landscape architects and planners are reimagining entire communities built around food production; and service designers are crafting innovative systems to distribute food to low income residents, share growing spaces and gardening equipment, and weave backyards into farm-scale landscapes. The exciting thing is that this work is not limited to professional designers.  Urban farmers are designing some of the most creative solutions.

5) Where do you envision the urban food system of New York City in 10 years, particularly in economically distressed communities?

I contributed to City Council Speaker Quinn's FoodWorks initiative, which is a comprehensive roadmap to a sustainable food system in New York City.  If the policies in this plan are implemented, New York will be sourcing more of its food from regional farms, helping to support the local economy and ensuring that we will have productive open space and not merely sprawl in the metropolitan area.  Improvements to the city's food distribution infrastructure will enable regional farmers to sell more to the New York City market, reduce the cost of food distribution within the city, and make it more cost effective to distribute fresh produce to currently underserved neighborhoods.  The city will invest in more food business incubators like the commercial kitchen that opened in the La Marqueta facility in East Harlem to grow the city's food industry and help entrepreneurs compete. Programs to provide incentives for supermarket operators to open in low-income neighborhoods, combined with projects like the Department of Health's green cart and healthy bodega programs, and innovative entrepreneurial programs like the Corbin Hill Road farm share, will eliminate disparities in food access that make it much more difficult for low-income New Yorkers to buy affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.  And the school system, which serves 860,000 meals each day (second only to the US military) will switch to a universal breakfast and lunch program using only healthy ingredients. That's a tall order, I know, but I'm optimistic that there is public support for these initiatives.

6) A bonus question, if you will – What advice would you give to a student looking towards a career in food systems?

There are many more opportunities than ever before to get involved in the food and agriculture world. I think the key is to gain experience in the field: spend a summer working on an urban farm, start a CSA on campus, volunteer at the community garden in your neighborhood, and get involved in one of the many advocacy organizations working on public policy, including university-based organizations like the Real Food Challenge. In New York City, join the Food Systems Network to meet a wide range of practitioners.

In terms of academic training, if you know you want to go into farming, consider a land grant college with a sustainable agriculture program, like the University of New Hampshire.  Otherwise, focus on getting an excellent liberal arts education, perhaps majoring in a field like environmental studies. Some colleges, like The New School, where I teach, offer undergraduate food studies courses and an environmental studies major that focuses on the urban environment.  At the graduate level, there are a growing number of food studies masters degree programs, including at NYU and Tufts, as well as policy, planning, and public health programs that have a focus on food.  Find out who is doing interesting research and speak to them about the programs they teach in.

Thanks Nevin, for that incredibly informative interview!  "5 Questions With…" runs on Thursdays.  Subscribe to Grown in the City so you don't miss anything, or follow us on Twitter @GrownInTheCity.