This week, Nicola Twilley, newly-appointed Food Editor at GOOD (and occasional Omnibus contributor), is hosting “Food for Thinkers,” a multi-site online conversation about food that asks: What does – or could, or even should – it mean to write about food today? For us, writing about food means writing about systems; it means writing about the citywide implications of certain supply, distribution and consumption choices; it means analyzing the complex interplay between infrastructure, land use, policy, ecology, healthy, community engagement, education, water systems, waste systems and design. Fortunately, there is a project in the works that touches on all the many facets of what we like to talk about when we talk about food and the built environment of New York: Five Borough Farm.
Five Borough Farm is a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, in partnership with Added Value, to create the first citywide, comprehensive urban agriculture plan for New York City. Over the course of this year, the Five Borough Farm team will be evaluating the city’s existing urban agriculture activity, establishing a set of metrics by which to quantify the benefits of urban agriculture and creating policy recommendations for relevant city agencies. The project officially kicked off in December with a half-day workshop that tapped the minds and expertise of 90 urban farmers and urban agriculture advocates. Two people have been selected by the Design Trust to lead the effort: Nevin Cohen and Rupal Sanghvi. Sanghvi, who specializes in program evaluation and public health, is the project’s Metrics Fellow and therefore is responsible for quantifying and measuring the impact of urban agriculture on the city and its residents. Nevin Cohen, an urban food policy expert and chair of Environmental Studies at the New School, is the Policy Fellow, which makes him responsible for surveying the existing urban agriculture landscape in New York City and identifying new opportunities and recommendations.
We recently had an opportunity to talk with Nevin Cohen about Five Borough Farm. Read on to hear Cohen explain the challenges of developing a unified city plan for urban agriculture and talk about its promise as both social justice movement and model for community development. –V.S.
What is the Five Borough Farm Project?
Five Borough Farm is a project by 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. The urban agriculture movement is booming here: demand for local food production is growing, and in every corner of the city New Yorkers are developing a broad range of community gardens, rooftop farms, composting projects, and farmers markets. But right now 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. So what you find is city officials are reluctant to adopt the many policy recommendations advanced by advocates, or to address local food production on a citywide scale. Often city agencies and the ever-growing number of practitioners – many of whom operate on city land – work largely in isolation, lacking the systemic resources to coordinate or scale-up their efforts. There are outstanding groups like the NYC Community Gardening Coalition and NGOs like Just Food but there isn’t yet an overall vision for how urban agriculture could really transform New York.
The benefits are about more than just the quantity of food that can be grown. Urban agriculture is a social justice movement.The Design Trust is engaging a diverse cross-section of experts and a network of hundreds of individual practitioners to move this project forward. 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.
What is your role as Policy Fellow and Rupal Sanghvi’s as Metrics Fellow?
Rupal Sanghvi and I are working closely together on all aspects of the project. We’re examining what kinds of urban agriculture New Yorkers are practicing now, including the work of advocacy and other supporting organizations, by conducting in-depth interviews with people in all five boroughs, from relatively large-scale operations to individual community gardens, commercial farms to nonprofits. My work focuses on the policy landscape of urban agriculture. I’ve been conducting case study research in other large North American cities — Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco — to uncover best practices in urban agriculture policy that might be adopted by New York. Over the course of the project, I will evaluate existing New York City-based and national urban agriculture initiatives (e.g. schoolyard farms, urban farming plots on New York City Housing Authority grounds) and policy recommendations advanced by urban agriculture advocates, and will work with New York City policy makers to identify realistic measures that would support urban agriculture citywide. Rupal Sanghvi has been focusing on developing reliable metrics that can help practitioners to achieve their goals while also providing data on the diverse impacts of urban agriculture on individuals and communities. When the project is complete we will have a set of indicators that address ecology (e.g., the ability of gardens to capture stormwater that would otherwise overburden sewage treatment plants) and stewardship; public health (improved access to fresh vegetables); education and youth empowerment (changes in behavior and academic achievement); community building (residents’ use of a garden as a public meeting space); and economics (revenue from food sales, job creation in ancillary food businesses). Together, we will be creating a shared evaluative framework and tools that can help practitioners and guide both legislation and on-the-ground programming. But this is really a multidisciplinary effort. In addition to the Design Trust, Added Value, Rupal Sanghvi and myself, the team includes Thread Collective, an architecture and design firm, post-doctoral fellow Kristin Reynolds, and an advisory committee of experts in urban agriculture, planning, and policy. And we are working in parallel with researchers at Columbia University who are estimating the productive capacity of New York City’s open space. Also, students at The New School have helped gather data on urban agriculture activity in New York City. (My students mapped this information as part of an urban agriculture exhibition I co-curated at The New School with my colleague Radhika Subramaniam, called Living Concrete/Carrot City.)
Tell us about the workshop that kicked off the project. Who participated? What was discussed?
In December, we convened a citywide workshop for growers, advocates, and funders to discuss the project and to learn how practitioners measure their success, what information would help them to carry out their work more successfully, and the types of policy changes that would enable urban agriculture to expand in New York City. We asked: Why do you do what you do? What resources (revenue, volunteers, funding, etc.) do you rely on in order to do your work? How do you track what you do, and what do you wish you could track? What would help you measure the benefits of what you do?
Right now, we’re reviewing hundreds of pages of transcripts from all of the small group sessions we held. But I can tell you one thing we heard over and over that day: practitioners want a better way to communicate with each other, whether it’s sharing information about resources (where can I get these tools this week?) or technical assistance (we’re starting a farm-based learning program in the fall at a local elementary school and want some tips on monitoring the students’ progress). I think that’s where the tools and the website for Five Borough Farm will be really useful to people.
Urban agriculture engages people in initiatives to strengthen and improve the social, ecological, and economic well-being of their communities and, by extension, the city as a whole.
It’s clear that the complexity of urban agriculture extends far beyond the prevalent images of rooftop gardens and community plots. Questions of land use, community engagement, city policy, ecological effects and farming expertise, among others, all have to be addressed. What activities fall under the scope of Five Borough Farm? How much of this is about growing and how much is about distribution and access to healthy food? How much is about something else entirely?
That complexity is precisely why we are engaging so many practitioners and advocates in the process. For many urban farmers and gardeners, food access is their main objective: it’s about the fresh kale and tomatoes they grow and the weekly eggs they harvest, for themselves and others in their community. But urban agriculture is about far more than that. Urban agriculture engages people citywide in initiatives to strengthen and improve the social, ecological, and economic well-being of their communities and, by extension, the city as a whole. The scope of Five Borough Farm includes the youth leadership programs, school-based curricula, entrepreneurial rooftop farms, and related infrastructure – from composting projects to farmstands – that make urban agriculture such a powerful, multidimensional movement. The urban agriculture system — and it really needs to be addressed as a system — is a promising model of community development that has the potential to improve many aspects of urban life.
What are your ultimate goals for this project?
I hope that the tools we develop to measure the benefits of urban agriculture will enable gardeners and farmers to more effectively achieve their goals, whether it’s more sustainable food production, youth development, more revenue, or better health for the people in their neighborhood. We expect that reliable indicators of the impact of urban agriculture will also provide evidence to policymakers that urban agriculture is an important part of urban sustainability and should be supported like other municipal infrastructure. A broader goal is to influence City policy so that zoning, local laws, funding decisions, and City programs support the growth of urban food production.
What are the food security issues that urban agriculture can realistically address on a coordinated, large scale?
About three million New Yorkers live in neighborhoods with few or no grocery stores and supermarkets. These residents spend more of their limited income at bodegas and convenience stores for a narrow selection of poor quality food. While urban farms and community gardens are no substitute for full-service grocers, local food production can supplement the food budgets of low-income New Yorkers and enable people to eat healthier meals. A recent study in Philadelphia found that community gardeners in that city produced $4.9 million worth of summer vegetables alone, not including spring and fall plantings or fruits and berries. For low income New Yorkers, the ability to grow fresh, healthy food in the spring, summer and fall can be a godsend.
What land availability does New York City have for urban agriculture use? What kind of supply and distribution can be achieved?
Our colleagues at Columbia University are evaluating the productive capacity of open space in New York City to estimate how much food could be grown in the five boroughs. New York City doesn’t have vast unused tracts of land, but we do have quite a bit of open space, including rooftops and some 52,000 acres of yard space. If we gardened just 10% of our yards we could grow enough vegetables to feed 650,000 New Yorkers. One of the key design challenges is how to weave together these small patches of urban farmland to achieve a large impact. BK Farmyards (in Brooklyn) has given this a lot of thought, as have entrepreneurs in many other cities.
But the benefits are about more than just the quantity of food that can be grown. Community gardens make neighborhoods more livable, and also increase property values. Innovative entrepreneurial urban farms create jobs and make underused spaces safe and productive. Non-profit urban agriculture projects teach young people about ecology, food and nutrition, and help build skills and confidence. Productive green spaces keep rainwater out of our sewer system, reduce the urban heat island effect, and recycle organic matter. The impacts are far-reaching — as many practitioners will tell you, urban agriculture is a social justice movement.
What can the City itself do to promote or support an urban agriculture system?
People are already discussing policies about long-term stability for existing urban farmers, the use of vacant and under-used land and rooftops for new farms, municipal composting of organic waste for city gardens, and financial and technical support for urban farm projects that provide substantial social, economic and environmental benefits.
Several months ago, the departments of Parks and Recreation and Housing Preservation and Development issued new rules governing the use of city-owned sites for urban gardens. These were the subject of public hearings and extensive participation by community gardeners, and resulted in the proposed rules being modified. In addition, the City Council’s FoodWorks plan recommends policies to ensure the stability of community gardens, as did Scott Stringer’s FoodNYC. The specific local laws to put the ideas in FoodWorks into effect will be developed and introduced in the coming year or so.
What are the barriers? What can the City do to overcome them?
Policymakers need evidence of urban agriculture’s impacts to move public policy forward — especially in this economy. That’s why the metrics we are developing will be so important. It will help people see the tremendous value of each community garden or small urban farm in more than anecdotal ways. At the same time, we also need a broad understanding of urban agriculture in New York City and how it can best fit into the City’s food system. With this big picture view, people will understand the cumulative impact of hundreds — and potentially thousands — of those small community gardens and farms.
In terms of practical barriers, limited access to land, clean soil, skilled gardeners and farmers, technical expertise and efficient distribution channels all pose challenges. Our research is identifying which are most important and to what extent these limitations restrict urban agriculture’s potential. Like their rural counterparts, urban farmers are able to overcome many obstacles, and the wide range of urban gardens and farms is evidence of this, but the right public policies and targeted support could really scale up the movement.
How does a scaled-up, systematized urban agriculture network accommodate different farming models?
The key is to recognize that urban agriculture is a true polyculture. It ranges from window boxes and planters to multi-acre farms that grow many different crops. The efforts can be led by individuals, non-profits, or public and private institutions, like schools or hospitals. Cities can accommodate the entire spectrum of food production by removing unnecessary barriers and supporting the infrastructure to make diversified food production feasible. This might mean expanding programs to enable the produce from school gardens to be incorporated into school meals, or providing funding for commercial kitchen incubators so that food producers can add value to the food they grow.
The model that is most problematic is the vertical farm. It is highly capital intensive, and material- and energy-intensive as well. Fanciful schemes of high rises filled with tomato plants and pigs just doesn’t make sense from an economic, environmental or social perspective.
Does a city-wide plan call for a market-based system of farming? A more cooperative one? One that is reliant on volunteer networks? All of the above?
My sense is that the most vibrant urban agriculture system will be a civic agriculture system, to use a phrase coined by the late rural sociologist Tom Lyson. It will involve pure for-profit farms that are embedded in their communities, neighborhood-based community gardens run by volunteers, and hybrids — for-profit farms that rely at critical moments on “Crop Mobs” for extra labor, and non-profits that teach young people how to make a buck growing and selling fresh produce.
What’s next for Five Borough Farm?
Within the next few weeks, the Design Trust will release a workshop summary. By March, we’ll have completed about twenty-five in-depth interviews. Our whole team will be working on synthesizing and sharing this information with people in the urban agriculture community. We’re talking to photographers and graphic designers about how to visualize our findings, and we’ll have more events like the December workshop. Ultimately, we’ll end up with a Five Borough Farm publication and a website that we hope people will start using for their projects all over the city.