By: Kristi Waterworth
Growing produce in your own backyard or a community garden can be an amazing experience that allows you to not only choose the produce you consume but have control of the process from seed to harvest. Issues affecting urban gardens aren’t usually at the front of your mind when you decide it’s time to open up the soil in your yard or rent a garden plot, but there’s a lot more to consider than just where to buy your seeds.
Problems with Urban Gardens
Most urban garden problems aren’t readily apparent when you first dig the soil, but they are very real. Here are some of the most common things to consider before you plant:
Permits. Depending on where your garden is located, you may need a permit for tearing up the grass, building a fence, or keeping urban livestock like chickens, bees, and goats. Check with your local municipality before putting in the garden of your dreams to avoid finding out the hard way that it’s not allowed. A lot of urban gardening problems can be prevented by procuring the right permits the first time.
The human element. We all want to assume that our neighbors are both helpful and supportive of our garden efforts, but that’s not always the truth. It’s a good idea to talk to neighbors before starting a front yard garden and to erect a fence where there’s a lot of foot traffic. Produce theft is a real thing and happens to disappointed urban gardeners everywhere.
Sun protection. Urban community gardens are especially susceptible to problems with sunscald and radiant heat because many are constructed in areas littered with plenty of concrete, pavement, and large structures. When these surfaces warm up through the day, they can literally hold onto the heat for hours and cook your plants well beyond nightfall.
Contaminated soils. Even if the soil in your urban garden is healthy and rich, it may be hiding secret contamination from the past. Lead contamination is by far the biggest risk, and although most vegetable plants won’t uptake lead into their systems, it can be a problem if you don’t wash produce thoroughly or a child eats the soil in the garden. Having a soil test for heavy metals is good practice before you get to gardening.
Ozone. Burning gasoline and other fossil fuels can result in ozone pollution near the ground. Although there’s little you can do to protect plants from this hazard, knowing ozone is a problem can help direct your gardening efforts. Ozone-resistant garden plants are being developed, but aren’t available to the public yet. Until then, you may want to move gardens to areas further away from roads and sources of pollution.
Water supply. Rainwater gardening is romantic and earthy, but not every area has rainwater that’s safe to use for gardening. Pollutants can concentrate in the rainwater in urban areas, injuring plants and causing potential harm to gardeners. Municipal water may also be suspect, depending on native minerals and additives, like fluoride, which can hurt sensitive plants. Accessing useable water can be a trick in some areas, especially where drought and water rationing are common. Plan ahead for water long before you start to plant.
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Department of Health
Community gardens are shared spaces, on public or private land, where people can garden on land they do not individually own. Community gardening is growing more popular. In the United States, participation in community gardens has tripled from one million households in 2008 to three million households in 2013. 1
Community gardens are often located in urban areas, where soils tend to have higher levels of contaminants as a result of generations of human activity. Urban gardens are often located on vacant lots and abandoned properties that may have a history of soil contamination in some areas, brownfields can be a source of vacant land for gardening. Both urban community gardeners and home gardeners need to be aware of the potential for contamination and of the steps they can take to reduce exposure.
Visit our Healthy Gardening Research page to see how researchers from the Health Department's Center for Environmental Health are working with partners in the Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities project to learn more about the extent and distribution of contamination in urban community gardens, and to develop healthy gardening practices that can help urban gardeners enjoy the benefits of gardening while reducing the risk of exposure to contaminants.
Urban Gardening in the City
When we think of flowers and plants we also think of nature and not life in the big city. Gardens bring to mind the beauty of the country and peaceful living. Even though many of us live in the city we can still bring a touch of nature to our homes by indoor gardens that we create.
Urban gardens and gardening is a way to bring nature to big urban cities. It gives us the feeling of over coming the concrete and buildings that limit the space and city environment. Today many people have found creative ways to incorporate plants in their city spaces. You can look up and see flowers and plants on windowsills as well as way up on the top of buildings a tree thats part of a roof top garden.
In the urban environments you can find many people are taking to container gardening as a way of bringing nature into their apartments. Folks like myself even make little gardens on their terraces during the spring and summer. In short gardening reconnects us to a natural environment in a non natural setting.
As more and more high risers go up we find Urban gardening and agriculture becoming quite a normal thing. With Urbanization world wide there is less and less fertile land to cultivate gardens. As a result even societies beyond the Cities world wide are starting to use the idea of Urban gardening to make more food sources available. It give impoverished areas a change to grow fruits and vegetables as a means to help feed the hungry. Recent studies have been done to show that this idea is spreading to those countries where they are plagued with urban poverty.
Besides the aesthetics that urban gardening brings it is another partial help for the world hunger problem. Many vacant lots are now becoming community gardens with fruits, vegetables and flowers to help feed the hungry.
Because of limited space many times we find Urban gardens vary in their sizes, shapes and locations. The temperature range of any particular city seasonally will largely determine the type of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables one can grow in an urban setting. Considering where the city is located some people can have gardens all year long. It is also within reason that one can have a garden indoors all year long in their apartment too.
The main thing about gardening in a city is your environmental factors have to meet those requirements of the plants you choose to grow. If you live in a colder environment as opposed to a tropical one for example it may be better for you to grow broccoli instead of oranges. The amount of light you have in your apartment is also a consideration. Light and temperature are a large determining factor as to what type of Urban garden you can have in your apartment. If you have low light you get low light plants. In order to be successful with urban gardening you have to work around all your environmental factors including things like climate. Once you understand what conditions working you are working with within your environment you will be able to grow and maintain the garden you desire.
The solution to food deserts: Urban Agriculture in the form of Community Gardens
What are Food Deserts?
With the contradictory definitions of: food, signifying the objects we eat, and deserts, signifying dry, desolate areas with a lack of food, the words put together are confusing. According to the Food Empowerment Project, “Food deserts can be described as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.” Therefore, residents in these areas are left with no food at all or only corner stores where all the food options are fast food, which are heavily processed with high quantities of salt, high fructose corn syrup, and saturated fat. To lead a healthy life, it is imperative to eat foods that have vitamins and important nutrients to create a balanced diet.
When residents eat food without proper nutrients, they are creating an environment within their body for current and future health problems. In a country like the U.S where healthcare is not universal, people get “stuck in a hole” because they can not improve their food nor pay for the medical attention they need due to the food they have consumed. The quite obvious correlation between areas with lack of food access and lower income to areas with the people whom have the higher rates of health problems can be seen in the infographics in “High and Dry in the Food Desert”.
The various infographics indicate high levels of the variable with a darker shade of the color. From this, it becomes apparent that the areas with less food access are the same places with higher rates of the obesity and diabetes. Even though the article includes a quote “you always have to be careful about suggesting cause and effect” from Mari Gallagher, there is an obvious pattern that is supports the problem with food desserts (Matson, John). Therefore, the big question is: What can be done to improve this situation?
What is urban agriculture and how does it provide the solution?
Urban agriculture is agriculture introduced into an urban setting. Therefore, instead of the usual acres of land for crops, people grow things on roofs or on a plot in their community. This would provide fresh fruits and vegetables to residents in the community, with the additional benefit of unifying the community. With our current society consumed in technology and work, the idea of community seems to be dwindling. However, if there is a garden that needs to be attended to by the community for the community’s benefit, people will come together to take care of it.
As the foundation, RUAF Foundation, notes, “The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in -and interacting with- the urban ecosystem. Such linkages include the use of urban residents as labourers, use of typical urban resources (like organic waste as compost and urban wastewater for irrigation), direct links with urban consumers, direct impacts on urban ecology (positive and negative), being part of the urban food system, competing for land with other urban functions, being influenced by urban policies and plans, etc.”
Because urban farming, a form of urban agriculture, would be integrated into the urban setting, it allows for people to see where their food comes from. The process of creating food – planting a seed, watering and caring for the plant, harvesting it, and eventually eating it – allows the gardener to see the start and finish of their food. This can be the best tool to prove the importance of eating healthy and the simplicity of growing food.
Comparing two cities: Philadelphia and Oakland
According to a report done by The Food Trust, “23.5 million [Americans] cannot access a supermarket within one mile of their home… people living in low-income neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods, and rural communities face much greater challenges finding healthy food, especially those who lack good transportation options to reach full-service grocery stores.” This is a problem. Growing up in Oakland, California and attending college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I have witnessed two cities in the United States, who struggle with food inequity, make the effort to integrate urban agriculture into areas with food access problems.
In the Western part of Oakland, many urban farms can be seen from the elevated public transportation systems, nestled on street corners that were previously concrete slabs or people’s backyards. This has created more food for the community but also opportunity for employment. Some examples of organizations that run urban farms are: City Slicker Farm, Planting Justice, and Phat Beets Produce. As the Oakland Food Policy Council notes in their booklet, Transforming the Oakland Food System: A Plan for Action, there is an emphasis on engaging youth and the community “so they are equipped to make healthy choices about food and the food system”. It is not only important to have the access for food, but the education about the benefits of fresh food there is no point in having an urban farm if no one wants it.
Similar initiatives have taken place in the city of Philadelphia, which has residents in similar societal and economic inequalities situations as Oakland. Some examples of organizations that run urban farms in Philadelphia are: Bartram’s Garden, Greensgrow, and Urban Creators. I have personally gone to Bartram’s Garden and Urban Creators and seen the impact they can have on the community. They not only bring the community together, including the youth, but they provide an opportunity for the people in the area to be exposed to fresh foods.
I believe as citizens begin to see the social and economic benefits of urban agriculture within their city and in others, there will be more and more support behind the movement.
Milan Urban Food Policy Pact
Starting in 2014 and presented to the United Nations in 2015, the international Milan Urban Food Policy Pact has 159 cities from around the world committed to “work to develop sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse, that provide healthy and affordable food to all people in a human rights-based framework, that minimize waste and conserve biodiversity while adapting to and mitigating impacts of climate change” (València 2017). Click here for more information about this pact for global food justice.
Text and photograph: Reva Swiedler
Recommendations for Market Farms and Community Farming Organizations
Read this guide to on-farm food safety from Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
If you are interested in learning how to ship products from your farm, GrazeCart is opening their Perishable Shipping Course for 60 days at no charge to fellow farmers. This free access does not include live coaching calls or setup packages.
Resources for starting CSAs and other food delivery services
The following is a list of food delivery services and related software that work with farmers. If growers are interested in collaborating on group ordering, CSAs, or food hubs to serve their community and consumers with fresh food delivery, these may be useful tools. This list is also useful if you are looking to order deliveries of local produce.
For additional information both local and beyond:
- FPAC- Connecting to Build a More Just Food System
- COVID-19 Resources for Farmers and Ag Service Provider Organizations
- FDA Coronavirus FAQs for Food Products
- Cornell Small Farms: Building Resilience in this Time of Crisis
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak: Resources to Help Non-profits
- Coronavirus Communications: Examples, guidance, and resource for expanding the narrative
- Food & Land Sovereignty Resource List for COVID-19 (List compiled by Soul Fire Farm, Black Farmer Fund, and Northeast Farmers of Color) – a good list of resources including Philadelphia specific resources here.
- Coronavirus Resource Kit
- Philly Mutual Aid – Neighbors Helping Neighbors
- Looking to spread food access? Check out Philly Food Fooder and the City’s post .
- Complete the City’s survey: COVID-19 Impact on Workers
- Has your business been impacted by the pandemic? Take the survey from the City .
- Looking for grants or zero-interest loans for your business? Check out the Small Business Relief Fund while it’s still open from the City. FAQs here.
- NOTE: 3/27/20–Federal stimulus is becoming available via the SBA , with $377B earmarked for small businesses stay tuned. More information from Congressman Dwight Evans office here . A legislative update is also available here . Also, tax filing deadlines are pushed back to 6/15 for both Federal and City (BIRT). More from the SBA .
- Agricultural Justice Project: Planning for Extra Care at your Farms: https://www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org/media/uploads/2020/03/25/Planning_for_Covid-19_on_the_Farm_FINAL_3.24.2020_OussGlm.pdf
Organizations that Can Help
For further questions, feel free to reach out to the following local organizations who may be of assistance.
This document is meant to be a living document of resources and recommendations for those growing food for themselves, their neighbors or others. If you would like to add a resource to this page, or if you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin .
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More resources for securing access or ownership of land for your garden or farm
What is Urban Gardening? The Hot Trend That's Taking Over Cities
In the past, when thinking about gardening and farming, images of the countryside filled with rows of vegetables is what would come to mind. But the times are changing. More and more of our local food production is going on in our urban centers. In fact, according to the USDA about 15% of the world's food supply is now grown in urban centers. And this trend is forecasted to increase as the world's population is expected to become even more of an urban dwelling one.
Whether via tiny backyard plots, community gardening in city parks, guerrilla gardening on vacant lots, indoor hanging gardens, rooftop growing, vertical gardens and more, urban farming is a thing now.
What is Urban Gardening?
Urban gardening and farming are mishmashes of techniques and approaches to growing and raising food in densely populated urban centers. Because of the very nature of cities, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a plethora of solutions and practices that are undertaken by individuals, communities, cooperatives and businesses alike. A restaurant may grow their own herbs in an indoor garden, a neighborhood may take over a vacant lot for a raised bed garden, a cooperative may keep bees for honey on the roof, or a family may plan a container garden for a patio--all are examples of urban gardening. Instead of the long-standing practice of trucking in the food to cities, city dwellers are taking matters into their own hands to produce local and sustainable food.