Urban Farming Through the Ages

Urban farming is everywhere these days, from hipster havens and co-op produce departments to low-income neighborhoods and even prison grounds. Urban farming is trendy. It’s relevant. It could help us solve the major problem of how to feed ourselves on a quickly changing planet.

But why the sudden influx of interest in a concept that’s as old as cities themselves? When did urban farming become a highly discussed topic again? Because for many years, farming was pushed to the side — way, way, way to the side and into the depths of rural America.

So is “urban agriculture” just a trendy buzzword, rather an age-old tradition, or is it both? How did urban farming impact lifestyles then and now?

The Birth of Cities

Urban farming is not a new thing. In fact, some argue it dates back to Mesopotamia and settlements along the Tigris-Euphrates River system. People had to grow food near where they lived because long-haul trucking and airplane transportation were obviously not available yet. Not to mention, it just makes sense.

Why haul food across the country, allowing time for it to become stale and lose nutritional value when you could just grow it closer to home? It would taste better, be healthier for people and the environment, and create jobs in local communities. It seems like a no-brainer.

Yet here we are.

I don’t mean to suggest that humans haven’t valued growing food close to home since the height of Mesopotamia. We have. In the 1940s, Victory Gardens were popular to support food production during World War II. But as soon as the war was over, so was the enthusiasm for grow-your-own produce.

(Images courtesy of  Jazz Marie Photography )

(Images courtesy of Jazz Marie Photography)

Other such resurgences of urban farming have occurred through the years, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the modern-day urban farming trend that the concept began to stick around for more than a few years.

What We’ve Lost

So why does it matter? By pushing food production outside major population hubs, we’ve lost not only access to local food but also our deep connection to it. How could we feel connected to and value our food when it often travels coast to coast before it reaches our plate?

As our country increased its efficiency and focused on development, farming somehow became devalued. Activities like spending an evening flipping through family heirloom cookbooks and sharing food around a table were replaced by screens and TV dinners.

As a result, as a population, we’re unhealthier and arguably unhappier than we’ve ever been before.

The Resurgence of Urban Agriculture

In the face of climate change and the pressures of a growing population, urban agriculture is back, playing a leading role in solutions for a sustainable future.

Customers are educating themselves about their food choices and are demanding more healthy, local, and organic food to feed their families. They also want to know that the farms and grocery stores they support are practicing sustainable techniques.

This savvier consumer is a good thing for our future and the future of the planet we call home. According to Ohio University, “39% of all the freshwater used in the US goes to irrigate crops.” Led by their own desire to foster sustainable agriculture and satisfy the growing insistence of consumers, farmers around the world are searching for ways to decrease water use and conserve resources. Today, urban agriculture is at the forefront of innovation in the farming industry.

Combating Food Deserts

Growing awareness of food deserts is another reason why urban farming has made a comeback. Food deserts are areas where there is little or no access to affordable fresh food.

Urban farming pioneer Karen Washington prefers the term “food apartheid” to bring to light the social inequalities like racism and economic inequality that are often linked to food deserts.

Urban farming techniques like vertical growing and reclaiming lawns and vacant lots as food production areas can be used to bring food to every corner of every city, like early cities modeled.

(Images courtesy of  Jazz Marie Photography )

(Images courtesy of Jazz Marie Photography)


In an article for Grist, Tom Philpott suggests that what’s actually revolutionary is a city without a local food source and system integrated into its planning and development. “It is the gardenless city — metropolises like Las Vegas or Phoenix that import the bulk of their food from outside their boundaries — that is novel and experimental,” he writes.

Urban farming cannot solve all of our problems. It’s unrealistic to think that all the world’s grain, for example, could be grown on vacant city lots or rooftop gardens. It’s just not viable. But urban agriculture does offer a huge helping hand in regards to the issues of health and food security in the future.

It also begs the question, why wouldn’t we grow food in our local urban communities? Remember, people have been doing it since the dawn of cities themselves.

By Lettie Stratton. Lettie is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. She is a co-founder of Hoot ‘n’ Holler Urban Farm.