Urban Greenhouses And The Future Of Food

Photo:  Ceres

Photo: Ceres

This Article is part of 3 part blog series based on the book “Urban Greenhouse and the Future of Food” that illustrates the results of Student Challenge “Design the Ultimate Urban Greenhouse” and shares the visions of experts involved.

Can urban agriculture (UA) contribute to more socially just cities?

Before answering this question, we should take some steps back because definitions do matter. UA is defined as the growing, processing and distribution of food taking place in and around the city. These operations are meant to not only provide food for citizens but also to contribute to urban environmental, social and economic sustainability. All in all, UA has the potential to reshape and renew our cities by breaking through the rural-urban dichotomy and by bridging urban dwellers to local food systems. Long story short, the potential is great and it seems inevitable that UA “will become part of our urban metabolism”. How will it be integrated, is a question that must be asked. 

There is a lot of enthusiasm around UA. Some present it as the solution to most of world societal problems and a provider of green growth, green jobs, food security, healthy lifestyle and whichever else buzz words you might come up with. In fact, it seems that UA is getting more and more lost in the sustainability turn - or hype - that cities all over the globe have ventured into. Oftentimes, this sustainability narrative premises on high-tech, capital-intensive and production and market-oriented solutions. This interpretation of UA, though, is told to run the risk to create new injustices and to favor socio-economic and environmental distortions that could negatively affect marginalized communities within the city. Ultimately, there might be some degree of conflict between a high-tech oriented UA and one more focused on social issues and justice. 

When it comes to social justice, many societal dimensions come at play and the work of Nevin Cohen strives to capture as many. He calls for policies that “move ‘upstream’, addressing the social determinants” that lie behind food-related injustices: “low wage jobs, insufficient affordable housing, inadequate social welfare”. Ultimately, if UA wants to contribute to the achievement of social justice or at least to not enhance social injustices, it has to go “upstream” and address larger - or structural - issues at play in our cities. In this sense, there are already many examples of connecting food justice and food right battles with the practice of UA, as many grassroots initiatives are mushrooming. But, the question we ask ourselves is whether it is possible - and desirable- to reconcile a more social justice-oriented UA (no-profit UA) to the high-tech one. What can possibly come out of this synergy? 

Let’s try to answer these questions by digging into two practical examples of UA: Green City Force and Square Roots, both New York-based initiatives. 


Since 2009, Green City Force engages unemployed young adults from low income urban communities in environmentally responsible activities with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty and preparing them for careers in the green economy. The parable of Paul Philpott, former member of Green City Force, is chosen by Nevin Cohen to exemplify how UA can contribute to the cause of social justice:

He learned how to farm while working with a non-profit called Green City Force, which built and runs six large (0.5 hectare) farms on the ground of high-rise social housing developments. After leaving Green City Force, Philpott set up his own hydroponic farm (‘Gateway Greens’) at an urban ‘farm’ called ‘square roots’ that is composed of a cluster of shipping containers fitted out to grow produce.

Square Roots belongs to the category of high-tech UA, however it can be placed half-way between a profit-driven business and a socially driven one. Besides using climate-controlled shipping containers to bring local food to people in cities, an explicit objective of the company is empowering more young farmers through its year-long training program. The experience of Paul seems to not only demonstrate that nonprofit-UA is a powerful tool to give equal opportunities to citizens but also that, in some cases, high tech UA can contribute to the cause of social justice. Similarly, Jan Willem van der Schans, researcher specialist in short and ultra-short fresh food supply chains, argues that UA can promote upward social mobility:

In the situation where many farmers have no successors, urban small-holdings can be perceived as breeding groups: locals learn how to grow food in their garden, move to the Westland greenhouses and learn trade, and then move on to become farmers themselves. In Malmo in Sweden, their policy is to welcome refugees and select those with an agricultural background and offer them training to be employed in the sector. 

So, finally, can UA contribute to more socially just cities? Yes, it can, but, as argued by Nevin Cohen, in order to achieve a substantive social change UA projects should focus on explicitly addressing the roots of food system disparities: structural racism, poverty, gender inequity, discrimination, economic disparities, unequal power and privilege. Furthermore, in pursuing this, we should not antagonize social justice-oriented UA (no-profit UA) to the high-tech one as we would risk to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. On the contrary, the story of Paul seems to suggest that in order to not limit the space of possibilities for a socially just UA, it is critical to move beyond this dualism and look for synergies in the transition to green and just cities. It remains that this quest for synergies cannot overlook structural injustices within the current food system. Rather, it should have social justice as guiding principle from the very outset and technology innovation as supporting tool.


We thank Esther Sanyé Mengual (University of Bologna) and Francesco Orsini (University of Bologna)  for providing very useful information.

About the Authors

Marco Immovili

MSc student at Wageningen University (NL) in Environmental Policy and Sociology. Interested in the social and environmental justice dimensions of sustainability, nature and biodiversity conservation, and cities.

Michele Butturini

Researcher at the department of Horticulture and Product Physiology, Wageningen University (NL). Passionate about urban farming, vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture.