Why Cities Should Invest In Urban Agriculture As Part Of Their Severe Storm Preparedness


Rendering of New York’s Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan waterfront during coastal storm conditions; Rendering sourced from the NYCEDC and the Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency (MOCR)


Weather in 2021 was a particularly loud wake up call to the climate crisis we are in. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), total damages from this year’s Atlantic hurricane season alone cost over $67 billion, making it among the most expensive hurricane seasons yet. 

One of the most destructive: Hurricane Ida. 

Hurricane Ida’s footprint in terms of excessive rainfall; graphic sourced from the National Weather Service 

Hitting the Louisiana coast in August 2021, and following three storms (Elsa, Fred, and Henri) that crisscrossed through the Northeast, Ida became the costliest disaster this year, ranking among the top-five most costly hurricanes on record for the U.S. since 1980.

Unfortunately, for the Northeast region, a Yale-led study suggests that the 21st century will see an expansion of hurricanes and typhoons into mid-latitude regions, including major cities like New York and Boston. 

Stormwater runoff is one of the biggest challenges of hurricane season. In a natural environment, the majority of rainwater infiltrates soil and replenishes the groundwater aquifers. Urban areas don’t work the same way. With impervious surfaces, there is minimal permeable groundcover. With coastal cities and island nations, where stormwater has nowhere else to go, the result is flooding.

We may not have the power to prevent such disasters, but we can certainly build up our resilience to them. Two strategies that can help: urban agriculture and green spaces.

New York’s Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan hopes to green waterfronts to ensure that Lower Manhattan withstands “increasingly intense coastal storms, while knitting a new flood defense system into the fabric of the city.” “The upper level will protect against coastal storms, with buried floodwalls that double as elevated open spaces,” and “the waterfront esplanade, designed to safely flood during a coastal storm, brings people close to the water.” This combination of grey and green infrastructure is projected to save the city $1 billion per year in damages from 2050 onwards.

Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Detroit; Photo: © 2021 Paul Dingman/courtesy HDR

A similar push to build climate resiliency in an urban area threatened by extreme weather patterns can be found in downtown Atlanta. The newly built Rodney Cook Sr. Park has been specifically designed to flood. Capable of absorbing up to 10 million gallons of stormwater, it include an expansive pond, which can overflow into a surrounding wetland meadow. The park also doubles as a community hub, offering playgrounds and sports grounds along the waterfront. 

Urban farms are similarly offering a novel approach to stormwater management with their dispersion and infiltration benefits. The Gil Hodges Carroll Street Community Garden is one that was designed with stormwater management in mind. The site includes bioswales planted along the sidewalk to collect rainfall, and rain gardens that help improve the local water quality by preventing the sewer from overloading with polluted water.

According to the Brooklyn Grange team, their farms similarly tackle stormwater runoff with their “green roof systems laid down before the soil.” Their Flagship Farm uses “drainage plates with small cups to hold excess water from heavy rainstorms (the soil and plants wick this stored water up in dry conditions).” Such projects additionally improve air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, build community, support biodiversity, improve soil quality, and more.

However, in the most serious of storms, these conventional soil-based farms are also likely to be devastated. This is when controlled environment agriculture (CEA) can play a particularly crucial role. Here are four farms and suppliers enabling hurricane-resilient agriculture for local populations:


Teens For Food Justice (TFFJ)

The Far Rockaways in NYC has been struck hard by hurricanes and tropical storms in recent years. With limited mass transit options to and from the peninsula, food insecurity is a common issue. The non-profit TFFJ is developing hydroponic vertical farms in local schools. Katherine Soll, Founder & CEO of TFFJ, shares that this will not only “increase local food production and food access within the communities where it is so needed,” it will also “build the skills and the entrepreneurship opportunities for young people at the schools.” These plans are a means to better prepare for a time when “resources might be cut off from the peninsula, and to create more self-sufficiency.”


Sprung Structures

This global innovator and manufacturer of tensioned membrane structures is using their greenhouses to help strengthen food sovereignty on island nations. With high shipping costs and generally small economies, islands are increasingly challenged to feed their growing populations. By providing durable greenhouses which can withstand extreme weather conditions, Sprung is helping growers in 100+ countries take control of their local food supply. In Barbados, the team has supplied a Category 5 hurricane-resistant greenhouse that is able to withstand wind speeds of up to 175 mph. The hydroponic system is both low-energy and employs water-saving methods to reduce operational costs.


Fusion Farms

This vertical aquaponics farm in Puerto Rico seeks to address the pressing need for both climate resiliency and food sovereignty on the island. Because of the chaos caused by Hurricane Maria, the Fusion Farms team opted for vertical farming as a way to ensure protection from extreme weather conditions. Using space in unused buildings which have already shown resistance to extreme weather conditions, they have been able to establish a hurricane-protected aquaponics farm. The “closed-loop and self-sustaining ecosystem” maximises the economic potential of the space, reduces carbon output, strives for a zero-waste goal, and uses renewable energy sources where possible.


Growing Puerto Rico

In noticing that Puerto Ricans are four times more likely than mainlanders to experience food insecurity, Growing PR sought out solutions to “producing fresh, clean, local, healthy fruits and vegetables consistently for the Puerto Rican population.” With the goal of making the best of both outdoor and indoor agriculture, they partnered with Sprung. Jennifer Morrow, Co-Founder of Growing PR shares that the greenhouse provides all-weather durability and enables food production in a climatically vulnerable location. While the farm is only just kicking off, Growing PR has already established a community that they can rely on to be self-sufficient within their own borders.


These urban farming projects embody the holistic definition of climate resiliency as laid out by researchers in a 2019 RUAF report. It defines climate resiliency as a triple-pronged undertaking, involving the mitigation of factors contributing to climate change, adaptation to its effects, and development of social infrastructures which might be damaged by it.

In conjunction with private sector solutions, government funding and policy change is proving effective in furthering urban agricultural projects to improve climate resiliency. 

The PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) provides funding for improvements in resiliency and energy efficiency on private properties. In 2020, PACE funding for a $1 million project was agreed upon in Detroit, to build a green roof on private property. The green infrastructure is intended to improve stormwater management, provide habitats for wildlife, and reduce the urban heat island effect.

In addition, initiatives like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact recognize the value of urban agriculture in providing “inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse” food systems for communities all over the world, and see them playing a vital role in “mitigating impacts of climate change”. Over 200 cities have signed onto this pact, which allows them to work together, share best practices, and collectively monitor progress.

The effects of climate change are indisputably being felt all over the world, and immediate action is needed in order to build resilience against them. 

With the agricultural sector being both a victim of and a contributor to climate change, the multifaceted solution of climate resiliency must incorporate the safe, reliable, and sustainable access to food as a core issue in combating the climate crisis. Developments in green urban spaces and urban agriculture are one effective method to do so.

Ultimately, with extreme weather patterns being aggravated by climate change, it is a matter of pressing urgency to continue to research and fund such solutions, in order to ensure the safety of the world’s most vulnerable communities.


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