6 Recommendations for NYC’s New Director of Urban Agriculture

Parks’ Five Borough Administrative Building’s green roof. Image sourced from NYC Gov Parks.

About 10 years ago, I bought a one-way ticket to NYC to pursue my dreams of accelerating urban farming. I was hoping to get a job at one of the exciting startups in the Big Apple and had an interview lined up with BrightFarms. While I didn't get the job, I stuck around to volunteer at Harlem Grown, intern at Sky Vegetables, and study at Columbia University under Dr. Dickson Despommier, who first popularized vertical farming. Eventually, I recruited an amazing team and launched Agritecture as a global advisory firm for all things urban agriculture. To date, we have worked on nearly 200 projects in more than 40 countries, giving us a unique perspective on how cities can foster a thriving urban agriculture community.

Henry Gordon-Smith moderating a panel at the AgLanta Conference 2019. Agritecture worked directly with the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Director of Urban Agriculture to host two days of farm tours, discussion panels, and breakout sessions.

I am excited and proud to see that NYC is finally stepping up its focus on urban agriculture with the announcement of a new office of urban agriculture. This means that there will be a renewed interest in urban agriculture across the city, more funding for projects, and a dedicated leader to focus on the city’s climate & resilience strategies. As someone with over a decade of experience (much of it in NYC) and extensive policy advisory experience with the Agritecture team between NYC, Atlanta, Dallas, Paris, Amsterdam, Doha, Singapore, and Auckland, I want to share ideas and encourage the new NYC Director of Urban Agriculture. So, here are my top 6 recommendations for the future Director of Urban Agriculture of NYC:

1. Protect our Community & School Gardens

West Side Community Garden on 89th St in NYC. Image sourced from Jim Henderson.

NYC has a long history of community gardens, and with over 600 spread across the city, these represent an important foundation for the growth of urban agriculture. Despite providing green spaces, safe community environments, affordable food, green infrastructure, increased neighborhood real estate value, and biodiversity, these gardens are still not protected. Most of them utilize temporary leases preventing longer-term investment in staff, materials, and development, which they need to achieve their full potential. 

Considering the importance of these gardens to some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, I would encourage the new leadership to move to protect them with longer-term leases of 10+ years. This would greatly assist the thousands of volunteers who support these farms day to day and the tens of thousands of residents that benefit from them.

In addition to community gardens, there are 750+ school gardens which the city should also protect and formalize as a part of NYC’s education system. I suggest encouraging more indoor farming solutions across NYC schools and formalizing the use of urban agriculture in NYC’s STEM education curriculum. Without a longer-term workforce that understands agriculture, the city will have little chance to benefit from the resilience benefits that urban agriculture can provide, which is why investing in youth now will help us better weather the storms of the future. I speak more on that in this recent TED talk and recommend you look at the innovative work that Teens for Food Justice is doing in NYC schools.

2. Provide more guidance for architects, developers, and entrepreneurs

This French countryside inspired rooftop garden in Chelsea was designed by Christian Duvernois. Image sourced from Curbed and shot by Annie Schlechter.

NYC’s buildings are designed by architects and funded by developers. These two groups are critical for city leadership to engage with to embrace its future in urban agriculture. The problem is that while architects and developers like the idea of urban agriculture, it’s often too complicated to determine how it fits with city zoning and how to best design these farms to be self-sufficient.  

At this point, hundreds of architects and developers have come to Agritecture for guidance on developing urban farms on their new and existing properties in NYC. However, more often than not, they dump the planned rooftop farm or basement vertical farm due to zoning complications, lack of clarity on city support, and their ability to find farm operators. NYC leadership should move further than Zone Green and add more details on how and where they want to see more urban agriculture. The city needs to move fast to include the rapidly developing sector of indoor vertical farming into city zoning and include all relevant aspects of fire code and other compliance requirements to ease the fears of architects and developers. 

Reducing barriers for developers through zoning amendments as well as connecting them with operators would rapidly accelerate the development of many kinds of urban agriculture in NYC and would bring in more jobs, investment, and fresh food to the city. A great example of these practices in action are the guidelines provided by Singapore for planning farms which are accelerating urban agriculture through clear and responsible development.

3. Support the urban agriculture technology startup scene 

Agricultural entrepreneurs co-working at the former AgTech X incubator and educational space.

More than five years ago now, the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office approached Agritecture, our sister company AgTech X, and the NYC Agriculture Collective for fresh ideas to further the field of urban agriculture. We drafted a concept for a technology accelerator focused on NYC urban AgTech. Think robotics, IoT devices, data intelligence solutions, and LED lighting products developed here. This would bring significant innovation and investment into the city and place it on the map as not just a place for food production but also a place to develop the underlying technology for farms. 

Considering that companies like Thrive Agritech, Artemis, Re-Nuble, Grow Computer, and other AgTech solutions were started in NYC – though not all have remained here – there is evidence that more local development of the field is possible. We also recommended that an incubator be focused on diverse populations. The AgTech sector, and the indoor farming space in particular, has not had a strong track record on diverse leadership so far. NYC should be a place that helps lead that necessary change. 

While funding was put into place for the concept and a host/management firm selected, it has stalled, disappointingly. NYC’s urban agriculture leadership should revive this project in its first year, re-allocate the funds, and move NYC’s urban agriculture innovation forward.

Other incubators would help too. When Square Roots set up its farm and opened it to applications, 480 young people applied to work in the 10 container farms available, showing us just how many people want to work in urban agriculture in NYC and what’s possible when you create pathways for them to do so. AgTech X, which was a mini “WeWork of urban agriculture,” created an open space for innovators to gather, learn, and work together. It quickly filled up its first space and then expanded to a second. Thousands of people visited, including hundreds of student groups, and multiple companies were incubated. Just a little bit of support for these projects or revitalization of them now would bring back the energy that NYC had around urban agriculture that has stalled in recent years.

4. Launch an urban agriculture competition

Winners of the third Urban Greenhouse Challenge, LettUs Design. Image sourced from Wageningen University & Research.

I had the opportunity to advise on and judge the City of Paris’ successful Parisculteurs competition. The idea is simple: the city finds a group of city buildings, schools, and private property owners to offer suitable spaces for free or with delayed rent. Then, those are listed on a website and business plans are requested from potential for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. A panel of judges determines the winners, and the city facilitates introductions. The program was a success, already achieving 16 hectares of its initial goal of 30 hectares dedicated to urban agriculture projects. 

The City of Paris showed up and committed to urban agriculture, and that opened up a lot of innovation and investment. Many types of farms have been built since the project launched, from rooftop farms to greenhouses to basement vertical farms. Paris is arguably a more bureaucratic and complex city with its architecture and actively engaged local communities than NYC. And yet, they were able to get the job done with true leadership and innovation. I am baffled why more cities don’t replicate this model which has positioned Paris as a global leader in urban farming.

If I were Director of Urban Agriculture, I would adapt the Parisculteurs program to work in NYC. Firstly, I would select a single neighborhood or borough segment rather than adopting a city-wide approach for the program. If it were my choice, I would choose the South Bronx, which has the most to gain in terms of job growth, increased food access, and positive health outcomes. 

Secondly, I would expand the competition beyond just production to include the full value chain of urban agriculture including farm inputs, building retrofit solutions, shared processing facilities, and novel local distribution solutions. In the end, the competition should focus on fostering innovation and diversity that fits into NYC’s unique context, setting the stage for wider expansion.

5. Develop an urban agriculture plan

A resident takes care of a community garden located in the East Village. Image sourced from The Guardian and shot by Tadej Znidarcic.

In the face of a changing climate that is surely going to affect all of us in one way or another, every city needs a clear urban agriculture plan that defines its objectives, presents clear timelines to achieve their goals, and has a budget allocated to make the plan happen. These plans must consider the needs of all New Yorkers and should be designed to encourage food justice and combat food insecurity. 

The plan should also consider the business community as an asset in the planning stage, as the economic development benefits of urban agriculture in NYC are significant. Urban agriculture has already been noted in the previous administration’s OneNYC Plan from 2015, but almost nothing was done to achieve these set goals. So, most of all, this plan needs to be realistic, and the leadership needs to be ready to implement it with the support of the wider urban agriculture community. This community is eager to work together and with the City to get more urban agriculture built so we can encourage resilience to the increasing shocks of climate change.

6. Bridge urban and NY state agricultural communities

Cows grazing in a field in New York State. Image sourced from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Urban farms can have a surprisingly impressive impact on a city’s food security, but that impact is still minor in comparison to local agriculture. NY state has many great farms within a few hours of the city that the new Director should bridge connections with. Urban farms have proven that they have strong brands, use cutting-edge technology, and can be super efficient with space. They are also usually run by younger farmers. In contrast, the 35,000+ farms across NY State have more overall experience in agriculture, scale, and operations. However, they often struggle to reach specialty markets, get the best price for their products, and find suitable younger farmers to operate their farms as they age. Meanwhile, many urban farmers struggle to find affordable land anywhere in or close to the city to potentially scale up.

Events, web forums, and policies that bring the wider NY farming community closer to the NYC Urban Agriculture community would be a worthy investment of time and money. Also, an interface between the state’s new office of urban agriculture and cities such as Rochester and Buffalo that are interested in urban agriculture would create more regional food security that would benefit all farming stakeholders. In the end, NY will be stronger if it erases the lines that divide urban and rural agriculture communities.

While I travel often, NYC still feels like home to me. Much of my team is still based there, and I return often to work with them, our clients, and even speak with city leadership. It’s been sad to see how NYC, which was the global leader in urban agriculture 10 years ago, has now fallen behind other cities. The time is now to catch up, and I admire the Mayor's commitment to developing an office and budget for the growth of urban agriculture. As I like to say about NYC, “If you can grow it here, you can grow it anywhere” and the effects of leadership in urban agriculture in NYC will not only help New Yorkers for years to come but also set an example for other cities with increasing food insecurity to adapt and thrive.

Henry Gordon-Smith, Founder & CEO of Agritecture, is an acknowledged global thought leader in the accelerating vertical and urban agriculture industry and serves as an advisor to multiple AgTech startups and non-profits.


From Hobby to Commercial Scale: Surna's 15+ Year History Assisting Indoor Growers


Here’s The Latest Data On Climate And Food And It’s Not Good