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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Visualizing the "edible city" in three minutes

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 3, 2012

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  rooftop garden, Bread for the City, Washington, DC (c2012 FK Benfield)

The American Society of Landscape Architects has produced another great video, this one about growing food in cities.  I'm a big fan of ASLA's work, in part because of their terrific skill at public and professional communications.

This particular project, which according to ASLA was created with assistance from landscape architects Mia Lehrer and April Phillips, contains both a decent short introduction to the subject of urban gardening and illustrations of a wide variety of types.  Personally, I have come to prefer the word "gardening" over "farming" when it comes to growing food in cities, because I think it is seldom appropriate to place an operation at the scale we usually associate with a "farm" inside cities.  I like the idea of keeping cities compact so we can conserve land for real farms outside the urban-suburban footprint, while gardening at a lot or neighborhood scale inside the city boundary.  

For me, the key test is whether in any particular instance city food-growing supports urban density and other aspects of urban life.  If it does, I'm all in; if, instead, it conflicts, it's probably in the wrong place.  Of course, everything is situational and subject to context.

This video is full of great examples of how to produce food in ways highly compatible with cities and city living.  Enjoy:


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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.

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BSMay 3 2012 12:06 PM

I am a fan of residential gardening (I've grown my own garden for many years, compost my kitchen waste, etc).

However, I've always had the nagging feeling that the supposed environmental benefits of community gardens might often be overstated.

For example, I was invovled in a community/charity garden once. It was in a small town rather than a big city:

Every day, one or more people would drive several miles to the site to pull weeds, water, etc. Once/week or more, one or more people would also drive the food to local charities. Water use was also tremendous and everything was always watered far more than was actually required (although in this case water came from a pond).

Last year, there was a drought, and water was trucked in daily.

If you looked at resource consumption per pound of food produced, I'm willing to bet that fuel and water use would be 1,000x or even 100,000x greater than for food produced at a farm.

Of course, an urban farm might do better, but this sort of thing still concerns me. Especially the fuel consumed by gardeners driving back and forth. These are things people don't even think about. So while they "feel" like they are doing something "sustainable" and "good for the environment", they may actually be doing the exact opposite.

In my case, I tried to discuss these things with the leaders of the garden, but they were not interested.

What are your thoughts? I really don't think urban gardening in most cases is as great for the planet as people sometimes make it out to be.

BSMay 3 2012 12:11 PM

Another good example of what I describe is what you mentioned in your article entitled "'Urban farming' is not always the right answer".

The group that wanted the orchard was willing to ask the city to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more to install suitable soil for their trees. The cost and resources required to do this would have been tremendous. I'd go so far as to say the idea was insane! Similar to my example above where people don't consider the cost and energy use for driving back and forth, this would have been a cost that never would have been considered part of the cost of running the orchard, because the city would have paid for it.

Similarly, home gardeners who occasionally drive to their local garden center and back will be consuming more energy driving on those trips than would be consumed to produce all of their food at a farm and deliver it to the grocery store.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 3 2012 12:37 PM

Obviously, driving long distances to pursue sustainability undercuts the goal. But a lot of urban gardening can be pursued within walking distance or certainly within the same distance required to travel to the supermarket. That's why context is important.

BSMay 3 2012 12:47 PM

Yes, I'm not making blanket statements, but the opportunities for gardens where everyone walks are very limited.

However, I also wouldn't use the term "long distances" when referring to driving. If you do the math, you'll find that even driving just a mile is very significant.

In any case, part of my point is that these are things that people don't even think of. If the goal is to conserve, then shouldn't you be insisting that people give thought and take action on this sort of thing? If you don't, aren't you accepting that many if not most of these gardens will actually wind up being resource hogs without anyone even realizing it?

As I said, I'm a fan of residential gardening and am not suggesting people shouldn't do it. I'm suggesting that as an organization whose goal is to defend our natural resources, it's probably something you'd want to address, isn't it?

BSMay 3 2012 12:59 PM

Allow me to give you a more concrete example.

A tractor trailer hauling 60,000lbs of food would consume about 0.38Btu/lb-mi. (Thats energy per pound of food per mile driven).

Now take the community garden I referenced that produces 5,000lbs of food per year (8months/yr). If there is just 5 miles of driving per day (gardeners coming and going, etc) associated with that garden, the energy consumption will be about 1220BTU/lb (assumes 25mpg).

Putting that in terms of food transported by tractor trailer, that's the equivalent of transporting the food over 3,000 miles!

And that doesn't even take into consideration the resources to set up the garden, the water, the fertilizer, etc.

Now consider doing the math on a home garden and it will look even worse.

Again, I'm not saying don't do it. But I am saying that if your goal is to protect the environment, this is something you should be concerned about, isn't it?

BSMay 3 2012 01:20 PM

Doing the same math on a residential garden that produces 150lbs/yr (8 months/yr) and assuming the gardener drives 64 miles (8 mile round trip to garden center, Lowes, etc eight times per year), the energy consumed is enough to move the food over 5,500miles by tractor trailer!

What can NRDC and other groups do to help manage this? This is a big pet peeve of mine. While I don't agree with many of the things the NRDC says, I think conservation is very important for several reasons.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 3 2012 01:22 PM

Well, "BS," since you've commented four (er, five) times within the same hour without using your real name, I have a feeling that you may not be easily satisfied.

But, as this post makes clear, some of us are, in fact, aware of the kinds of issues you raise. You also might find this one interesting. It's a complicated subject within a complicated field, and whether a particular instance of urban food-growing makes sense considering all environmental, social and economic factors may be hard to determine. My own instinct is that, the closer to home and the smaller the garden, the better.

Ian @ NRDCMay 3 2012 02:33 PM


That's enough badgering of NRDC staff for one day. Further comments from you will be removed.

– Switchboard editor

JJ EnglandMay 8 2012 05:46 AM

Thanks for the great post, as usual. You mentioned that for you, "the key test is whether in any particular instance city food-growing supports urban density and other aspects of urban life ... subject to context."

I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but I do remember a few agrarian authors saying that local and community grown food, urban gardening included, allows durable links between people and place to form. And that at least feels right to me, just from experience. My guess is that those durable links could very well foster and support urban density due to those bonds – these are areas that people become attached to where people truly want to remain, thus supporting higher density due to increased demand for housing. At least that’s what your post made me think of.

You also mentioned sometime in the last couple of weeks the importance of “placemaking.” Perhaps separate but related, it seems that urban gardening is one powerful way of making that happen (what stronger way to be connected to a place than with the land and/or food itself, especially when that natural environment is incorporated into the built environment), and that even if urban gardening leads to slightly lower available supply of housing in a given area, the tradeoff for a deeper sense of place may be worthwhile. The placemaking brought about through urban gardening might actually manifest itself in traditional smart-growth metrics, such as density.

Thanks again!

marieke bosveltMay 9 2012 10:49 AM

Can anyone tell me what BS did wrong? In my opinion he just pointed out the effects on the environment and suggested people to think about altnatives that would be less harmfull to it. What is wrong with that? i think his contributions were very worthwile and I am stunned that he is blocked from further comments. It is never wise to close your eyes for other opinions!

Ben WilesMay 9 2012 06:06 PM

I think BS's comments are valid and add to the conversation.

One of my concerns with urban agriculture is that these urban gardeners to focus on “high end” crops such as tomatoes and lettuce because of their higher costs for labor and utilities. I’m afraid that this may undermine the use high-end crops by rural farmers to augment income from cheaper crops. If this is true, we run the risk of putting some rural farmers out of business and driving them to sell their land to developer for the construction of our sprawling suburbs.

Comments are closed for this post.


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