challenges to urban agriculture

The expansion of urban agriculture is arguably necessary to feed the world’s population, especially as the global migration towards urban centers continues.  However, there is a range of hindrances preventing its full utilization, all of which are not necessarily exclusive to urban production systems – especially problems associated with a lack of foresight.

Populations within cities are large and the amount of space is limited. Since food production is not generally as lucrative as real estate sales and even thought of as non-essential, obtaining a space where products can be grown may be challenging. Wealthier residents are also willing/able to pay a premium for access to prime real estate which may displace citizens dependent on urban agriculture.  Since urban agriculture production can make use of non-traditional spaces like rooftops, there are ways around these issues. However, the development of the initial infrastructure and interest serves as a challenge, especially when cost is an issue of concern [and it typically is], which makes financial constraints an absolute matter of concern.

A safe and reliable water source is quintessential for production and also a luxury that not every location can offer, especially without compromising its use in other social capacities or at high cost.  Adequate access to fertilization and soil is also fundamental, but it may be too expensive for some urban growers or difficult to obtain for others.  

Apprehension regarding the environmental impact of urban agriculture is also prevalent for a variety of reasons.  Currently, the majority of food production takes place in rural areas.  If there is a problem with the water, air or land, it does not necessarily affect a large number of people.  However, in an urban environment, if there is a problem with any of the aforementioned environmental components, a great number of people are likely impacted.  As such, there is fear surrounding the use of chemical inputs in an urban environment – especially in locations lacking appropriate educational opportunities and environmental regulations.  

Furthermore, engaging in agricultural practices in sensitive locations, such as in close approximation to rivers, may result in contamination and eventually eutrophication or erosion. This can destabilize local ecosystems and reduce overall soil quality.  In either case, poor environmental conditions caused by urban agriculture can then result in health problems for residents or consumers.

Similarly, higher temperatures in cities can lead to a reduction in photosynthesis, thereby leading reduced output. If output reductions are severe enough, the use of labor and resources can become inefficient and ineffective.

Concern also exists as to the effect of poor environmental conditions within cities on crops. If crops are grown in locations contaminated by heavy metals or hazardous chemicals, the resulting crops will not be safe for human consumption.

However, the most widespread and common issues impacting urban agriculture relates to outdated public policy that is not reflective of current societal issues.  Poorly designed policy can render urban agriculture to remain an “invisible” sector of society. In turn, there may be no restrictions which can lead to issues of environmental and human welfare. On the other hand, the benefits of urban agriculture may also not be fully realized if appropriate support infrastructure is not in place.

At the same time, there may also be a lack of interest in participation in urban agriculture either because of a general sense of apathy, continued support for traditional production methods, or a lack of access and exposure.

Still, many of the above-mentioned issues can be addressed through collaboration, intelligent planning, and the development of place-based solutions that account for the “nature” of a city. In turn, urban agriculture has the potential to provide many much-needed benefits to urban populations throughout the world.

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