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Kristin McArdle Headshot

Urban Agriculture: Fad or Necessity?

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Urban agriculture is at the forefront of the eat local, locavore and agrarian movement. This is an exciting time, which may mark the greatest popular interest in farming, food production and policy in the United States. An age that some have coined a period of great downshifting or "voluntary simplicity" where more and more young rural and urban inhabitants alike want to return to the land and start producing food. Urban agriculture offers an opportunity for those urbanites who want to do so, get their hands dirty, volunteer in a community garden, raise some hens for eggs but aren't quite ready yet to abandon the creature comforts of the metropolis (or their urban salaries) and move to a farm in the sticks. This may be a convenient way for people to get their feet wet in the agricultural world, but does it offer a viable solution to the problems associated with our food production and distributions systems?

Many people in the urban agriculture community (myself included) would answer a resounding collective "Yes!" We must focus on systems and methods of producing food in our urban environment and at the forefront of that conversation should be technology adoption and policy changes to start producing more food on the abundant available space of our cities' rooftops.

In the past decade in the United States there has been a rapid rise in implementation of rooftop farming in New York, Chicago and Portland more so than anywhere else. Surprisingly, it has been slow to catch on in some cities across the U.S., specifically San Francisco. It is shocking that this wave has not caught on in one of the most progressive and food-centric cities in the United States.

The San Francisco Policy and Urban Research (SPUR) organization recently published a report to understand this phenomena. The report outlined the current political and policy landscape in San Francisco that may be thwarting the development of said projects. Further, the report made policy recommendations that could be adopted and used as a template for effective municipal green roof policy at the national level. (For more information see SPUR's "Greener Better Roofs").

So, if public policy isn't behind this movement, what is the case for local San Francisco and further, national policy changes to create incentives for realizing the benefits of urban rooftop agriculture, and why does this matter? The case has been clearly outlined and articulated by climate change and agricultural experts; the confluence of climate change impacts, population growth, land use changes (specifically the loss of arable agricultural land), and the contributing impact of our current agricultural system towards the climate change epidemic make a case for an increased focus and the proliferation of urban rooftop agriculture.

The current state of the rooftop agriculture industry may have a limited scope of production and appropriate technology. However, in the very near future this form of food production will be important to supplementing, redistributing and decentralizing our agricultural production foodsheds. The more we implement and encourage this form of agriculture, and start having conversations about the importance of producing food in urban centers the faster green roof urban agriculture policy will catch up and technological innovations will be inspired to make this farming system as a whole more profitable.

Urban rooftop agriculture offers a viable solution to addressing the environmental problems inherent in our food industry and will be crucial to ensuring the resilience and sustainability of our cities. It is not just sexy and exotic but it is transformative and offers a solution to fix the broken structures (the built environment) and systems (food production and distribution) it is built upon. As the current technology and policy implementation exists now it is not the be-all-end-all to the problems that exist in our agricultural industry, but is is very much a worthwhile conversation to be had at the public, private, local and national arenas. It has the opportunity in the future to offer a major solution to feeding ourselves while at the same time offering opportunities for the urban environment to be reclaimed and fortified.

So, what gives San Francisco? The desire to have access to farming opportunities is present and more popular than ever, the need for urban agriculture has been articulate and repeated ad nauseum. It confounds me why urban rooftop farming projects are not taking hold in our beautiful city, and are not catching the eye of necessary angel, seed and crowdfunding sources. I have been working as an urban rooftop farmer for the past two years and have been stymied by the lack of support and creation of these types of projects in our city.

Maybe our proximity to Silicon Valley, and the shiny tech industry makes the proposition of growing radishes and lettuces seem like small potatoes, not worthy of investment or support. Maybe it is the lack of a venture capital backable, replicable, scalable model to entice investment. Whatever the case maybe be, we shouldn't expect the same output and return on investment from our food production systems as we do other industries; didn't we learn our lesson from the green revolution?

C'mon San Francisco! The interest is there, the need is clear, lets get on board with urban roof-top agriculture.