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Urban Agriculture by Design

Urban agriculture increases regional resiliency, reduces carbon emissions, and bolsters local economies and ecosystems. Here are the things we’ve learned designing for urban ag.

Urban agriculture – “urban ag” for short – is part of how we save the world. Is this over-selling it? Perhaps. But consider the problems facing many communities in the United States: healthy food deserts, an abundance of disinvested and vacant land, food that’s dependent on carbon-intensive growing techniques and transportation to reach consumers, unbalanced and unhealthy ecosystems that contribute to climate change, and lack of economic agency. Urban ag provides potential solutions to each of these.

Like architecture, urban ag helps meet physical needs and enhance the well-being of individuals, ecosystems, and economies. It includes more than just raised bed gardens. When we talk about urban agriculture, we’re referring to the entire regional food distribution system from seeds to aggregation to processing to delivery. It’s becoming an even more relevant discussion as cities try to balance the need for green spaces that produce food with the need for buildings that house people and commercial and cultural activities.

In 2021, Union served on a Community Design Collaborative team to help co-create a vision plan for an urban farm and creative commons in North Philadelphia. The result is the Life Do Grow farm’s Campus Plan and Legacy Project. It encompasses three acres of land in the Lenilenapehoking that has been the site of indigenous and colonial farms, industrial warehouses, and, until 10 years ago, was left vacant. In 2010, a group of neighbors, students, and artists – now known as the Urban Creators – decided to start growing food and providing youth activities and mentorship on this fallow land. Over the last 12 years, they have built a neighborhood collective grounded in radical imagination, food, art, healing, education, entrepreneurship, and community.

Through all their work, Urban Creators recognizes the importance of sovereignty and stewardship. As Urban Creator’s Director of Operations Elizabeth Okero explains:

Having food sovereignty means … having control over the production of your food, or at least control over how it is produced and delivered to you. This is something that many wealthier people may take for granted, but in North Philadelphia, it is far from common.

Sovereignty allows wealth to stay within the community. Importantly, this includes both financial wealth and the wealth of stories and knowledge held by neighbors. Especially as external factors like displacement and gentrification threaten the neighborhood’s social fabric, providing a venue for support and sharing is vital. Urban Creators incorporates such support into their work of growing, neighborhood beautification, and event planning. Their ethos is founded in an idea of stewardship that looks at urban environments as the “commons”—and demands collective management and responsibility from, and to, those who tend it.


Courtesy of Community Design Collaborative

Urban Creator’s vision plan for the next 10 years centers on the farm and greenhouse—this is the heart of their operation. They expect to increase both the number and diversity of crops grown, with a focus on more native and afro-indigenous plants. The plan also integrates a variety of multi-functional spaces that support and build on the work of the farm. These include a 2-acre park and sculpture garden with new opportunities for play and exercise equipment; an apiary; an urban orchard with fruit and nut trees; outdoor classrooms; and a market space with permanent and seasonal shade. Additionally, a village of shipping container workshops provide neighborhood artists and entrepreneurs with spaces to create, mentor, and engage with the public.

Most of the elements in the plan were designed so that the Urban Creators can complete the work themselves using readily available and recycled materials. Low-cost, high-impact elements like painted streets and sidewalks, raised planter beds, and solar lighting creates a sense of identity throughout Life Do Grow. Murals by artists connected to the farm, and its indigenous heritage, announce to passers-by that they have arrived somewhere special, somewhere that celebrates and is grounded in this particular neighborhood.

Courtesy of Community Design Collaborative / Urban Creators

As the process unfolded, we learned several important lessons about how design and urban agriculture can successfully interact.

This starts with a recognition of the importance of relationships: between the farmers and the land, the farm and the neighborhood, and the farm and its natural ecosystem.  Design that fails to ground itself in these relationships cannot create places that are meaningful or authentic.

Successful urban agriculture has a non-extractive relationship with the land, and its landscape design elements reflect this. They incorporate native plants. They support culturally relevant diets with produce that’s often not available in the mass market. They incorporate permaculture practices that balance nutrients and provide for more than just the human participants in the life of the farm.

Urban agriculture encourages people to gather and form new relationships. This should be celebrated by incorporating flexible multi-purpose spaces in and around growing areas. These spaces provide space for farmers to process the items they grow, teach others how to grow, and are magnificent opportunities for art—murals on fencing, signage, sheds, and shade structures.

There’s a debate unfolding among planners, housing activists, and urban farmers about whether vacant land in cities is best used for growing food rather than providing housing. Suggesting that it depends on the individual context of each lot sounds like a cop-out, but it’s impossible to generalize a single “correct” solution. What we do know is that by creating more dense housing—think duplexes or triple-deckers instead of single-family homes—we can preserve open space that supports urban agriculture. Even the densest cities need some green space to be truly livable, so why not allow some of that green space to be used for growing food?

Between the dense urban core and the fields of rural farms are swaths of suburban land that could easily capitalize on growing food at the scale of urban agriculture. From suburban lawns that could house pollinator gardens and edible shrubs to full-scale shopping mall retrofits where an acre of parking lot asphalt could become an acre of arable land, there is an abundance of opportunity.

There are other ways the built environment and urban agriculture interact, beyond flat growing land on a once vacant lot. Edible street trees, vertical farms, and green roofs offer other opportunities for healthy soil, animal habitats, and plant-able square footage at a variety of scales. Project teams, and public advocates, need to ask early and often about how these can be incorporated into future development.

Like architecture, food is both an end in itself—nourishment—and a means to the end of building community. Food connects us to the earth and one another, it provides opportunities to mitigate climate change, and it is a critical part of empowerment and sovereignty.  Life Do Grow farm exemplifies all of these opportunities. Finding ways to follow their lead and incorporate healthier food systems into our communities at all scales will help strengthen those communities and, seed by seed, save the world.

Presentation boards courtesy of Community Design Collaborative / Urban Creators. Photos courtesy of Community Design Collaborative team.


Awards & Recognition

Life Do Grow receives Community Design Award AIA Philadelphia Paul Sehnert Community Design Award 2022
See all awards