Sustainable Food Systems for Future Cities: The Potential of Urban Agriculture


  • Kubi Ackerman The Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Michael Conard The Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Patricia Culligan The Earth Institute, Columbia University; School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University
  • Richard Plunz The Earth Institute, Columbia University; Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University
  • Maria-Paola Sutto The Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Leigh Whittinghill The Earth Institute, Columbia University


sustainable food systems, future cities, urban agriculture


Populations around the world are growing and becoming predominately urban, fueling the need to re-examine how urban spaces are developed and urban inhabitants are fed. One remedy that is increasingly being considered as a solution to inadequate food access in cities, is urban agriculture. As a practice, urban agriculture is beneficial in both post-industrial and developing cities because it touches on the three pillars of sustainability: economics, society, and the environment. Historically, as well as currently, economic and food security are two of the most common reasons for participation in urban agriculture. Urban agriculture not only provides a source of healthful sustenance that might otherwise be lacking, it can also contribute to a household’s income, offset food expenditures, and create jobs. Social facets are another reason for populations to engage in urban agriculture. A garden or rooftop farm is a place where people come together for mutual benefit, often enhancing the common social and cultural identity for city residents. Larger urban farms also participate in community enrichment through job training and other educational programmes, many of which benefit underserved populations. Finally, urban agriculture can play an important role in the environmental sustainability of a city. As a form of green infrastructure, urban farms and community food gardens help reduce urban heat island effects, mitigate urban stormwater impacts and lower the energy embodied in food transportation. This paper will describe a multi-year study undertaken by the Urban Design Laboratory at the Earth Institute to assess the opportunities and challenges associated with the development of urban agriculture in New York City (NYC). The paper will present metrics on potential growing capacity within the City inclusive of both rooftop and land-based options, results from a survey of New York City based urban farmers that gathered information on the challenges and barriers to food production in NYC, with a focus on rooftop farming, and data from an environmental monitoring study on a commercial rooftop farm in Brooklyn. The paper will use the results of the multi-year study to provide insight into the potential role of urban agriculture to creating a more sustainable food system for New York City and cities elsewhere.