Team L

Urban Farming: Implications on Socioeconomic, Human Health, and Environmental Health 

 Sarah Wagman and Carolyn Munley  


The City of Madison is holding a Common Council meeting where we are scheduled to speak as researchers that work for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  We will be presented to the City of Madison and residents interested in learning about the effect of urban farming on food security and urbanized areas in general. As researchers, one with a background in food science and the other in sociology, we will analyze our findings to the Common Council with the hope of displaying the multidimensional implications of urban farming. We will draw evidence from mixed method literature in three different cities in the United States (Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia) that discuss the effects of urban farming on food systems issues in those areas. We will then conclude by advocating for an increase of urban farming in Madison, Wisconsin to promote the well-being of the area. 


Food security is explained by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) as “all persons obtaining at all times a culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through local non-emergency sources,” with urban agriculture playing an important, but integrated role in this effort (Siegner et al., 2018). In this web page, we will propose the solution of urban agriculture to help mitigate the negative implications of food security on communities. We also explain key terms used when discussing food systems related issues. Urban agriculture has socioeconomic, human health, and environmental health implications. We ask the question of what these implications are and use mixed-method literature on the effects of urban agriculture in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles. We conclude by giving a brief history on the food security of Madison, Wisconsin. Based on our finding from the three cities in our literature review, we recommend increased resources and practices allocated towards urban agriculture in Madison, Wisconsin. 


The idea of urban agriculture may seem unfamiliar, as agriculture seems to primarily exist in rural areas. However, due to an enormous urban population growth, economic changes, and political changes that increasingly undermine local food distribution systems, many cities around the world have begun fostering a range of experiments in urban agriculture (Brown & Jameton, 2000). According to the American Planning Association’s 2011 Report ‘Urban Agriculture: Growing Healthy, Sustainable Places,’ urban agriculture can be defined as the production, distribution, and marketing of food and other products within the cores of metropolitan areas. This comprises community and school gardens, backyard and rooftop horticulture, and innovative food-production methods that maximize production in a small area and at their edges (Surls, 2014). In the United States, there have been numerous urban agricultural endeavors and an increase in health professionals, urban planners, environmental activists, community organizers, and policy makers that recognize the value of urban agriculture for economic development, food security, and preservation of green space (Brown & Jameton, 2000). This topic is relevant in urbanized areas as urban agriculture is used to combat issues such as food insecurity and food access. Food security is explained by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) as “all persons obtaining at all times a culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through local non-emergency sources,” with urban agriculture playing an important, but integrated role in this effort (Siegner et al., 2018). Food access, another important term in relation to urban agriculture, can be defined as constituting the process of obtaining certain foods (i.e. urban produced) and includes educational, cultural, geographic, and economic dimensions (Siegner et al., 2018). 

While urban agriculture has been utilized in many cities across the world, it is important to focus on Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. These cities were chosen as they differ due to their racial demographics, socioeconomic demographics, and their locations within the United States. These cities can be used as a reference point to base the practicality and impact that increased urban agriculture could give Madison, Wisconsin.

Figure 1: 

Research Question 

What are the implications of urban farming on socioeconomic, human health, and environmental health? 

The main focus of this paper was to use a variety of different lenses in order to analyze how urban farming has benefitted and disadvantaged American cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles. The paper then serves to promote urban agriculture in Madison, Wisconsin as a means to increase the well-being of the city. 


A variety of databases were used for our mixed-methods literature search, including ProQuest, Google Scholar, and Web of Science. The search consisted of key terms that limited our results to fit our study and define the various aspects of urban farming. The focus was then narrowed to our three cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Our research on Madison, Wisconsin was limited to news articles and city documents due to the lack of peer-reviewed research on the implications of urban farming in Madison specifically. We thoroughly analyzed each article, resulting in findings that are both credible and supported.


 Environmental Implications  

 The implications of sustainability on these communities is typically through the lens of social and economic pillars, but this paper would be incomplete without the acknowledgement of the role of environmental sustainability in urban agriculture. All of the cities mentioned below are geographically distant by thousands of miles but all are potential outlets for more sustainable access to food. Most notably, urban agriculture reduces the carbon footprint and fossil fuels required to transport food (Specht, et al., 2014). Because urban agriculture increases the access of local food, there is a drastic reduction in fuel costs and carbon emission, making it a more sustainable option for cities. Similarly, urban agriculture allows the opportunity to use recycled water and utilization of rain water for food production. Rooftop gardens, which are common urban agriculture structures, have been shown to use four times less water than conventional farming using hydroponics while obtaining similar yields (Specht, et al., 2014). A final example of the potential sustainability of urban agriculture is energy reduction through the greenhouses that act as cooling, heating, and energy recycle entities, which can save up to 41% of energy in some cases (Specht, et al., 2014). Although these sustainable examples are largely hypothetical and do not apply specifically to any of the cities listed in this paper, it is evidence that urban agriculture done responsibility has the ability to provide sustainable food to communities.



Philadelphia is home to about 40,000 privately owned vacant lots which has a devastating impact on the neighborhoods and finances of the city (Choo, 2011). Research shows that there are many socioeconomic, public health, and environmental implications associated with urban agriculture in Philadelphia. Food systems issues in Philadelphia, like many American cities, are largely tied to systemic racism in the United States which includes minorities living in areas that are poor and segregated, with bad health care, and inadequate access to fresh, healthy, foods. A study showed that poor neighborhood residents in Philadelphia face issues with informational access so they were not aware of urban agricultural activities taking place within their community (Meenar & Hoover, 2012). The same study also showed that while urban agriculture communities have tried to play important roles in redeveloping blighted neighborhoods, it is extremely challenging to acquire, lease, prepare, and maintain vacant lands for gardening purposes. This makes gardens much less accessible for neighborhoods with little social or political capital, as it is difficult to work with the city of Philadelphia to gain access to vacant property (Meenar & Hoover, 2012). In terms of a public health standpoint, which encompasses issues such as food insecurity and malnutrition, 67% of survey participants in the study agreed that Philadelphia’s urban agriculture project’s contributed to alleviating the food gap (Meenar & Hoover, 2012). However, there was no significant fix to the lack of cheap free food even when urban farming was implemented. It is extremely difficult to see change on a macro level, as urban agriculture is not a quick fix to correct these large food systems issues alone.


Figure 2:  


Detroit is another example of a city with abandoned residents and businesses, leaving an estimated 31,000 vacant lots (Choo, 2011). Detroit has been a microcosm for social transitions in the U.S: industrialization, unionization, racial segregation, white flight, neoliberalism, and ultimately the foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s (Walker, 2016). After the economic crisis and globalization that left Detroit full of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, the city began to utilize the space in the form of urban agriculture. Detroit is not new to the idea of urban agriculture but historically it has been through home gardening within immigrant communities in the area (Walker, 2013). The shift towards urban agriculture on a large scale using the vacant lots that are scattered across the metropolitan area was natural for the city and provided ideal conditions to analyze the socioeconomic, public health, and environmental health implications of urban agriculture. Detroit has created programs through government-led civic agriculture to provide residents with an opportunity  “to both feed people and provide employment or activity through public works,” (Walker, 2013). This government-led civic agriculture that allowed Detroit to gain its roots in urban agriculture provided jobs to thousands; for example, the Farm-A-Lot program in the 1970s provided employment to approximately 3000 people at 525 lots (Walker, 2016). Opportunities like Farm-A-Lot and other urban agriculture projects that the city led in the 1900s provided economic and job stability to the residents of Detroit as well as food substitutes that benefited the public health and welfare of the area. As time went on, the government in Detroit started to steer away from urban agriculture, urban agriculture was picked up by community groups as a way to feed and build community while maintaining the beautiful and liveliness of the city (Walker, 2013). Since urban agriculture has been in the hands of community groups, it has taken on a life of promoting social justice, environmental sustainability, and food justice. In Detroit, urban agriculture was seen as a means for economic stability and a source for economic strategy (Walker, 2016). Urban agriculture has the potential to generate $200 million in sales and approximately 5,000 jobs using the vacant lots (Mogk, 2010). Similarly, urban agriculture has been shown to increase the housing value and in turn the tax base of the area as urban agriculture works to make areas vibrant (Mogk 2010).  Finally, urban farming has created major improvements in the public health of the city. Detroit was ranked fifth in the US for obesity rates, largely in part from the lack of access to healthy, fresh foods (Mogk, 2010). Urban agriculture has the potential to provide 31% of fresh fruit to Detroit residents, greatly increasing their access to fresh foods (Mogk, 2010). Similarly, urban agriculture increases growing seasons through post harvest crop management which can provide significant portions of the annually consumed vegetables (¾) and fruits (½) (Colasanti, 2010). This evidence points to the reality that urban agriculture can drastically increase access to food which benefits the food security and public health of the areas. It was also found that increased exposure and participation with the growing process in urban agriculture increases the openness participants are to trying new fruits and vegetables, specifically among youth (Colasanti, 2010). 


Figure 3:

Los Angeles

California is home to leading agriculture production and seven of the ten most densely urban centers in the U.S. (Surls, 2014). In order to combat issues such as the crisis in exclusion that is evident in Los Angeles, it is important to focus on the food system, as it is a basic necessity. Looking through the socioeconomic lens, it is evident that much of the South Los Angeles black community lives in a “food desert.” As a result, ecologically sustainable food is virtually absent from the range of food choices that most poor communities have, particularly poor communities of color. These issues have given rise for specifically black urban farming efforts, such as the Black Worker Center (BWC) and the Ujima Farming Project (UFP) that recognizes that other ethnic groups have formed worker centers to deal with their own unique problems (Bonacich & Alimahomed-Wilson, 2011). The purpose of the UFP is to gain some economic control by the black community, to pursue self-determined, community-controlled, cooperative economic development, to put put into practice important African and African american values, to teach the youth about their heritage, to increase community health, and to do all these things in a manner that respects the earth and encourages ecological values (Bonacich & Alimahomed-Wilson, 2011). While urban farming gives people the opportunity to come together because of a common goal, it also gives people the opportunity to better their communities in a variety of different ways. Community gardens specifically dedicated to black farming would engage in related activities such as training youth to farm, holding cooking classes, and developing food processing projects, as well as holding other community events (Bonacich & Alimahomed-Wilson, 2011). In terms of public health, organizations such the BWC and UFP help bring and introduce fresh foods into the lives of people who have never had such a simple luxury. On a small scale, this combats issues such as malnutrition, hypertension, and diabetes, which are all unfortunately too prevalent conditions in poor primarily Black communities, as a result of centuries worth of oppression. These urban farms also serve as a way to beautify communities that have a history of slums, vacant properties, and dilapidated buildings. 



Madison has a history of food insecurity and food deserts around the entire city. Madison’s history with urban agriculture has not always been positive, with zoning restrictions from 1966 limiting urban agriculture prohibiting the use of urban agriculture outside of holding zones. (Becker, 2016). This restriction was overturned in 2013, opening the door for urban agriculture in the Madison area. The evidence from Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles supports the notion that expanding urban agriculture in Madison can provide socioeconomic, environmental, and public health benefits. Since this change of zoning regulations, there has been an expansion of programs in Madison into areas that would previously have been prohibited. By expanding urban agriculture practices into food insecure areas or areas with limited access to fresh produce the city has the potential to increase the health, wellness, and liveliness of the city. There has been a large increase in urban agriculture projects in the Madison areas since the changing in zoning laws. That being said, there is still a need for an increase in food access and security throughout Madison. The implications of urban agriculture can greatly benefit the Madison area. Urban agriculture improves the quality and quantity of healthy food access, especially in low-income areas (Voigt, 2011). Urban agriculture could also benefit the environmental sustainability of the Madison area, as it cuts down on the fossil fuels needed to transport and store food (Voigt, 2011). Madison, Wisconsin has already stated a goal of increasing urban agriculture and small-scale agriculture to one community garden per 2000 households (Voigt, 2011). The implications of urban farming in Madison mean that there is increased access to food, jobs, and overall wellness.  


Discussion of findings  

 This literature review and conclusions follow the assumption that the cities, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles, would be representative of urban agriculture efforts in the United States. It is important to note that this was the main limitations of this literature review and urban agriculture itself. The literature that was found was highly hypothetical. Although each of these three cities have benefitted from urban agriculture, there is limited information on whether these practices would be successful in other cities. Urban agriculture in practice is hard to implement and maintain. Due to the methodology and results of our literature review, our conclusion is generalized to the benefits of urban agriculture and does not address the social structures that limit the ability to implement these plans. Social structures that limit food access in all of the cities that were discussed in all of the cities will not be solved because of urban agriculture. As researchers and relying on our literature review, we believe that urban agriculture is a solution and it is our hope that the benefits increase awareness and resources allocated towards this in Madison, Wisconsin.   


After reviewing the literature, there were several important major findings regarding urban farming in American cities through the environmental, socioeconomic, and environmental lenses. Environmentally, it has been found that urban agriculture is a resource that can be utilized in order to largely reduce the carbon footprint and fossil fuels required to produce, transport, and store food. Further, it was evident that food systems issues , specifically such as food deserts and food insecurity, stemmed from issues of systemic racism and segregation. Research has shown that communities and minority groups that have been subjected to segregation do not have access to fresh food, proper healthcare, and have significant health problems. Within the scope of the research conducted, these injustices were seen in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Urban farming, as seen in the research, gave communities the means to provide fresh food, rebuild vacant spaces, and economic opportunities. By increasing access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, people in food deserts will not have to consistently eat at fast food restaurants. Overtime, this would theoretically decrease some of the significant health problems evident in these communities such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. It is in the best interest of the City of Madison to increase urban agriculture within the metropolitan area. With proper funding and research, urban agriculture can be utilized as an investment in a community. 



Figure 4: Urban Farm in Detroit  

More on the authors

Sarah Wagman is a senior from Warren, New Jersey studying Food Science. 

 Carolyn Munley is a senior from Boulder, Colorado studying Community and Environmental Sociology. 

 Both authors are interested in food systems issues and developing solutions for them. 


Becker, A. (2016, June 1). The farmer next door: Madison has embraced urban agriculture, but what's next?. 

Bonacich, E., & Alimahomed-Wilson, J. (2011, June 8). Confronting Racism, Capitalism, and Ecological Degradation ...

Brown, K. H., & Jameton, A. L. (2000, March 1). Public Health Implications of Urban Agriculture. Journal of Public Health Policy. 

Choo, K. (2011, August 11). Plowing Over: Can Urban Farming Save Detroit and Other Declining Cities? Will the Law Allow It? ABA Journal. 

Colasanti, K., Litjens, C., and Hamm, M.W. (2010). Growing Food in the City—The Production Potential of Detroit’s Vacant Land. The CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. p. 1–13. 

Meenar, M. R., & Hoover, B. M. (2012). (PDF) Community Food Security Via Urban Agriculture ... 

Mogk, J. (2010). Promoting Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Land Use for Vacant Properties in the City of Detroit: Benefits, Problems, and Proposals for a Regulatory Framework for Successful Land Use Integration.

Pasque, L. (2019, May 22). SSM Health decides not to build clinic on site of Park Street Pick ‘n Save. 

Siegner, A., Sowerwine, J., & Acey, C. (2018, August 22). Does Urban Agriculture Improve Food Security? Examining ... 

Specht, K., Siebert, R., Hartmann, I. et al. (2014, March). Urban agriculture of the future: an overview of sustainability aspects of food production in and on buildings. Agric Hum Values 31, 33–51 (2014).

Surls, R. (2014, March 05). Gearing up to support urban farming in California: Preliminary results of A needs assessment. 

Walker, S. (2013). Growing Ideology: Urban Agriculture in Vancouver and Detroit.

Walker, S. (2016). Urban agriculture and the sustainability fix in Vancouver and Detroit, Urban Geography., DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2015.1056606.

Voigt, K. A. (2011). Pigs in the Backyard or the Barnyard: Removing Zoning Impediments to Urban Agriculture. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 38(2), 537-566,213.

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Created:2021-05-27 10:33 CDTUpdated:2021-06-04 13:43 CDT
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