In a society where an increasing number of consumers expect broadly available, fresh, locally produced food, the landscape of food production has started to shift back toward “local” and “sustainable” farming; but, it’s doing so with an innovative approach to urban farm initiatives. This new focus on growing fresh food locally, year-round presents an amazing opportunity for indoor farmers, as well as cities and communities, looking to reshape and explore the development and integration of a localized food system.

Traditionally, society’s food production has been predominantly based on the industrial agricultural system. This system relies on cheap energy, a surplus of fresh water, unlimited land, and a relatively stable climate. In the 21st century, these resources have drastically changed, while urban population growth continues to put pressure on an already fragile system. As demand increases, so does the need for food production; but, globally there is little to no new arable land available to expand.

To accommodate municipalities looking to develop otherwise unusable land, remediation grants are becoming increasingly useful. This allows companies access to funding to offset remediation costs and ground development, encouraging new opportunities for indoor and urban farmers to capitalize on.

Urban Farms Revitalize Unused, Barren Properties

In communities across Canada, decades of neglect have left a legacy of contaminated and underutilized land – known as brownfields. Rehabilitating these sites has become a major public issue over the years, as brownfield lands are often located in or near urban populations and are generally deemed harmful. These unused, barren properties are an example of existing urban infrastructure that have the potential to not only repurpose unused space, but to also revitalize and bring value back to forgotten or overlooked neighbourhoods. Indoor urban farms have the potential to make use of pre-existing, unused infrastructure, while bringing hyper-local produce to communities with a steady supply of “in season” crops.

abandoned building for urban indoor farm

Growing food indoors or near urban grocers is an expanding market. Creating long term sustainable farming methods to address threats to local food security brought on by climate change, is becoming increasingly appealing to investors and urban visionaries. In fact, the industry has already begun to influence commercial real estate and attract many economic developers. In some instances, commercial realtors are successfully reinvigorating spaces – like closed big-box stores and some malls, for use as commercial indoor and urban farms.

Roka Farms in Indianapolis is an excellent example of successfully reinvigorating a neglected space. With help from the Build Fund – a small business loan fund operated by Renew Indianapolis, Roka Farms acquired a vacant and unused building. This property will facilitate Roka’s mission to create an urban farm that efficiently and profitably grows organic food, which in turn is used to feed local communities.

Urban Farm Initiatives in U.S. Cities

A number of older American industrial cities – like Cleveland and Detroit, have been pushing community gardens and farms as a way of revitalizing neighborhoods falling into disrepair. Additionally, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative has been working with partners throughout the state, assisting with neighbourhood clean ups and establishing local jobs. In 2011, they purchased an uninhabitable building in Detroit to convert into a Community Resource Center to further develop and support their operations. This building houses a marketplace, staffed by community members. The produce sold at the market goes on to supply individual households, local markets, and restaurants, as well as stock up food pantries at local churches and shelters.

FACT: Detroit alone has more than 1400 urban gardens and farms helping to address the city’s “food desert” status.

In other instances, urban farms are being built for education, training, or re-entry programs. For example, Baltimore’s BUGS program – Baltimore’s Urban Gardening with Students – provides an after school and summer program where children can garden, visit local farms, and try new foods, while developing skills and exploring creative entrepreneurial projects.

Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS)

There are many other cities across North America and around the globe where urban farms are being built to improve access to food, or to continue traditional culinary cultures. Most of these urban food initiatives are driven by local community members and urban farmers, who are on a mission to create healthier and more appealing communities by repurposing existing buildings and developing agricultural neighbourhoods. This approach recognizes that savings in food transportation can make urban agriculture economically viable and more environmentally responsible.

Urban Farming is Innovating and Improving

Although urban agriculture often refers to outdoor community or rooftop gardens, indoor farming methods like greenhouses and vertical farms have been gaining popularity in recent years, prompting their inclusion within the urban agriculture space.

Gotham Greens has recently developed facilities on top of industrial brownfield sites in New York and Chicago. In Chicago, where they have a facility built atop a southside soap factory, the company has also added a ground-level greenhouse. The success of this blended set-up has prompted Gotham Greens to add the mixed system to their locations in Baltimore, Denver and Providence (Rhode Island). These four new facilities, utilizing both greenhouse and vertical systems, are each about 100,000 square feet and each produces approximately six million heads of lettuce per year.

Synergistic Relationship Supports Urban Food Production

The goal of indoor farming is not to replace outdoor agriculture. Instead, its objective is to build a synergistic relationship, whereby traditional farming is accompanied by a niche, local indoor market to meet the growing needs and preferences of the consumer population. In support of establishing and sustaining a more localized food system, agricultural initiatives that redevelop brownfields and repurpose abandoned or unused spaces are very attractive and viable for investors, cities, and communities.

Interest in the rapidly growing urban and indoor AG industry has only recently begun to rise across the globe. The success of urban farming initiatives – like the ones referenced above – are evidence that urban farming is especially valuable in places with vacant industrial space. Thus, redefining “local” and “sustainable” farming through urban farm initiatives, remediation projects, and community agricultural hubs, is only the beginning for urban food production; the rest remains to be imagined.