In the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been a definite increase in the number of active urban gardens in the United States. Whether on a city rooftop or a vacant plot of land, urban gardens do more than just make the city a little greener: they reduce the energy used to transport food, cut down on harmful runoff, and increase the shade available to counteract the heat island effect.
“Eating local” via this kind of gardening has moved beyond a fad and into a serious way to both protect the environment and provide food for our ever-increasing population.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and arugula. Urban gardens can cause the cost of city real estate to skyrocket as a neighborhood gentrifies. Urban soil can have lead, arsenic, and other toxins in it. And the lack of space available means these gardens are often squashed into tiny plots that give off limited yields.
But technology is advancing the cause, and interest in urban gardening continues as we enter 2017. In fact, it’s even gone commercial. The rooftop garden on the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel, for instance, provides herbs, honey, and produce for the hotel kitchen.
Currently home to about 900 urban gardens—many on the same scale as the Barclay Hotel’s–New York City is quite possibly the birth place of the urban gardening craze. Another well-known example is Annie Novak’s Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, arguably the first commercial urban garden. Eagle Street opened seven years ago on the roof above the soundstage where Master of None and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are filmed. Novak’s garden is extensive, with blackberries, lavender, basil, sage, kale, broccoli, zinnias, and three types of English rose—among many other plants both pretty and edible.
Novak says she started her garden to lower the environmental cost of carbon-intensive farming, to provide fresh produce to poor communities, and to provide food education in urban areas.
And she’s not the only one getting into the gardening groove. Former professional basketball player Will Allen won a MacArthur fellowship in 2008 for his Milwaukee-based Growing Power farm, and Ron Finley, Los Angeles’s “Gangsta Gardener,” grows banana trees and sunflowers in the area’s traffic medians.
Austin, Seattle, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago all have zoning codes, tax breaks, and other financial rules in place to encourage more urban gardens to bloom. With luck—and an increasing amount of interest and applicable technology and legal benefits—urban gardening will continue to flourish in cities all over the US.