Land Ownership vs. Urban Agriculture

Back to the Land,’ Really?

How does urban farming compare to rural farming in terms of land ownership, food justice, and community?

The food justice movement is an important example of how communities of color are reclaiming collective power in a society that is systematically set up to hinder their wellbeing and success. Access to nutritious food is one of the most foundational aspect to health and wellness. Through nourishing communities of color and setting up food systems that work on the borders of our capitalist society, the food justice movement is reimagining what a more sustainable economy and society could look like. However, there appears to be an urban-rural divide in strategies, both tied to food production and land access but at different scales and with different implications about points of investment. Are there opportunities to connect the two and bridge rural and urban activism around farming, food, and community? 

To address food access in urban communities, many activists have turned to urban agriculture as a means to grow food and build networks.  For over 100 years, we have seen examples of urban agriculture projects – from community gardens to urban farms –   taking underutilized, debilitated land and transforming it into thriving urban gardens. These efforts – from Philadelphia to Chicago and San Francisco to New Orleans – have been effective means to make fresh vegetables accessible and affordable to communities of color that lack access to healthy, culturally appropriate, affordable fresh food. But what urban community gardens and farms often lack is space and secure land tenure. As blog contributor Laura Lawson’s research has found, most urban community garden programs have been opportunistic, relying on borrowed land and short-term leases, and only recently have mechanisms such as urban land trusts come into play to address long-term land security.  Another challenge these urban gardens face is scale – urban lots of ⅛ to ¼ acre can be productive but are a far cry from the acreage needed to address the needed food production. Access to larger parcels is complicated by urban real estate pressures and urban planning presumptions of “higher and better use” that tend to downgrade the economic and social benefits of urban farms and gardens. Thus, while urban gardens and farms are often powerfully networked into local activism and carry a heavy weight of intended benefits, how much they can really achieve in improving quality of life remains unclear. 

Another option is to go to where the land is – rural communities in need of new energy and able to contribute much more in the way of agriculture as livelihood and food production. The Great Migration shifted many families from rural communities to urban ones, and now the tide had turned to “back to the land.” Such is the case described in a recent article, “Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm,” in Ecofarm Daily.   Author Leigh Glenn interviews Renard Turner, a black homesteader in Virginia and food sovereignty advocate, who describes  long-term issue of urban farming in that they “don’t equate to food sovereignty and do little toward decreasing the numbers of food scarcity in inner cities.” In order to create long-term change, Turner asserts that people of color need to own land and control their own economy of food from growing to distribution. For Renard Turner, that is the path towards true food sovereignty. 

Since its inception, the Cultivating Justice blog has sought to share stories of both urban and rural farmers in order to highlight the passions propelling their efforts and the challenges they face. We have heard from both rural and urban growers that cultural connection and seeking healthier lives are important factors driving their work. For both urban and rural growers, getting access to quality land can be a tricky business. Land ownership has often come up, whether it is urban farmers wanting to scale up production but not finding adequate land or rural growers concerned about the next generation picking up farming and caring for rural communities. And the need for education and training is often raised as both a rural and urban concern. People are no longer raised gardening and growing food, so the prospect of scaling up production often requires access to advanced agricultural education. 

How might food sovereignty reframe the urban-rural divide into a shared concern? When it comes to food justice, how can we support connections between urban and rural food production and access? What kinds of programs might be needed to enable ambitious urban gardeners to apprentice with experienced rural farmers? What supports might they need to buy land and farm on a larger scale in the country? And how can this come back to the city to satisfy local food needs while also building power within the community? 

These are questions we pose and hope to hear back from our readers, many of whom have unique perspectives to share.

Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm

-Dorothy Weiss, Princeton, NJ

– Laura Lawson, Highland Park, NJ 


Published by laurajlawson

Laura Lawson is a Professor of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers University. She is author of City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and co-author of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (Washington DC: Island Press, 2017), Greening Cities, Growing Communities: Urban Community Gardens in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), as well as of numerous publications in academic journals, edited books, and popular media. She is co-founder of the Urban Ag Lab, which supports academic and outreach efforts that connect urban and suburban communities with agriculture and open space in order to enhance the economy, landscape, and culture of New Jersey.

2 thoughts on “Land Ownership vs. Urban Agriculture

  1. Hi Will, Laura –

    Wonderful piece. A few things:

    1) I was struck by the line: “We have heard from both rural and urban growers that cultural connection and seeking healthier lives are important factors driving their work.” It reminded me of thinking on “Serviceberry economics” in a recent article by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer outlines not an urban or a rural perspective on sustenance, but wh


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