In Spring 2015, I had the privilege to work with Rachel Corey, Marie-Frances Rivera, and Kelly Riley on a research project about sustainable urban agriculture in the City of Boston. The project, conducted on behalf of the Trust for Public Land, sought to identify how urban agriculture in the City could become a more self-sustaining enterprise – a challenging task when property is limited and expensive, and startup costs are high. The following research document and associated presentation provide our insight into how the industry can be more effectively supported to achieve sustainability and growth in the number of farming enterprises.
This paper investigates the economic viability of urban farming in Boston, and ways in which the industry can be supported to leverage vacant lands. Our client, Trust for Public Land (TPL), works to conserve green space where people can experience nature close at hand. In the City of Boston, its mission has taken shape through urban farming and other cultural projects.
TPL is working to strengthen Boston’s nascent urban agriculture sector, which received momentum in December 2013 with the passage of a citywide “right-to-farm” zoning ordinance, Article 89, that allows commercial urban agricultural enterprises to exist in the city. TPL is supporting municipal endeavors to create a resilient city through the lens of urban agriculture by transforming available public land into farmable plots that will then be transferred or sold for future farms.
TPL’s objective, and the focus of this research, is to ensure these enterprises succeed. Through its work, TPL has observed that urban farms are overly reliant on philanthropic and public funds for short and long-term sustainability. This dependence raises concerns about the stability and profitability of individual farm enterprises and the sector overall. As such, this study assesses the current state of urban agriculture and offers recommendations to enable its economic viability.
To address the current state and future of urban agriculture (urban ag), three research questions were explored:
- What organizational and business models would allow for sustainable urban farming?
- How can we demonstrate and monetize the economic and food access impacts of urban farms to the City of Boston and other stakeholders?
- What is the role of local, state, and national policies, laws, and incentives to reach these goals?
Our capstone team conducted this research via a literature review, informal interviews, and participation in citywide planning meetings.
Pathways to Profitability
This set of recommendations allow for the creation and ongoing operation of financially stable and thriving urban agricultural enterprises.
Recommendation: During the start-up phase, local urban farmers must select the best legal structure for their urban agricultural enterprise, mitigate start-up costs, and ensure land security. In addition, they must select high profit yielding, ground-level crops suited to our geographic location to achieve financial sustainability.
Measuring the Impacts of Urban Agriculture
More Boston-area stakeholders are likely to support urban agriculture if its positive outputs and outcomes can be quantified. At present, however, there is limited research available that quantifies the impacts of urban farming on the city. The current vision of Boston’s urban ag community is to have all urban farming operations utilize identical metrics to measure outcomes and economic benefits. Doing so will allow information to be aggregated and demonstrate clearer impacts.
In order to effectively measure the broad range of impacts from urban farming operations, three surveys are needed: a survey and data collection tool for farm operators, a survey instrument for customers and community members, and a set of metrics for independent evaluation (for data which a farm operator cannot be expected to collect). Each of these tools has been modeled herein to provide a context for moving forward with the implementation of a data collection strategy.
Recommendation: TPL and/or the City should revise and implement a set of data collection tools for urban farm sites to monitor effects and impacts on the community.
Policies, Laws and Incentives
Much time, energy, and financial support is being lent to urban farming through government programs, private philanthropy, and academic research. A strategic plan that aligns both public and private commitments should be formalized.
Recommendation for Client Action: Support and advocate for proven models, such as the Community Land Trust model, that champions TPL’s mission and shares a dual objective with Boston-based stakeholders in the smart growth, economic development, and housing conversations.
Recommendation for Municipal Action: Establish a formal urban agriculture policy; this should be supported by an urban agriculture land use plan, resource database, tax incentives, education, and a single organizational contact for urban agriculture matters.
Read the full paper and presentations here: