Urban Farming: WTF?

The advantage of living in a city and essentially the main reason for their existence is that having so many people living so closely facilitates the sort of face-to-face interactions that drive innovation and entrepreneurship. People living in cities have better education, live longer and healthier lives and have larger incomes than people who live in the sticks.

Another key advantage to cities is the division of labor: there are enough people living together to support full-time occupations a person can specialize in, weather it be shoemaking, carpentry, insurance adjusting or journalism.

Out in the country, however, there are two normal occupations: the gentry who own the land and key improvements, like mills and ovens and other forms of capital and the tenant farmers who work the land. Traditionally rents were in service or a portion of the harvest, augmented by fees for the use of the mills and other things. Today, of course, we have a money economy (thanks to the productive capacity of cities) and farmers can focus on producing food instead of also having to make their own clothes and shoes and whatnot.

One of the consequences of the division of labor is that it allows people to live even closer together than in say, a rural village, where people are just starting to specialize, but may still have to work the fields for part of the time.

As a result of this, traditional cities are built to maximize their use of space: streets are narrow and follow an organic development around buildings rather than being laid out beforehand (in one of the earliest cities, Catalhoyuk in Turkey, there were no streets at all) and buildings may overhang the street, like in York or Bologna.


Above: a narrow street in York, with overhanging buildings.

Even in the great, wide open spaces of America the premium placed on urban space has led to the skyscraper, greatly increasing the capacity of even small pieces of land.

Now, however, a number of so-called urbanists want farms in cities, completely undermining the purpose of cities. This makes absolutely no sense. Or rather, if it ever is economical for farms to develop in your city, it’s probably too late to reverse its decline. Detroit, for example, is planning on turning 140 acres of abandonded housing into an urban forest.

There are a couple of other problems with urban farming, other than the sheer lack of appreciation for the economies of scale. One is pollution — although cities are beneficial for the environment as a whole, the urban environment can still be problematic for agriculture through existing particulate pollutants and run off and the fact that many vacant pieces of land in cities are brownfield industrial sites, polluted with heavy metals or chemicals like Perc. Another is that because of the cost constraints, it’s impossible for them to be large enough to be productive enough to pay for themselves.

Some of the advocates say that urban farming will allow poor people access to fresh produce. But they won’t. They will let a small number of poor people buy fresh produce.

Urban farms: useless, inefficient and ridiculous.

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