ZFarms: Inspiring a Greener Future for Everyone

By Morgan Cook (’22)

Urban sustainability is often thought of in terms of what a city can do to improve the natural world in and around it. However, as vital as this is in maintaining an overall healthier planet and minimizing the negative impacts of human lifestyle on the living world surrounding us, urban efforts to integrate more ecological methods of design also have the potential to create long-lasting impacts for city residents as well as the physical aspects of the city. In order to both minimize food deserts and strengthen low-income urban communities both physically and socially, city managers should invest in the design and creation of zero-acreage farming (utilizing empty building space to create gardens and/or larger crop populations) for and in lower income urban communities.  

With more investment into ZFarms, the number of food deserts in underprivileged urban communities would decrease. A food desert refers specifically to a physical area in a city environment where fresh foods are more difficult to acquire in comparison to other parts of the city as higher quality grocery stores flock to more affluent neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to afford such goods. With city managers and local legislature investing in zero-acreage farming by dedicating a proportion of their public service or environmental service budget to the task, families and individuals living in underserved urban areas will have access to easily accessible produce. Locally grown crops also promote healthier habits by dissolving the geographical barrier between underserved communities and fresh markets that only accumulate in higher income neighborhoods.

Implementing ZFarming through methods such as community gardens positively impacts cities. Establishing areas of local food growth secures environmental benefits from reduced transportation miles and resource conservation. Saved resources detract from landfill buildup and limit greenhouse emissions precipitated by the transporting of produce into cities as well as emissions stemming from vehicles within cities as individuals travel in search of quality produce. Without the same amount of dependence on long-distance farms, physical costs of transporting raw materials also greatly diminish. Additionally, turning to local food production also contributes to the health of consumers, particularly those living in lower income communities who reap the benefits of zero-acreage farming. This includes the fact that rooftop gardens, a popular form of ZFarms, can reduce food contamination due to the physical distance between crop growth and roads. With ZFarming specifically requiring existing building space in order to function properly, there exists potential to physically benefit underprivileged communities by utilizing rundown or abandoned infrastructure to renovate into settings for ZFarming practices.

There are numerous social benefits stemming from investment into ZFarming in urban environments. Overall, a sense of community is built from having shared green spaces for residents to collectively contribute to and benefit from—offering the chance for individuals and families to gather, promoting social integration in underserved areas whilst simultaneously contributing to a positive image of the neighborhood. Additionally, the creation of such green spaces through rundown buildings in underserved communities carries educational potential as ZFarming is often used as an opportunity for students to learn local sustainability through food production and benefits of a healthier diet – weaning new generations into sustainable practices and encouraging youth to take roles in urban agriculture. These farming locations can be used as places of activity for all ages. With students contributing and benefiting from such establishments, the potential for schools to become more biophilic in communities involved in ZFarming is more of a reality.

ZFarming can even work to minimize criminal activity in an urban setting. Studies show that the lack of ecosystem services available to underserved communities in cities can contribute to overall stress and disease, with higher levels of these factors as well as high crime rates found together in these low-income communities. It has also been illustrated that the more vegetation present in a community (including that from urban agriculture such as ZFarms), the less likely crime is to occur. An inquiry into Chicago’s underserved ‘Ida B. Wells’ public housing development revealed such when it was demonstrated that increased levels of vegetation present in the community resulted in lower levels of two crime categories: ‘property’ and ‘violent’. 

On the flip side, some would argue that investing in ZFarms is not worthy of the monetary contributions from taxpayers simply due to the hassle and seemingly minimal impact. For example, keeping ZFarms year-round means consistently maintaining certain indoor temperatures for the farms throughout all seasons of the year. Besides this, ZFarms alone will not be able to single handedly solve food insecurity. However, investment is necessary for progress, and only examining renovation costs of ZFarming ignores the abundance of short and long-term benefits of ZFarms in relation to lower-income communities and cities as a whole that are worth the expenditure – ranging from the educational benefits for youth to the environmental and physical benefits such as reduced crop contamination.  

In conclusion, zero-acreage farming in low income communities carries with it many possibilities and immense power to contribute to the physical, social, and economic aspects of urban life. Being able to use resources and space already present in cities is vital to promote environmental justice and end food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods. With at least six of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals relating to environmental injustice, it should be noted that achieving these endgames means each of us taking on the responsibility of working towards civic ecology and creating a chain of positive change so that the underserved may be served in regards to environmental rights. A green city means green for everyone. 

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