Public Works: Proving Urban Agriculture's Worth
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Public Works: Proving Urban Agriculture’s Worth

A New York non-profit sets out to show once and for all that community farms are viable enterprises.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

From backyard gardeners to sophisticated startups to students at schools right here in Toronto, city dwellers are embracing urban agriculture in a big way. For some, though, urban farming may call to mind knitting cafés, ukulele jam sessions, and other whimsies confined mostly to hipper neighbourhoods. City gardens make for quaint community projects, but can they be viable and productive enterprises? To answer that question, the Design Trust for Public Space, a prolific New York City non-profit, has created a data collection toolkit for analyzing urban farming ventures.

Working with more than 30 urban farmers, and with Farming Concrete, a community initiative that measures how much food is grown in New York City, Design Trust developed a list of criteria by which city gardens could be judged. The result was a data collection kit consisting of 16 “protocols” arranged in five categories: food production data, environmental data, social data, health data, and economic data. The kit includes templates for urban farmers to write out their harvesting goals, track the yield of their crops, measure how much waste their garden produces, and more.

Urban farmers are invited to upload their data to Farming Concrete’s website. By the end of 2014, the site will include a Data Mill section, in which both raw and condensed, organized data can be downloaded for use by researchers, policy makers, and business leaders.

There are large- and small-scale benefits to the data-collection project: individual farmers can determine what’s working for their garden and what isn’t; the urban agriculture community can show that city farms yield bountiful harvests with minimal environmental impact; and investors looking for the Next Big Thing will have a means of appraising this whole city vegetable-growing thing.

Although the initiative is based in New York, its data categories and collection methods can be used by urban farmers anywhere (as long as you don’t mind converting your harvest data into imperial units). What’s more, Design Trust is setting an important example for non-profit community workers of all shapes and sizes: namely, that running a creative, independent project doesn’t mean you can’t adopt the hard scientific methods used by big institutions.