By Kathryn Ossing, Brennan + Company Architects
We’ve heard time and time again that Baltimore is plagued with vacant lots and food deserts. Vacant lots can be an eyesore, collections of weeds and litter. A few vacant lots next to rowhomes creates a hole in the urban fabric that can make residents feel less safe. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if that vacant lot became a community garden or an urban farm? What if the youth in the community spent a few hours after school tending the community garden, or family vegetable plot, and brought home fresh produce to their friends and families for dinner? What if neighbors spent a few weekend hours helping out, getting to know one another, and allowing a sense of community spirit to take root? An hour less of tv watching, a little exercise and sunshine, real life skills, nutritious fresh food, and fun playing in the dirt. What could be better?
Here are a few benefits as seen through the lenses of education, sustainability, health, and resiliency:
Education: Teaching kids how to garden and grow their own food does a lot more than keep them engaged for a few hours. It gives them a skill they can use in life, and results they can touch, smell, and eat. And maybe, just maybe, it will help them feel more connected in those tough adolescent years. Urban farms are also a great place to go on field trips for school. Kids can learn about where their food comes from. There are a plethora of math skills that can be put to good use in estimating how many seeds per row, tomatoes per plant, or ears of corn to be harvested. Science and math classes could move out of the realm of textbooks and classrooms and into the realm of real life applications with tangible, edible results.
Sustainability: From a sustainability perspective, growing local food is ideal. Food in a grocery store gets trucked from farmer to warehouse, warehouse to distributor, distributor to another warehouse, and warehouse to grocery store, resulting in high carbon emissions. People walking, biking, or even driving to their local urban farm is far better for the planet than buying food from a grocery store. Plus, growing food with organic practices can actually enrich the soil by sequestering those carbon emissions if no-till practices are used. Urban farms also reduce stormwater runoff by allowing rainwater to percolate into the soil on-site, nourishing our food and replenishing our underground aquifers! Retaining all that rainwater in conjunction with the shade that the plants provide decreases the average temperature in that area. This has a wonderful cooling effect in the city, which is needed during Baltimore’s hot, humid summers.
Health: A food desert is an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Designating a vacant lot as an urban farm can be part of the solution for food deserts. The nutritional value of produce decreases with each day that passes after it’s picked. This is compounded by the fact that many less-than-healthy preservatives are added to produce to keep food looking fresh on its long journey from the farm to the grocery store. Not to mention the pesticides that conventional farmers use to kill pests so that they can plant and harvest monocultures. Growing a monoculture means growing only one crop across many acres. Monocultures invite pests of that specific crop to feast and multiply over several acres. To control the pests, farmers spray pesticides that kill all bugs, both the pests that eat the crop, and the good bugs that eat the pests. In a typical urban farm, many different crops are grown, which enriches the biodiversity of animal life. So when pests arrive, they don’t destroy all the food, because there are good bugs to eat them, just as they do in nature. Good ole’ Mother Nature knows what she’s doing! In this way, urban farms reduce the need for pesticides and preservatives. Urban farms also promote positive mental health. For city dwellers, connecting with nature—a proven remedy for stress and depression—can be quite difficult. Urban farms provide an opportunity for them to rediscover nature and rejuvenate their spirits.
Resiliency: In addition to strengthening communities by increasing the health, sustainability, and education of their members, urban farming can also make a community more resilient. On an urban farm, seeds are often saved from the previous year’s harvest and replanted the next year to cut down on costs. The seeds are gathered from plants that thrived, did not succumb to pests, and adapted well to the climate on the urban farm. These second generation seeds are replanted and will produce a better harvest than the previous year. In this way urban farms promote resiliency through well adapted seeds and good seed variety so that the crops are more likely to survive adverse conditions such as a drought. They also promote resiliency during natural disasters. Urban farms can continue to provide food during natural disasters like hurricanes and blizzards with pop-up greenhouses known as hoop houses. These protect the plants so the urban farm can continue to supply the community with fresh produce long after grocery store shelves have been cleaned out.
So now you know how great urban farms are. Would you like to see a few? There are several urban farms in Baltimore that have already turned vacant lots and underutilized park space into something beautiful.
Local Urban Farms
The farm began in 2010 when Reservoir Hill residents converted a vacant lot into an active urban farm with the help of hundreds of volunteers. The goals of the Farm are to pursue affordable sustainable fresh food sources, provide neighborhood job creation, and help promote greening and positive community activity.
Whitelock Community Farm is located at 930 Whitelock St. in Reservoir Hill.
Baltimore Free Farm is an egalitarian collective of gardeners and activists who aim to provide access to healthy food for all.The hillside of 3511 Ash St. was Baltimore Free Farm’s first project. In 2010, we cleaned up this lot and used salvaged rocks to create terraced garden beds. Today, this is our community garden space where you can rent space to grow your own vegetables!
The Baltimore Free Farm is located on the hillside of 3511 Ash St. in the Hampden neighborhood.
Real Food Farm is Civic Works’ innovative urban agricultural enterprise engaged in growing fresh produce on eight acres in and around Clifton Park in northeast Baltimore. Real Food Farm works toward a just and sustainable food system by improving neighborhood access to healthy food, providing hands-on education opportunities for Baltimore’s youth, protecting the environment and improving the watershed, and developing Baltimore’s vibrant agriculture sector.
Real Food Farm is located on 2701 St. Lo Drive, Baltimore, MD 21213 in the Clifton Park neighborhood.
Would you like the chance to see some of these farms? Join us April 30 on our Urban Farm Ride, where we’ll be touring these and several more urban farms! Sponsored by AIA Baltimore Cote | Resiliency and the Farm Alliance of Baltimore City. This tour is scheduled to coincide with Cultivate Baltimore, which is a series of workshops and farm tours sponsored by Civic Works’ and Future Harvest CASA. We will be riding past many urban farms in various neighborhoods, stopping for a short tour at several of them. The tour will begin at the Woodberry Light Rail stop and travel a roughly 15 mile loop hitting a number of urban farms between Druid Hill Park and Clifton Park. We will end at Union Craft Brewing for lunch and drinks. We will be setting up registration soon. A $22.09 ticket includes a commemorative T-shirt and the remaining proceeds will be donated to the urban farms we’ll be touring.