Infrastructure

Urban Ag: The Next Dot-Com Bust?

Will urban ag grow to the point where it’s unsustainable? Credit: Nicolas Esposito

For those who have been urban farming since the explosion of the local food movement, many never experienced the days when community gardens were bulldozed for commercial real estate developments, when foundations funded nutrition but not gardening, or when city governments were making rules that inhibited growing food rather than support it.

This was on my mind this past Christmas as I talked with my brother-in-law about his days doing tech work for a dot-com company in the late 1990s. As he reminisced on the boom and bust of the industry, I couldn’t help but find congruency with the urban farming boom.

Just as the Internet was an innovative vehicle for our social and consumer lives, urban farming has proven itself an innovative vehicle for urban renewal, public health, food security and environmental education. Like the Internet, it survives by charging little or no cost to consumers. Just as dot-com investors saw the monetary potential in Internet companies, today many public and private funders realize the incredible policy potential for urban agriculture. And just as industry-friendly economic conditions spurred dot-com investment, the recession and federal stimulus package have increased public spending, while the stagnation of the housing market has shifted the emphasis of land use back to the public sector.

As an older friend who started her urban farming career in the late 1970s once told me, “You don’t know how good you got it.”

The question is how long it can last. Although an urban agriculture bust will have its own set of circumstances, it does loom in the distance. As the housing market rebounds, I foresee the urban conversation of land use shifting away from the public sector toward the private sector, where the opportunity for much-needed revenue will make land access more competitive. And as the urban agriculture grant pie becomes split between an increasing number of projects, it could reach an unsustainable level. As many who work in the non-profit sector know, there is no guarantee that what is fundable today will be fundable tomorrow.

But this does not mean that the entire urban agriculture sector is in complete danger of busting. There are already businesses, projects and policies offering institutional support for urban agriculture (I liken them to pre-dot-com bust behemoths like IBM, Microsoft and Apple). In Philadelphia, for instance, businesses like the Weaver’s Way Coop and universities like Penn are investing, and urban agriculture projects are receiving funding well into the six-figure range. City legislation — like Mayor Michael Nutter’s Greenworks plan, which pledges to have healthy produce and green space within a 10-minute walk of every Philadelphia citizen, in addition to establishing at least 12 new urban farms — helps matters along. Meanwhile the city zoning code not only mentions urban agriculture for the first time in its modern history, but also creates regulations that make it easier for people to grow food in the city.

As with the dot-com bust, not all of the urban farming projects that came of age in these very friendly market conditions will make it. However, just as there were companies like Google that were able to innovate past the dot-com bust, there are urban agriculture projects that incorporate innovative business models, such as cooperatives or public-private partnerships, in an effort become sustainable. And just like Google, whatever entity survives will substantially change the fabric of our lives and the course of history in our urban centers.

Tags: philadelphia, built environment, economy, michael nutter, public-private partnerships, google, sustainability, land use, urban agriculture, greenworks