William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Michael Carolan


Urban agriculture takes many forms. Often, the term elicits images of raised beds, hoop houses, and, in those instances where topsoil is both present and non-contaminated, in-ground gardens—what I call traditional urban agriculture (“TUA”). But that imagery is changing, especially in some parts of the country where vacant space is scarce and land prices dear. In those instances, cities are seeing growth in digital urban agriculture (“DUA”). DUA, as defined here, refers to farming within urban and peri-urban areas that incorporates elements of automation, software, and/or silicon-based hardware into their operations. While this definition is not meant to draw a solid line between particular practices, allowing for a clean categorization across these two types, it does help distinguish between those systems that are more labor-intensive/less capital-intensive and those in possession of the opposite characteristics, namely, lower labor requirements but higher levels of capital investments, energy throughputs, etc. Although DUA often takes “vertical” forms, I prefer the modifier “digital” for analytic emphasis, noting that a farm operation’s height is a less significant independent variable than processes related to its silicon-based, data-intense, sunk-capital attributes.

Scholarship looking at farming within urban and peri-urban spaces presents a mix of outcomes. On the one hand, examples can be pointed to showing its links to empowerment, food sovereignty, public health, improved educational and vocational outcomes, reductions in crime, and community nutrition. On the other hand, farming in the city has been associated with gentrification, as well as to the amplification of cultural, racial, and class distinctions within a community. The latter have been repeatedly linked to a phenomena known as the “growth machine,” which speaks to initiatives tied to an elite-driven coalition set on maximizing the city’s tax revenues whilst reinforcing the group’s privilege and status.

Not surprising, then, in light of these varied outcomes, peoples’ perceptions of agriculture within urban and peri-urban spaces is equally mixed. Many view TUA as a productive, multifunctional use of vacant land in inner cities on the losing end of global macroeconomic structural change and demographic abandonment; this is a dynamic option to the decays associated with global flows. The sticking point, where there is one, tends to be on the temporality of these urban and peri-urban forms. Namely, is urban farming a viable long-term solution or just a temporary fix until something better presents itself? As farmers struggle to gain long-term, secure access to land in many cities, they are facing considerable resistance from many, often situated in influential positions of power. Those in these roles of authority and situated within organizations with access to capital and credit tend to view TUA as a temporary use of vacant land—a placeholder until an investment opportunity arises. A common tension then lies between those who view TUA as an important longterm solution for many inner-city problems and others who might value it in the immediate term but only until large transformational investments can be made upon those vacant pieces of land.

I interrogate this tension and what it means for future community dynamics by drawing from eighty-two semi-structured interviews with community partners, investors, local food power brokers (e.g., chefs, politicians, developers), planners, and engineers involved in facilitating farming within their respective cities, which includes both TUA and DUA. Respondents were located in Denver (CO), New York (NY), and San Francisco (CA). I further supplement these data with notes taken during public forums and by analyzing the websites of organizations and business that respondents work for.

Not all urban agriculture is equal, as we might guess, in terms of attachments to networks and resources. For instance, while those connected closely to organizations linked to economic development frequently view TUA as a temporary fix to the city’s ills, they alternatively view DUA quite differently, in some cases going so far as to refer to these platforms as the “ideal, long-term best use of currently vacant urban space,” to quote a developer from the below study. Alternatively, those linked with community organizations and with a history of social activism are shown to cast TUA as a long-term fix to many inner-city problems, whereas DUA risks making those problems worse.

The Article begins by reviewing the literature as to the costs and benefits of urban agriculture. I then pivot to a discussion of methods where I provide an overview of the sample population as well as a description of the socio-organizational network analyses, which was conducted in parallel with the qualitative, face-to-face interviews. The findings are organized around the themes of perceptions, networks, and resources. I interrogate, in other words, respondents’ views toward various urban farming forms (Theme #1), their respective social networks (Theme #2), and what resources flow through these social groupings (Theme #3). These data paint a picture of a contentious future, as urban economic growth interests are shown to play a central role in urban food politics, perhaps even more so thanks to DUA.