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Urban Agriculture: Revitalizing Local Economies

Urban agriculture is growing in cities around the country, revitalizing neighborhoods, cultures, and even local economies. It’s actually not a new idea: Think of the Victory Gardens during World War I and World War II – home gardens which were responsible for more than 40% of the total vegetable production in the United States. Currently distressed cities like Detroit are rebuilding themselves in part through the burgeoning of urban gardens on abandoned lots and the “greening” of the downtown. Similar revitalization is occurring in other cities like Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco. On our own campus at University of St. Thomas in Houston, the beautiful ½ acre community vegetable garden is making fresh local produce available to the campus community at reasonable prices while helping a Congolese refugee support his family and make his way in the United States after being forced to leave his home country. Plant It Forward Farms (PIFF) is doing this for Congolese refugees in Houston and estimates that a farmer on a ½ acre urban plot can gross up to $30,000 per year.

Certainly there are socio-cultural and environmental benefits of urban agriculture, as marginalized communities pioneering urban gardens give witness. But can this growing urban agriculture movement actually revitalize local economies, and how? More hard data is needed to quantify the real economic impacts of urban gardens around the country, and this is perhaps “food” for future research. But one can readily project economic benefits in several areas.

Local Commerce

For one, urban gardens spur local commerce by selling produce at farmers’ markets and through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and by contracting with restaurants. For example, our PIFF farm sells produce to the Underbelly, a high-end restaurant on Westheimer Boulevard. The money earned stays within the local economy, increasing local revenues. Demand for locally grown food is substantial and increasing; the USDA estimated demand for 2012 at $7 billion, up from $4 billion in 2002. Urban gardens expand markets, as they draw customers from a larger area than do supermarkets. Urban agricultural projects create jobs, especially in neighborhoods with high unemployment rates, and provide skills training not only in agriculture but also in business and marketing, and even in construction. Further, urban agriculture can engender entrepreneurial activity like micro-businesses that benefit both neighborhood residents and the gardeners themselves. In some cases, this entrepreneurial activity can create new economic value from what was formerly an economic cost as waste – consider composting, for example. The urban garden sites also provide opportunities for ecotourism or for other urban gatherings like concerts and community celebrations, which have the potential to bring in additional revenues.

Property Values

Not to mention that urban gardens generally improve property values and may expand the tax base, especially where they reclaim degraded or abandoned sites. They can help city governments save money on maintenance of lots and associated costs related to patrolling and managing criminal activities in degraded urban areas. They can contribute toward controlling urban environmental problems like runoff and flooding because urban gardens decrease impervious surface and increase storm water capture.

Energy and Resources

Growing food locally also saves energy and resources that would otherwise be needed for packaging, refrigeration, storage and transportation of food from greater distances. Water savings may also be realized when water-hungry grass lawns are converted to urban garden spaces. And of course, there is the societal cost savings realized when communities eat healthier foods and reduce the associated health impacts and costs of various diseases such as obesity, heart disease, etc.

How can we go wrong? Urban agriculture is truly a cultural phenomenon “growing” in cities across the country; let’s help it become as positive and transformative in the economic arena as it has been in the socio-cultural and environmental arenas.


*Farmer Roy Nlemba from Plant It Forward Farms sells produce from the UST Community Vegetable Garden at 1303 Sul Ross (across the street from Guinan Dorm) on Wednesday afternoons from 2:30-6:30 PM and Saturdays from 10 AM – 2 PM. Or for information on purchasing a farm share through the CSA program, go to


Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Science and Studies Department

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