Urban gardening as part of the change we need

Taking control of our affects on the planet’s climate requires mostly or entirely ending our use of fossil fuels. At minimum, it requires us to develop a society that can function well without them, and that only uses them in rare circumstances. That’s a tall order. We use an incredible amount of energy every day, and a large majority of that comes from burning coal, oil, and gas.

The goal is to continue enjoying the benefits of modern technology, while reducing air pollution, and reducing our destabilizing effect on the climate. Replacing fossil fuels with one other source of power is unlikely. The closest we have to an option there is nuclear power, and while that will certainly be part of the equation, it’s unlikely to be a panacea.

The most commonly proposed “solution” is a compound approach, often described as “stabilization wedges”. To use a concept popularized by the COVID-19 pandemic response, we need to “flatten the curve” of CO2 emissions, and rather than trying to do it all at once with a total replacement of fossil fuels, we can divide the curve up into different wedges.

For example, one wedge we’ve been working on already is energy efficiency – improving insulation in homes, using things like LEDs for light, running more efficient appliances, and so on. All of this can reduce the total amount of energy we need to produce per person.

Another might be biogas from sewage. It will never be enough to supply all of our energy, but it’s an available source for part of what we need, and it will always exist in a reliable proportion to the number of people feeding into it.

Another is wind power.

Another is solar thermal power.

Another is photovoltaic.

Another is nuclear.

And so on. The progress we make in “filling in” those wedges not only gets us closer to stability, it also reduces the speed at which the climate will warm in the future, which buys us time to adapt to those changes that can no longer be avoided.

One set of wedges can be found in food production. We spend a lot of energy on food. Preparing the ground, watering crops, controlling pests, harvesting crops, processing the harvest, preserving the food, transporting it – all of that takes energy. All of it can also be done with less energy than is currently used. Some of that is a matter of efficiency, but some of it is also a matter of changing how we use the space we have.

As it stands, we mostly use monoculture farming. Vast areas are used for one crop, and one crop alone. This allows us to use specialized equipment to grow, harvest, and process vast amounts of a single food very efficiently, but it also means that very few parts of society grow all the food they need near where it’s needed. Instead, it’s grown in centralized locations, and shipped around the world. One place grows corn and soybeans, but little meat, fruit, or vegetables, so those must all be shipped in from farther away, which takes energy.

Some of that is determined by climate conditions – not all plants will grow everywhere; but some is just how we’ve designed our system, and we can start to change that. A study conducted in Sheffield, England, showed that using just 10% of the city’s current “green” spaces to grow food, could provide up to 15% of the fruit and vegetables needed by the population of that city:

In a study published in Nature Food, academics from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield investigated the potential for urban horticulture by mapping green spaces and grey spaces across the city.

They found that green spaces including parks, gardens, allotments, roadside verges and woodland cover 45 per cent of Sheffield — a figure similar to other UK cities.

Allotments cover 1.3 per cent of this, while 38 per cent of green space comprised of domestic gardens, which have immediate potential to start growing food.

The interdisciplinary team used data from Ordnance Survey and Google Earth to reveal that an extra 15 per cent of the city’s green space, such as parks and roadside verges, also has potential to be converted into community gardens or allotments.

Putting domestic gardens, allotments and suitable public green spaces together would open up 98m2 per person in Sheffield for growing food. This equates to more than four times the 23m2 per person currently used for commercial horticulture across the UK.

If 100 per cent of this space was used for growing food, it could feed approximately 709,000 people per year their ‘five a day’, or 122 per cent of the population of Sheffield. But even converting a more realistic 10 per cent of domestic gardens and 10 per cent of available green space, as well as maintaining current allotment land, could provide 15 per cent of the local population — 87,375 people — with sufficient fruit and veg

It’s hard to know exactly what a more balanced society would look like, but I have to say that one in which people live around growing food, even in cities, seems like a step in the right direction, to me. I also think we ought to be doing more to grow food near where it’s eaten through indoor farms of various sorts. As I’ve said before, we need to make big changes in how we conduct agriculture, and those changes should account for the volatility of a warmer planet. Not every place will be able to feed itself at all times, but the closer we can get to that, the better we’ll be able to deal with a more chaotic climate, and the better we’ll be able to meaningfully help each other when needed.

That also applies to personal life. In the past, we were not as insulated from the world, and most societies made a habit of storing food and supplies against emergencies, or taking the nomadic approach and moving away from shortages. The fact that, as a species, we’ve become largely immobile, means that things like storing food, water, and medicine against unforeseen emergencies is a habit we should cultivate.The picture shows a canal with clear water running through a city. There are plants growing along the water's edge, with a path on either side, and more shrubs and trees on top of walls by the paths. Further out from the canal, you can see there are roads, and then skyscrapers.

Having food production be more diverse and abundant at a local level is part of that. It means that a blight on one crop won’t automatically mean famine or economic collapse, and it means that a disaster in another part of the world will do less to affect food supplies where you live. That, and gardening seems to improve quality of life for a lot of people.

I hope this study on urban gardening can point to a path we follow more, as an increasingly urban species, trying to find a more balanced way to live on this planet.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!


  1. Dunc says

    This allows us to use specialized equipment to grow, harvest, and process vast amounts of a single food very efficiently

    It’s always important to ask exactly what “efficient” means in any context. Industrial monoculture agriculture is very efficient in some terms (labour, for example), but very inefficient in others (such as energy). And of course, many efficiencies vary dramatically according to local conditions – crops which work well in some locations are horribly water-intensive in others, and so on. Blanket statements almost always conceal numerous assumptions and complications.

  2. says

    Fair point. It’s efficient in terms of kinds and amount of equipment needed by a single farm, related to the profit that farm can make under the current system (with subsidies accounted for), and probably a few things I don’t know to factor in.

  3. Dunc says

    One thing it’s not that efficient in (and which is particularly relevant to this post) is space: small-scale intensive polyculture (i.e. gardening) can achieve significantly higher total yield per unit area.

  4. Dunc says

    Hmmm… Dirty little secret: permaculture is pyramid scheme. Sure, Bill Mollison’s original ideas are interesting and worth investigating, but I have never met a permaculturist who could make ends meet without the income from doing permaculture courses. And I’m far from the only person to make this observation…. Maybe that will change after a hundred generations of selectively breeding oak trees, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Everybody I’ve ever met who seriously tried it rapidly made a lot of compromises in the direction of more traditional gardening. Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach is much more practical, but even that is much harder to get working right than most people suspect until they’ve tried it for a decade or so. And there’s no getting away from the fact that the most productive gardeners I’ve ever met are doing very traditional long-row growing… It’s almost like the old-timers actually knew what they were doing.

  5. says

    As Dunc has said, species diversity (and this inlcudes some rotation) tends to increase primary productivity in a system, and also militates against pests and diseases.
    Another thing about growing more food nearby, at almost any scale (from balcony containters to allotments, etc.) is that it gets more people involved in food production. There is something bizarre in the current situation in the USA, for example, in which farmers and agricultural workers in general represent <2% of the work force (and many are over 50 years old)..

  6. says

    I feel like I must have known there were classes, but I meant the general concept, not some magic formula for agricultural perfection for only $499.99 or whatever.

    The stuff I have in mind is less formulaic and more about experimenting to see what can work in a given city. There’s never going to be one special technique that solves everything.

  7. says

    Urban agriculture will also require investment in soil replacement/restoration. When I was a kid in the Boston area, there was some land for gardening, but too much lead in the soil for it to be safe.

    There are plenty of grapes growing in the area but I don’t know if they’re OK to eat.

  8. Katydid says

    I echo what Abe Drayton said. So much of city land is highly polluted–air and water and soil. For example, a family wanting to farm in Flint, Michigan (where the water is not safe to drink because the pipes are corroded from polluted water): what do they use to water their garden with?

    Many US cities had high levels of lead in the air, which then settled into the soil. It’s not possible to eat anything grown in that soil. A small town outside Pittsburgh looking to make communal gardens built raised beds and trucked in untold tons of clean soil because even though they’re an hour from city limits, the decades of steel mills irreparably harmed the land.

  9. says

    I don’t remember the details of it, but I got a tour of a lovely little garden from a Quaker pastor in Cuba that had free-range chickens, and various food and herb plants at different levels. It wasn’t enough to fully feed a person, but it definitely provided a good supplement to the household’s diet.

  10. says

    As a gardener, I would applaud this approach because if it involves more people in food production – even on a part-time basis – that would, in my opinion, also reduce food waste. And food waste is the elephant in the room here, not logistics or anything else – we throw away 1/3 of our food production, and most of it is still perfectly edible when thrown away.

    I live in a country where gardening is a tradition even for urban people. And I do not think that the fact that CZ has among the lowest food wastages per capita in Europe is just a coincidence.

    However, I see some problems with this, apart from the above-mentioned pollution. You need water for watering. You need infrastructure for proper disposal of (non-food) organic waste. And theft/vandalism are also a problem to be considered.

  11. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    High yield agriculture may use more energy than “organic” techniques, but it has one clear advantage: high per acre. Without modern high yield agriculture, and specifically inorganic fertilizer, there is not enough farmland on the planet to feed everyone.

    There is something bizarre in the current situation in the USA, for example, in which farmers and agricultural workers in general represent <2% of the work force

    Are you saying that it’s bad? How is it bad? Specialization of labor is good. It’s what allows us to have a high standard of living. Almost without exception, specialized labor as centralized locations with centralized capital will be vastly cheaper and more productive than decentralization.

  12. says

    The problem is less in specialization and more in the tiny number of people involved in the actual work of food production. Having such a small proportion of the population involved in agriculture isn’t required for a “high standard of living”. Nor is said standard of living sustainable, or even available for a vast portion of the species, so holding it up as justification for the status quo seems… strange.

    And since we’re not averse to using more energy, there are alternatives – like vertical farming – that can increase the available surface area for agriculture, while also reducing exposure to pathogens, and problems like droughts and floods.

    A large portion of CURRENT farmland also isn’t used to feed people. Leaving aside the food waste, a lot goes into stuff like feeding livestock, ethanol production, and non-food products like palm oil.

  13. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    It is true that some amount of decentralization in some circumstances won’t bring about the end of the western lifestyle, but every amount of decentralization decreases labor efficiency, increases real prices, and decreases workers’ real buying power. Decentralization of the means of production is a step backwards. It’s romanticizing a glorious past that never existed. It’s regressive, and it will hurt workers and the poor.

  14. says

    It’s not about a past that never existed, I’m honestly not sure why you think it is. Yes, some “older” approaches to various necessities are being explored, but that’s in service of using what we know to build something better than what we’ve had thus far.

    It’s about dealing with circumstances that have never been faced by humanity. The point is not to “keep” our current way of life, it’s to find one that’s more balanced, and not based on fantasies of infinite growth.

    The only way in which it has to do with the past is in learning from the past to build something that might actually be adequate to the future, in ways that our current systems are very clearly not.

  15. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    The point is not to “keep” our current way of life, it’s to find one that’s more balanced, and not based on fantasies of infinite growth.

    No one is talking about infinite growth. What I am talking about is raising the rest of the world out of poverty as a good into itself, and to also thereby lower birth rates to (slightly) below breakeven.

    I know it’s obvious to you that it would be impossible or bad for some reasons for the rest of the world to be lifted to the European standard of living. I don’t know why, and I don’t know if you even know why you think that.

    However, given that you do think that, you are my enemy. Your rhetoric is the primary impediment to ending world hunger, and otherwise improving the lives of billions of people, and fixing climate change.

    Re world hunger. I direct you to the greatest person who ever lived, who spent most of his life living in the poorest areas of the world, to save a billion human lives from hunger. Billion with a “b”. Listen to what he says. Listen to how he clearly blames elitist western environmentalists as yourself as the cause of continued food scarcity in Africa because of your fashionable ignorant beliefs regarding food production. This is as close to me taking something on gospel as I get. See:


    Nonetheless, by the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa,” says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.
    Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too—though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa,” Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, “a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn’t stand were sticking to me.”

    I absolutely despise your talk about finding a balance, which is really just codespeak for degrowth policies, which end up hurting the poorest people of the world. It’s racist. It’s colonialist. It’s brutally uncaring. And it’s all based on a supremely Ill informed lie that the people and the world would all be better off poorer, with less industry. It’s pure racist trash.

  16. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    The quote continues.

    Borlaug’s reaction to the campaign was anger. He says, “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

    Urban gardening. Do you even know how much farmland you need to feed yourself with modern high yield farming techniques, let alone organic farming techniques?

    About one third of an acre, or about 1300 sq meters, for modern high yield techniques.

    For example, San Francisco, has an area of 46.87 square miles, and a population of about 880,000, for a population density of about 18,000 people / square mile. To feed that population on a vegetarian diet would require about 459 square miles, or about 10 times more than the area of the city.

    How about Detroit? Approx 672,795 people and 139 square miles. That’s enough land to feed 30,000 people.

    For an extreme example, New York City and Central Park. 8.4 million. 302.6 square miles. About 28,000 people / square mile. Central Park 1.317 square miles. That’s enough to feed about 2,500 people.

    Remember for these numbers, you’re not going to be able to convert anywhere near 100% of the land of a city to farmland. It’s a city. We’re talking about enough food production for a percent or less, likely fractions of a percent.

    Urban gardening is a joke in a serious discussion when it comes to large scale food production. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You have no idea about the scales of the problems, and you’re offering these absolutely ridiculous solutions that are absolutely ridiculous as soon as you sit down to do the math, but you’re too lazy to do the math because “it just seems right” to you.

    Fucking art-major engineering and Gaia-worship “appeal to nature” / “naturalistic” / “natural is good” fallacies.

  17. says

    YOU may not be talking about infinite growth, but it is absolutely the paradigm on which the global economic system is based, and that’s what I’M talking about.

    Lowering birth rates? Sure. But that’s not going to have a meaningful effect in anything like the time frame we need.

    World hunger? Sorry, but no. We have the resources RIGHT NOW to feed everyone, but we’re not doing it. Why? It’s not because of “my rhetoric”, it’s because it’s not profitable, both in terms of money and in terms of power, to the people who control those resources and the means to distribute them. That dynamic will not change just because we change how we farm, or how we power our society. That’s why we need changes that reach far beyond simply addressing the technical aspects of where we get our power.

    As to the rest of that comment, sorry, but no. You’re attacking me for something I’m not saying. You are, once again, declaring ALL aspects of any environmental movement or rhetoric to be all about the worst elements of 20th century “western” environmentalist movement. You are, once again, ignoring anything that indicates that that is NOT my goal, or simply not reading anything I write or propose beyond the narrow subjects of food growth and energy.

    As to your comment about numbers on urban gardening vs land area needed, you are, once again, ignoring a good chunk of what I wrote. NOWHERE did I say that urban gardening would feed everyone. The first half of my post was all about the fact that doing so is not possible, and that it’s one aspect of a larger shift that can be made to deal with a small portion of needed food, as well as other side benefits to things like mental health.

    Declaring that other people have no idea what they’re talking about, while explicitly ignoring big chunks of what they say. Likewise, attacking people because they use some words that are similar to those used decades ago, while ignoring anything that indicates that they’re not working in the same direction just makes you look like an asshole who can’t see past your personal pet peeves.

    You’re hung up on the rhetoric of a movement I’ve never really been part of, just because there’s overlap in the language used. I don’t know if you’re deliberately creating straw men for the joy of jumping up and down on them, or if you simply can’t tell the difference between me and the dead horse you keep beating, but in either case, it’s tiresome,and doesn’t help you make whatever case you think you’re making.

  18. says

    I do not get your apparent inability to grasp the notion of multiple changes relating to a single “problem”, that both address a small part of that problem, while having other effects at the same time.

  19. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Why? It’s not because of “my rhetoric”,

    When the greatest human being to ever live says something so strongly about his domain of expertise on what made him the greatest human being to ever live, I’m going to believe him. Your nonsense rhetoric of gardening and organic farming is the single biggest cause of real food security and hunger in the world.

    Yes we have enough resources to feed everyone. We have more than enough energy to make the necessary fertilizer, irrigation canals, tractors, and so forth, but it’s you and people like you that put pressure on the World Bank and other organizations to prevent these things from being used in Africa.

    Dude – you spent such a large amount of time attacking modern high yield agriculture, and promoted gardening as some sort of partial fix. It’s a complete joke. And now you’re trying to backpeddle and say “no no, I didn’t say that”. Absolutely pathetic.

  20. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I do not get your apparent inability to grasp the notion of multiple changes relating to a single “problem”, that both address a small part of that problem, while having other effects at the same time.

    I just showed that city gardening is likely less than 0.1% of any solution. Your rhetoric made it sound like it could be an important factor. 0.1% is not an important factor. It’s negligible. Again, this is further compounded by overtly attacking the sort of advances that we need to make in high yield agriculture in Africa in order to increase food security for Africans. Seriously. Look at what you wrote. You said, and I’m quoting:

    All of it can also be done with less energy than is currently used. Some of that is a matter of efficiency, but some of it is also a matter of changing how we use the space we have.

    You’re saying that we should use less energy. That is a direct attack on inorganic fertilizer, which is the major energy requirement of farming. 1% – 2% of all of the world’s primary energy, not just electricity, but all energy usage, goes to making fertilizer, so I assumed this is what you meant. I assumed this because I assumed you were educated, and I assumed this because I’m pretty sure I have told you this before.

    The only sensible way to interpret what you wrote is that people should use less fertilizer. That is exactly the motherfucking sentiment of why there is still hunger in Africa today. You are the problem.

  21. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    PS: Off topic, but I wanted to share.

    Your continued advocacy of renewables also makes you the primary problem when it comes to fixing the greenhouse gas emissions problem.

    I know that you’re probably too stuck in your dogma to listen, but look at this prepared rant that I’ve recently made. It shows the lie of almost all renewable advocates regarding the costs of renewables.

    Let’s compare overnight capital costs, and overnight capital costs amortized over lifetime, which is a good enough for our purposes now. Adding stuff like O&M won’t drastically change the result. I’ll use generous numbers for renewables, and pessimistic numbers for nuclear.

    * Nuclear. 10 USD / watt nameplate. 92% uptime. 1.25x overbuild to handle peak demand. 80 year lifetime. 13.6 USD upfront capital costs / real watt. 0.17 USD yearly upkeep / real watt.

    * Utility-Scale Solar Cells. 0.70 USD / watt nameplate. 20% uptime. 30 year lifetime. 3.5 USD upfront capital costs / real watt. 0.12 USD yearly upkeep / real Watt.

    So, solar wins, right? Wrong.

    * We need a reliable grid. Add on cross-continent transmission grid, and a 2x overbuild factor of the solar cells with curtailment, to reduce storage requirements to something reasonable. The transmission will cost a little more than the baseline solar cell costs. 0.41 USD yearly upkeep for solar cells and transmission / 1 real watt.

    * That’s still not enough to get a reliable grid. We need the batteries. Add that. 1 day of storage. 200 USD / KWh nameplate. 80% max depth of discharge. 8% losses. 8 year lifetime. 0.82 USD yearly upkeep for just the batteries, for a new total of 1.23 USD yearly upkeep for the whole solution.

    * Now, add synthetic grid inertia equipment, and blackstart capability equipment, and enough extra additional backup or storage for the worst once-a-century week-long weather conditions, and account for transmission losses. We’ll be getting close to 2 USD yearly upkeep.

    * Now, cherrypick the best numbers for nuclear, like South Korea, and we get closer to 0.03 USD / real watt for nuclear.

    Nuclear is close to 100x cheaper.

    Even the upfront capital costs of nuclear is cheaper than the complete renewables plan: pessimistically 13.6 USD / real watt for nuclear, and optimistically 19 USD / real watt for just the solar with overbuild, extra transmission, and 1 day of batteries.

    Why is it never presented this way?

    * Because authors use discount rates ( https://thoughtscapism.com/2019/11/05/decarbonisation-at-a-discount-lets-not-sell-future-generations-short/ ), which are fundamentally dishonest when planning public infrastructure with government funding, which is what we should be doing. Discount rates encourage the same throwaway consumerism that many environmentalists are rightly attacking.

    * Because authors typically ignore most or all of the integration costs, and focus only on the costs of the solar cells and wind turbines in isolation, and treat reliable dispatchable power as the same as intermittent unreliable power.

    * Because authors cherrypick the worst nuclear numbers and deny the possibility of standard learning curve cost reductions for nuclear plant construction.

    * Because authors use unreasonable costs for nuclear decommissioning and nuclear waste storage.

  22. says

    See, again, you’re coming to weird conclusions that make me think you’re not actually reading what I’m writing.

    I specifically mentioned the energy involved in things like harvesting and transporting food, so why assume I meant something other than what I said? It’s like you zero in on one thing, like your fixation on the word “balance”, and ignore everything else.

    And yes, thanks for another repetition of arguments that failed to persuade me in the past. You are both correct in thinking that it would fail again, as you are wrong in thinking I’m dogmatically opposed to nuclear. Well done.

  23. says

    Oh, and no, I don’t pressure the world bank to do anything in Africa. I want the world bank to stop fucking with Africa in general, and to give them massive grants, debt-free, to make up for the damage they’ve done there over the years. I’m in favor of self-governance, and there’s no room in that for the world bank telling people in Africa, or anywhere else, how to conduct their business.

    Like I said, you seem to have locked yourself into a particular idea of who I am, and what all “people like me” believe, and you ignore anything else. I guess you have gotten close to convincing me of one thing – trying to actually converse with you seems increasingly like a waste of my time.


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