The Efficiency of an Urban Garden

David Trammel's picture

John Timmer over on Arstechnica posted an article discussing the efficiency of urban gardens versus modern industrial scale farms.

"Urban farms could be incredibly efficient—but aren’t yet"

"The green revolution that transformed modern agriculture has generally increased its scale. There's tremendous potential for efficiencies in the large-scale application of mechanization, fertilization, and pesticide use. But operating at that level requires large tracts of land, which means sources of food have grown increasingly distant from the people in urban centers who will ultimately eat most of it. In some ways, hyper-local food is a counterculture movement, focused on growing herbs and vegetables in the same dense urban environments where they will be eaten. It trades the huge efficiencies of modern agriculture for large savings in transportation and storage costs. But is urban farming environmentally friendly?"


Its a rather short article on what is a complicated subject. It also makes some incorrect conclusions in my opinion.

The first error seems to be comparing the labor costs of a smaller urban garden to the much larger modern farm, and finding that the urban gardener is less productive per man-hour, and therefore less sustainable. This is apples and oranges. An automobile is more efficient than a bicycle for transport, that doesn't make the car more sustainable. Modern farms use machinery, pesticides and fertilizer which are all dependent on fossil fuels. When the oil gets scarcer, the costs go up.

Also, the article faults urban gardens for using city water and buying fertilizer locally, rather than collecting rain water or composting themselves. Neither does modern farms.

Left unsaid, is a huge point we here at Green Wizards make over and over. While having locally grown food or backyard gardens raises the quality of food for the people near them, one of the main benefits is that growing your own food now teaches you how to do it when you have the advantages of modern society to help when you make mistakes. You won't have that luxury in a few decades. In the Future, climate change and economic disruption will make everything more expensive. Being able to supplement your food supplies then with vegetables you grow yourself may make the difference between eating and not.

I will recommend checking out the article for the Comments. The people there address my issue and many others in great detail.

Comments to this article on Arstechnica

Blueberry's picture

If you grow a strawberry plant and use peat an perlite as a potting mix plus peters 20-20-20 fertilizer your total energy input is less that getting fruit shipped from calli. Plus it is fresh not a week old. Just my 2 cents.

White Feather's picture

Personally I think urban gardening has some very useful potentials. While it certainly doesn't have the tracts of land used in traditional farming, there is ample space available in many places if we think vertically. E.G. If I remember correctly some cities in Mexico are growing vining crops up concrete overpass supports. This general idea can be expanded on exponentially. I'd also say that if we consider all of the unnatural spaces created by large buildings and their positional relationships as "micro-climates" there may be opportunities that wouldn't occur otherwise. Just my thoughts.