In New York City: 5,000 Acres and a Mule?

by |October 21, 2011

Vacant land suitable for farming in New York’s five boroughs includes 3,321 acres of private land (red), 1,163 acres that is public (orange) and just 86 nearly invisible acres of community gardens (yellow). Other vacant areas including cemeteries and parks are in gray.

It is no surprise that New York City holds one of the world’s densest agglomerations of people and infrastructure; but according to a new report, it is also hides a huge archipelago of potential farmland. The report, by the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab, identifies some 5,000 scattered acres of private and public vacant land suitable for farming–plus a roughly equal amount potentially contained in city housing projects, tiny street-corner parks, parking lots and rooftops. All together, that is about a dozen times the size of Central Park. Excluded: the parks themselves, 52,236 acres of private yards, and the city’s vast cemeteries. (Look at the maps here to see the distribution of potential farmland.)

New York already has more than 500 community gardens, and 15 to 30 sites big or dedicated enough that they might be identified as farms. But the actual acreage is minuscule: around 100 acres total. The report notes that in recent years, urban farming has taken off on a larger scale in other cities where competition for space is less intense, or where land is actually being abandoned, such as in Detroit or Cincinnati. But the authors see huge potential even in crowded New York. “Interest and awareness are growing exponentially,” says lead author Kubi

Suitable rooftops (blue and yellow) could provide some 3,200 acres.

Ackerman. “We have an unusual market situation, where demand for local food is far outrunning the supply”–currently by as much as eightfold, he said.

About 1,100 of the 5,000 acres of suitable vacant land is public–“the low-hanging fruit,” says Ackerman. Some 1,200 acres of New York City Housing Authority property is not included in the 5,000-acre total because an unknown percentage of it is already used for playgrounds and other facilities that probably should not be converted. Rooftops–some 40,000 acres citywide–are not all suitable because many are sloped or are not strong enough to hold heavy loads of soil; but the report identifies some 3,200 rooftop acres that look promising. In addition to acreage, the city also has large amounts of underused refrigeration, processing and distribution infrastructure, some of it contained in schools, churches and other institutions that would make local farming feasible, the report says.

No one contends that local agriculture could provide for a large percentage of the city’s 7 million inhabitants–but it would provide some, and would help introduce a substantial amount of fresh produce to neighborhoods where it is scarce, and improve health there, says the report. It could also provide many other benefits. In line with other green initiatives started in recent years, it could help restrain rainwater from running into overloaded sewers; reduce energy use by insulating infrastructure from extremes of heat and cold; reduce the city’s garbage problem by providing an outlet for compost; and generate jobs. Many of the poorest neighborhoods, where jobs are scarce, and where diet-related ailments like obesity and diabetes are common are, in fact, home to the largest stretches of suitable land.

What’s holding the city back? Bureaucracy and uncertainty over who has jurisdiction over properties makes conversion of many difficult, says the report; and city agencies already ravaged by budget cuts do not have the capacity to encourage or regulate farming. The few relatively larger-scale operations now just scraping by, and many rely on volunteer labor. But Ackerman is optimistic; he says that if hurdles could be overcome with streamlined permitting processes and encouragements such as tax incentives, farming would quickly expand. “People are starting with a blank slate, as to what grows well, and what makes money,” he said. “Once the entry barriers drop, given the amount of interest, this is going to be happening here.”

Read the full report.

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