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Social Return on Investment

Written by Mike McMahon, Founder of Urban Farming Education

Urban farming can have many positive social impacts, including: reducing a family or organization’s food costs, ensuring produce in times of crisis and food shortages, reducing the heat island effect, improving the aesthetics of a lot, increasing property values, improving social connections and building a sense of community. The value of growing one’s own produce cannot be overstated. The average urban garden can provide $200 to $400 per year in fresh produce, which can be a significant help to an organization or a family with a tight budget. Urban farming also has the potential to combat food shortages; according to research from Johns Hopkins University, if a city devoted just 10% of its area to urban farming, it could grow enough vegetables to meet the recommended vegetable intake for all of its residents. This practice has a history in the U.S. during times of depression or wartime — for example, the famous “victory gardens” that were grown during World War II. And in 1918, after President Woodrow Wilson called for home front gardening during World War I, 5 million small and mainly urban plots around the country generated more than 528 million pounds of produce. Other countries recognize the value of urban farming far more than the United States; for example, farms in Shanghai produce 60% of the fruits and vegetables that its residents consume. All around the world, urban agriculture provides millions of jobs for people who would otherwise face unemployment. The environmental impact of urban farming is another key benefit; by devoting more areas to green space, cities can reduce the “heat island effect,” which results from deforestation combined with a high concentration of heat-absorbing pavement. Research from the University of Cardiff in 2007 showed that planting rooftop gardens and vertical garden walls can reduce the air temperature around a building by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit; this effect only increases as more area is devoted to green rooftops and green walls. This provides an added financial benefit by reducing the amount of energy used for air conditioning and cooling, particularly during hotter times of the year.

Moreover, numerous studies have found that access to urban gardening, community gardens, community supported agriculture and other types of urban agriculture can raise nearby property values. One study found that homes within 1,000 feet of a community garden saw positive impacts on their selling prices, and this only went up for more disadvantaged neighborhoods with more attractive gardens. Here at Agave Farms, our neighbors take daily strolls through the property and always mention how much they love the fact that we converted a 17-acre empty lot from an eyesore into a beautiful and colorful garden. The property values in the area have gone up and the apartment building on our north side actually charges for premium garden views.

Finally, the community impact is the most difficult to quantify but also the most valuable. Our neighbors come to many of Agave Farms’ events and say they have met and talked to other neighbors for the first time despite living near each other for decades. In the smaller community gardens that we have built for nonprofits, the children get so excited when it is time to leave the indoor classroom to go to the outdoor garden classroom. In homeless and domestic violence shelters, volunteers work in the gardens and share the bounty over communal meals. The garden becomes a safe haven and it seems that whoever is in there is smiling.

“UrbanFarming in Worcester - 10 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know.” Worcester FoodPolicy Council, July 24, 2017. https://worcesterfoodpolicycouncil.org/urban-farming-10-things-probably-didnt-know/