A new paper by Aubry and Kebir, published in Food Policy, examines the role of peri-urban farms in the Parisian food system. Similar to other large metropolitan areas, and specifically NYC, food consumed by residents was once grown on farms surrounding the cities. As interest in local food increases, along with the desire to preserve farming, the potential for urban and peri-urban farming has increased.
The key question, in my opinion, is what role can be filled by urban and peri-urban farms? Like NYC, Paris is densely populated and sits in a region that is surrounded by farmland – with about 5300 farms. Unlike the farms near NYC, which are typically small and medium sized, the authors indicate that most of the French farms in the region are industrial operations. Similar to NYC, however, proximity to the urban center is positively related to whether the farm participates in the local or regional food system, through direct marketing to consumers, selling to retailers, pick your own, direct sales to restaurants and so on. The authors found that the greatest growth in local food sales is taking place with the assistance of intermediaries to the final buyer, rather than via face-to-face transactions such as those in farmers markets.
I want to contrast the cases of NYC and Paris (densely populated, high cost cities) with another recent article by Grewal and Grewal, published in Cities, which asks if cities can become self reliant in food. The city under study, Cleveland, is in the Rust Belt, which has not recovered from the loss of industrial manufacturing. In addition to problems facing most cities (underserved communities, low food access, and so on), Cleveland has a significant amount of vacant land.
First, as an economist, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be self-reliant in food production, except for philosophical reasons. But putting that question aside, urban and peri-urban agriculture can fill different needs depending on the location (but probably not self-sufficiency in food production). In Paris and NYC, and similar cities, production on urban and peri-urban farms can (1) preserve farmland, which provides rural amenities in terms of vistas, (2) create green space in cities, (3) provide psychic benefit to consumers who might have the chance to know their producers, (4) increase urban residents’ knowledge of farming and food, and (5) provide food. In cities such as Cleveland, urban and peri-urban farms provide the five benefits listed, plus (1) reduction of urban blight, (2) job training (see Chicago for an example), and (3) strengthen a sense of community.
I have spoken with urban farmers around the US, and find that the largest struggles are faced by commercial farms, who strive for economic viability; of course, this is exactly the problem faced by small and medium farmers in rural areas. In contrast, urban and peri-urban operations that are removed from the market (that is, income relies on grants or donations or anything other than selling food) seem to struggle less, and are fully committed to their social cause. In fact, they seem content and pleased with their work and their farms.
One day — hopefully soon — I will be able to articulate why my statements in the previous paragraph bother me.