What the term 'urban agriculture' means for the U.S.

November 14, 2011
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “urban agriculture?”

It certainly depends on your perspective and where you live. Yet, I was surprised the other day during interviews we were conducting to fill an educator position that will focus on urban agriculture.

I should say I wasn’t surprised by the subject or even some of the candidates’ perceptions. I’ve had the privilege to travel a fair bit in my career, including several trips abroad. I have long been impressed with the European model of growth and their collective respect for agriculture.

No society is perfect, and the Europeans have their share of sins, as we do in the U.S., but I can tell you after every trip, I understand the phrase, “be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.”  

I do like the manner in which the Europeans grow their cities by growing from the fringe instead of going five-plus miles outside the city and building a development. I also like the fact they understand the importance of agriculture, not just from providing food, but for providing green space and beauty.

One of the things I really remember from my visit to the Netherlands is how they have what I call edible landscapes. My host family took me to visit one of their friends who lived in a town-house community. What first struck me as we walked from the parking lot to their door was there was no lawn.

Now when I say no lawn, I do not mean it was paved or concrete; what I mean is the space was filled by gardens and not exclusively flowers, either. Unlike Americans who hide their gardens in their backyards if they have them at all. As we walked up to their door, I noticed fruits, vegetables and herbs growing on both sides of us.

The folks who lived there seemed normal enough; they weren’t flower children or tree huggers, but could have easily gone unnoticed at any PTA meeting in the states. They simply used the land they had. When I went to the backyard, they had some personal space, but still plenty of garden. While I didn’t ask, I am sure they did not own a lawn mower, since they had no grass that needed mowing.

I think in the U.S. we can take a lesson out of the Dutch playbook. Let’s try growing a small portion of our own food. You will enjoy the taste, the work won’t hurt you and you will develop an appreciation for agriculture.

Now I will relate all this to my opening comments. One of our candidates stated that in Baltimore City there are 16,000 vacant lots. If each of those lots are just one-quarter of an acre, that would amount to 4,000 acres. Let’s say half of this land would be repurposed for development — that would leave 2,000 acres for community gardens. What a food source and community builder and unifier.

Two of our other candidates talked about what was going on in other cities here and aboard. New York City, Dayton, Ohio, Toronto and Bloomington, Ind., have vibrant community gardens where they incorporate chickens and rabbits into these operations to provide meat, eggs and fertilizer.

In other parts of the world, goats are also included in the mix. I bet some town councils would have a fit with that one.

So I hope you not only have a different understanding of urban agriculture but maybe you can practice some suburban agriculture, too.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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