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 Feature Industry Articles 
Monday, May 23 2016
Urban Agriculture And Sustainable Economic Development - Planting Seeds which can Transform Land Uses, Economies, Communities and Lives

By Kenneth E. Dobson; Economic Development Administrator; Fulton County, Georgia

The level and rate of economic growth varies evenly throughout most urbanregional jurisdictions. There are areas of accelerated fiscal revenue growth, moderate growth, stagnant growth and low to no growth. While each geographic area may produce different levels of economic output to the local tax base, they all, nevertheless, require certain acceptable levels of fiscal revenue to support delivery of essential services. These essential services include police, fire, library, parks and recreation and other forms of public, human and social services.

The jurisdictions with the highest economic development competitiveness and growth performance are usually those that have specific, carefully crafted policies, programs and resource allocations to address the business, jobs and quality of life needs and opportunities within each of these areas.  Such specific geographic sector strategies are capable of facilitating increased economic opportunities, all while also generating increased and sustainable revenue growth to meet future tax base growth requirements that will be driven by a highly-demanding 21st century marketplace. The highest levels of performance can most often be achieved when implemented within the context of an overall economic development plan and comprehensive economic development growth strategies.

There are many innovative sector strategies to facilitate economic growth within each of the areas mentioned previously. However, this discussion focuses specifically on the practice of urban agriculture as a targeted community, economic development strategy. There are aspects of urban agriculture which have a goodness of fit to all economic growth sectors of a jurisdiction such traditional indoor and outdoor farmers markets, urban gardens, portable back yard or patio plant growing systems, etc.

However, large integrated scales of integrated urban farming of healthy organic foods in combination with aspects of the existing farmers market models in large tracts of vacant land or in adaptively reused vacant buildings is one of the most interesting, emerging trends in urban agriculture. Developments of this type are gaining increased attention and traction both outside and within low-income census tracts of certain underperforming economically distressed areas. Increasingly, different levels and strategic applications of urban agriculture are being employed as well-suited business and jobs generators which also produce important workforce development and nutritional health benefits.

Urban Agriculture Development
Urban agriculture can be defined as the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing freshly grown foods in counties, cities and other jurisdictions. Innovative urban agricultural developments have capacity to also include, and also integrate, such fields of business and occupational endeavors as aquaculture, hydroponics, horticulture and animal husbandry. These emerging fields of research and practical applications within urban agriculture development can formal education and training as well as on-the-job training for potential professional, skilled and semi-skilled job opportunities generated through such investments in the area.

The primary purposes of such targeted urban agriculture redevelopment growth strategies are two-fold. The first is to facilitate the creation and development of a healthy sustainable system or food supply chain on vacant underperforming land and/or buildings in underserved locations within the urbanregional marketplace. Simultaneously, the development process also facilitates business development, economic opportunities and fresh/healthy food supplies for residents living within these economically challenged communities.

The outcomes can be realized through increased business creation and development, employment with increased productivity and upward mobility, workforce development training for displaced workers, and nutritional benefits which can lead to healthier lives and lifestyles. The economic benefits can be measured further in terms of increased income, wages, business profits, potential savings and re-investments. The cumulative effects can be measured in terms of incremental increases in economic and fiscal output production from distressed areas which were previously under-performing geographic areas of the jurisdiction.

Urban agricultural development activities are often found within or on the fringe of economically-stagnant or distressed areas. The primary processing and production functions are most often taking place in underperforming land and building situations. These underperforming assets can include warehouse buildings in traditional industrial districts, vacant, unused, underutilized, blighted, or brownfields in certain sparsely populated areas. The size and scope can range from a single building or city block to multiple blocks and several acres of assembled land.

Major urban redevelopment challenges, opportunities and benefits can be found in the transformation of such underutilized real estate assets. They can be either permanent or temporary transitional land uses in nature depending on particular situations or circumstances. A case in point is the temporary transitional land use of certain parcels being used as parking lots while awaiting larger scale commercial or mixed-use development. However, the new urban agriculture uses of such underperforming real estate assets are to grow food production in areas with inadequate food supplies for the primary purpose of commercial food distribution throughout and personal household consumption within the affected area.

Food Deserts
The largest scale of urban agriculture development will most likely be found in low-income areas of urbanregional jurisdictions commonly called “Food Deserts.” Food deserts are census tracts in low-income areas that do not have ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

There is generally a lack of large supermarkets and major grocery stores as well as the virtual absence of healthy food and fresh produce offerings within one mile of low income areas. The situation maybe even worse for many residents who have to travel long distances to reach a grocery store without sufficient transportation being available. Coincidentally, the general consuming population and workforce residing within such areas often exhibit high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases related to poor diets and consumption patterns.

Accordingly, Fulton County has some twenty food deserts which are located generally in the South Fulton area of the county.

The Fulton County Government and its Economic Development Division has been working with various developers and stakeholders within many of the areas who have been employing different models discussed herein over the last three years.

General Types of Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture developments are scalable offering the flexibility to range from block level market orientation to jurisdiction-wide and urbanregional market orientations. These developments can also be designed to range from high-tech to low-tech and all points in between from a functionality perspective. There are several jurisdictions that have been engaging in various types and levels of small to medium scale urban agriculture development initiatives in this country for some time now. However, an increasing numbers of jurisdictions are beginning to explore the more complex medium to large scale urban agricultural integrated development initiatives. A general listing is as follow:

  • Traditional Urban Farmers Market Models
  • Large-Scale International Farmers Market Models
  • Small-Scale City Block Farmers Market Models
  • Vertical Building Rooftop Models
  • Waste to Energy Organic Greenhouse Commercial Models
  • Shared-Community Garden Models
  • Upgraded and Enhanced Corner Grocery Store Models
  • Boutique backyard/Patio Models

Urban agriculture as an economic development strategy can increase self-employment through entrepreneurship associated with the emerging organic food industry which produces green businesses, green collar jobs, workforce development opportunity and upward employment mobility. There exist the opportunities and possibilities for such urban agricultural enterprises to grow and sell specialty vegetables and produce to high-end restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets throughout the urbanregion.

Potential Stakeholders and Partners
The urban agriculture development process brings forth the opportunity to cultivate important collaboration, engagement and strategic alliances and partnerships necessary for such major transformational initiatives. These key stakeholders usually will consist of public, private, quasi-public organizations, financial institutions, foundations, non-profit community based organizations, faith-based institutions, universities, community colleges and workforce development agencies, etc. These stakeholders include the following:

  • Local Governments/Public Sector in General
  • USDA, Federal and State Governments in General
  • Land Grant Universities/Universities in General
  • Agriculture Extension Services
  • Foundations and other Philanthropic Sources
  • Third-Party Funding, Finance, Management and Technical Sources
  • Social Entrepreneurial Development: Community Development, Faith-Based and Non-Profit Sources
  • Agribusiness Trade Associations and Sources
  • Private Urban Agribusiness Investors, Pioneers and Developers

The development process plants the necessary seeds to help make economically-distressed areas much higher contributors to its overall economic and fiscal growth within the jurisdiction. It also has the potential to increase economic opportunities for all who would welcome becoming engaged as innovators, growers and producers instead of just consumers. Additionally, urban agriculture can also have the capacity to transition an economically-distressed area from a traditional consumption mini-economy into an important production or semi-production mini-economy.

Urban agriculture developments can also provide important socioeconomic opportunities to residents in underperforming areas which can foster increased self-worth while also increasing net-worth in the process. These outcomes can be accomplished through increased workforce development training, on-the-job training, and employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for local residents.  From a business perspective, the process also creates the opportunities to achieve reasonably acceptable return-on-investment both from cash-on-cash and non-cash-on-cash perspectives. Finally, urban agricultural development can be very efficient and cost effective ways to grow outcomes which are capable of creating new work jobs, income, wages, businesses, profits, lives and communities.

Perhaps the most important aspect about this discussion is to be reminded that the Fulton County Economic Development Division works tirelessly to stay ahead of emerging trends and opportunities so that you and your business never get left behind. For more information, you can reach us at or 404.612.1021.

Posted by: AT 09:19 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
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