April 2022
The Future of Food: Why Urban Farming is Taking Root
Lauren Burger
Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

Future of Food: Why Urban Farming is Taking Root

Over the past several decades, the world’s population has been steadily moving toward urban centers. In 1950, only 30% of the world’s population lived in cities. That is expected to reach 60% by 2030.[1] As this migration continues, it raises questions about how to better manage our resources, services, and city planning to meet these urbanized needs. Cities will increasingly present challenges – today they cover about 2-3% of all land area, yet they consume about 75% of the world’s energy and create 80% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

But with those challenges comes the opportunity for industrial design and innovation strategy to play a role, to engage communities in shaping and re-designing their neighborhoods and cities to function in an ideal way, and to provide valuable experiences that will make life better not only for the people who live there, but for the world at large.

In the quest to innovate more sustainable cities, stakeholders have several different strategies they are pursuing.

While each of these strategies offer a range of benefits, the concept of urban farming is especially taking hold.

This may be due in part to the popularity of urban gardening – a smaller-scale, and more individualized endeavor than what we might think of as urban farming. Urban gardening is an activity people can take part in with relative ease, without having to make big investments or rely on the groundwork being laid by the city or other agencies, and which is an enjoyable hobby to many. So it makes sense that people who are already bought into the idea of urban gardening, or who wish they could garden in the city, but either don’t have the time or space themselves, are proponents of broader urban farming efforts.

However, it has been getting more attention lately for the broader range of social, economic, and environmental benefits it can provide.

Positive Impacts of Urban Farming

Social and Societal Benefits of Urban Farming

The benefits of urban farming start before food even comes out of the ground or off the vine. The process of preparing a space for growing, planning out what will be planted, doing the planting, and seeing what sprouts up as the plot is cared for provides a connection to food that many of us haven’t traditionally had a line of sight to. This greater collective knowledge about food, where it comes from, and the resources it requires can give us a completely different perspective about what we choose to eat, how it integrates into our customs and cultures, and the social nature of food in general.

The growing process also has benefits to the surrounding ecosystem. On the social side of things, bringing urban farming to cities can open new types of job opportunities. This could be roles in production, distribution, or even marketing for the farm operations. Bringing farms into previously vacant spaces also generates an economic benefit for the city itself – the city no longer has to use its own resources for maintenance and upkeep on the land, and will actually have a new source of property tax revenue and potentially even business tax revenue in the case of for-profit operations.[2]

Environmental Benefits of Urban Farming

Taking a more environmental lens, recent studies[3] have also shown urban farming increases vegetation cover in cities, which in turn absorbs more heat and releases moisture into the air. This can help decrease the urban heat island (UHI) intensity, which means a savings in energy usage from systems like air conditioners.  This vegetation can also consume nutrient-rich wastewater and help absorb excess atmospheric nitrogen and carbon – two key greenhouse gas components.

Potential environmental benefits continue even after crops are harvested. The local, centralized natural of urban farms means that food is already near the final consumer. This helps reduce transportation needs, as whatever is grown in the city doesn’t have to be shipped far distances from rural farms. This can lead to fewer emissions created by distribution trucks, and fresher food getting into the hands of consumers, not to mention reducing food spoilage now that urban crops are spending fewer days in transport. This centralized nature also reduces the risks of potential supply chain disruptions, as the urban farm supply chain in general has less complexity and fewer transfer points. All of this simplicity creates greater transparency in the system and the origins of our food.

We should be clear here that urban farming is not being suggested as a replacement or alternative to more traditional rural farming that provides most of our food supply today.

There simply isn’t the land availability or infrastructure needed in urban centers to be able to produce the quantities of food we rely on. However, it can serve as a supplement – helping reduce the urgency around increasing rural agriculture yields needed to keep pace with increasing populations, and offering a way to grow different varieties of crops that rural areas are less able to produce.[4]

If fully implemented in cities around the world, it’s estimated that urban farming could produce as much as 180 million metric tons of food a year![5]

However, the caveat with urban farming is, to get all these environmental, social, and economic benefits, the system must be designed in a sustainable way that takes the needs of all stakeholders into account.

Negative Impacts of Urban Farming

Failure to research & include all affected stakeholders in planning, design, & development

However, the caveat with urban farming is, to get all these environmental, social, and economic benefits, the system must be designed in a sustainable way that takes the needs of all stakeholders into account.

In the U.S. and other developed nations, farming initiatives have tended to be brought to lower income urban areas by “outsiders,” creating situations where the immediate community doesn’t actually benefit from the effort. In some cases, not only do the benefits fail to materialize, but the surrounding community is negatively impacted by urban farming projects. For example, neighborhood property values can rise, which in turn can displace long-time residents and lead to gentrification.[6] Or by contrast, urban farms that are mismanaged can create noise, odors, or even unsightliness that is a nuisance in a neighborhood, reducing residents’ desire to live nearby.

Using farming methods that are energy-inefficient in an urban environment

The method of farming and its potential impact on the environment also needs to be carefully considered. Various cities have implemented approaches such as rooftop gardens, greenhouses, indoor and vertical farms, and edible green walls[7]; however, some of these methods can be much more energy intensive than traditional forms of farming. Indoor vertical farms are especially prone to this, given that they rely on artificial lighting and climate control; whereas hydroponic setups may be more sustainable than systems that require irrigation because the water can be recycled.[8]

↓ How to Design Sustainable Urban Farms, Tools, and Products ↓

How to Design Sustainable Urban Farms and Urban Agriculture Products

Life-Cycle Thinking and Analysis for Urban Farms

The potential for inequity and inefficiency in an urban farm’s design underscores the benefit that a vetted innovation process can bring to table.

First, conducting a life cycle analysis during the planning stages can generate a more holistic perspective for the design, helping identify potential areas of positive and negative impact the farm could create and empowering a more sustainable design from the time the seeds go in the ground to when the final produce reaches a consumer’s table.

You can read more about our approach to this type of process at SF here.

Design Research that embraces all stakeholders

It will also be important to understand the impact and ideal experience of all stakeholders in the urban farm, including:
·      People who will ideally manage and work for the farm
·      Community members who will be its neighbors
·      People who will be living along the distribution routes
·      The channel by which crops will get to end consumers, like markets, retailers, or restaurants
·      The intended end consumers of the farm’s crops
·      Public officials responsible for regulations that will govern farm operations
·      The local environment

How you can leverage human-centered design and research for your urban farming innovation

Real-world example:

Our team at SF prides itself on its ability to identify diverse sets of stakeholders and develop compelling research plans to uncover their expressed and latent needs.

For example, a local Detroit non-profit recently came to Sundberg-Ferar for help in designing a community park. The park would include a gymnasium and outdoor courts for youth to engage in physical activities. It would also include kitchen facilities and garden spaces to help educate youth on where their food comes from and how to make healthier choices.

To make it a delightful and safe experience for many kinds of users, we helped the non-profit research members of the community and the needs and desires of everyone who would be involved in using the park. We then implemented these findings to design a park experience that would fulfill priority needs for each stakeholder group.

Stakeholders in this case included:

  • youth in both traditional and non-traditional families,
  • wealthy and at-risk guardians who would provide transportation to and from the park (e.g., parents, siblings, grandparents, or bus drivers),
  • community leadership and legislators, park staff, security guards etc.

All this made for a very complicated equation, but when it comes to such a large undertaking as a community park, or a new community farm, the importance of such efforts simply can’t be overstated to ensure success.

We can help!

Whether you’re working with a group that’s looking to bring an urban farming initiative to your local community, or tackling an industrial design project where you have a diverse group of stakeholders to identify and understand, we can help!

The Future of Food: Why Urban Farming is Taking Root


Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

With a background emphasizing the importance of combining both human desirability with engineering feasibility in design, Lauren has a deep passion for understanding the needs of people and how they translate to a business growth strategy. She spent her early career growing and running her own small business, including managing new product innovation, instituting a multi-channel retail approach, and developing all marketing and PR communications. From there, she spent the next several years expanding her consumer research and business strategy skills at Gongos, Inc., where she specialized in bringing a human-centric approach to knowledge synthesis, trends, and innovation projects. 

More thoughts from Lauren