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Urban agroforestry and its potential integration into city planning efforts

Urban agroforestry makes efficient, double use of space. Trees that produce food can line city streets, parks, and other spaces. Right, from top: Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), jujube (Ziziphus jujuba), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Credit: Sarah Lovell.

An article by Dr. Sarah Lovell, University of Missouri-Columbia

Should we reimagine a “garden city” that could help adapt our urban areas for a variable and uncertain future? One that provides several benefits, like cooling the city, providing green areas for city dwellers, and even a fresh food supply?

That type of question is studied by scientists in the field of urban agroforestry. As you can imagine, plant science, horticulture, agriculture, forestry, and other sciences contribute to the development of urban agroforestry. These scientists work with landscape designers and urban planners to purposefully integrate food production into the fabric of the city. But there are some hurdles that need to be overcome to get to our garden city of the future.

One barrier is that the value of land in cities is high. There is usually limited space, and the space available is expensive. In addition, zoning and tax policies may prohibit or restrict food production. Land in cities can also be contaminated. This could be from former industrial plants, lead paints from residential structures, or other contaminants.

Defining Urban Agroforestry

It is possible to provide tree or shrub canopies that also produce food, but getting to that goal could be complicated. Fruits, nuts, and berries are just a few examples that could be provided by the right plant material. This type of system is not meant to replace the current food system, but to complement it.

Woody species of trees and shrubs are perennial, not needing to be replanted each year. They can be described as “permaculture”—or permanent agriculture. You may have a patch of your own gooseberries or plums you enjoy from your garden. The concept is the same, but on a bigger scale.

Urban Agroforestry Can Advance Urban Food Production

Urban agroforestry could serve as a progressive form of urban agriculture. The woody species would need to be integrated into an overall plan, to consider multifunctional uses for the community. People tend to prefer the aesthetics of landscapes that include trees, and fruiting trees that could be incorporated into city parks or other public spaces.

Trees and shrubs are also less affected by certain soil contaminants. The fruits and nuts usually don’t touch the ground—assuming they are harvested before they fall! Research has shown that root crops and leafy vegetables are more at risk of being contaminated with lead or arsenic than above-ground crops like tomatoes.

Juneberries, also called serviceberries and saskatoons (Amelanchier spp.), can be grown in cities. Their flavor is similar to a blueberry but with a hint of almond, and they can grow in a wider range of soil types.

Urban agroforestry can contribute to human health, because some of the most nutrient-dense foods can be grown in these systems. Berries like blueberry, aronia, and elderberry contain very high levels of antioxidants, and they grow on shrubs that are native and adapted to many parts of the US and Canada. Trees can provide healthy black walnuts, pecans, or nuts and fruits to diversify and improve the human diet.

Other Benefits of Urban Agroforestry

Perennial trees and shrubs grown as part of an urban agroforestry program also provide other benefits. Besides offering shade in the space beneath the trees, they can also shade buildings. Their roots can help stabilize the soil, preventing erosion. They contribute to the water cycle, absorbing water from extreme weather events and returning it to the air through their transpiration. Another benefit is that these types of food sources don’t need the regular fertilization and maintenance that typical agricultural crops need.

Using and Repurposing Urban Sites

Cities often have abandoned or underused sites. Abandoned lots, sidewalk medians and other spaces could have perennial, food-producing trees and shrubs. Other spaces, like pre-existing parks and even cemeteries, could be included in planning for urban food systems.

Garden Cities Are Urban Agroforestry

Planting more trees is considered to be on one of the most effective strategies for adapting to and reducing the effects of climate change. Why not have those trees (and shrubs) also provide the benefit of producing food for residents? These multi-purpose garden cities are the goal of urban agroforestry!

This blog is from the Sustainable, Secure Food Blog, subtitled Growing Food for All, Sustainable for our Earth, and was adapted from an editorial by Dr. Lovell in Urban Agriculture and Regional Food Production
All photos by Sarah Lovell

This blog was sponsored and written by a member of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Their members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. They work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “Urban agroforestry and its potential integration into city planning efforts

  1. Pingback: Urban agroforestry and its potential integration into city planning efforts – Architectural planning and consultancy

  2. Oh goodness! There is too much potential for problems. The concept is very appealing. However, the execution is completely different. Even in the Santa Clara Valley, which was formerly occupied by vast orchards, no one who lives in urban situations knows how to maintain fruit trees or landscape material that produces food. Those who maintain orchards elsewhere can not afford to live anywhere near the Santa Clara Valley. Furthermore, those who live in urban settings do not take fruit from fruit trees. Instead, fruit promotes the proliferation of vermin.

  3. Hi, Edmonton, where I live, is doing it. What the article calls June berries, generally called Saskatoons on the prairies, and a number of other berry shrubs I can’t remember have been planted in a number of our river valley ravine parks. Plan is for more to come. the city’s webpage includes a handy map of where the plantations are. Big fruit trees are tricky (cold climate!) or considered too messy if not picked (apples would grow). good to be able to brag about something related to my home town!!

    • Bravo for Edmonton! ?I’ll go back and add the name Saskatoon. I knew that, but it didn’t come to mind as I was editing the article. In Ontario, we always called it serviceberry.

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