BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As Rust Belt cities transform vacant lots into
green space for growing vegetables, University at Buffalo
researchers are using modeling to help assess the City of Buffalo's
capacity for sustainable agriculture.
Specifically, UB geographer Sara Metcalf has developed a
conceptual model in the form of a "causal map" that shows,
visually, how different elements within Buffalo's urban food
movement relate to one another.
The map shows feedback involving land use, showing how vacant
lots represent an opportunity for urban agriculture, how urban
agriculture can increase familiarity with local food, and how that
familiarity can result in greater support for the cultivation of
vacant lots into urban farms.
While these relationships express common sense, the process of
mapping them serves to inform dialogue among farmers, policymakers
and community advocates. Imagining a single linkage within the food
system is simple, but visualizing a complex system is not.
An article describing the research conducted by Metcalf and
co-author Michael Widener, a UB geography PhD candidate, is
scheduled to appear in a forthcoming edition of the peer-reviewed
journal Applied Geography. The paper is available here.
Besides the causal map, the article also includes a geographic
analysis of local access to grocery stores, conducted by Widener,
that reveals urban areas with a grocery gap.
The causal map detailed in the paper reflects the input of the
Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), a Buffalo-based sustainable
agriculture organization, and scholars and practitioners attending
conferences where Metcalf and Widener presented preliminary
The diverse elements of the local food system that the
geographers' map addresses include affordability, public health,
community resilience, support for the local economy, public
perception of urban decline, and the potential adoption of a "green
code" that could make it easier to sustain urban farms.
As more residents choose local food from sustainable sources,
familiarity and community support for urban agriculture can
improve, says Metcalf, an assistant professor of geography.
Individual choices are constrained by affordability and access, but
aggregate to impact community resilience through environmental,
social and economic sustainability.
"The causal map is useful for visualizing feedback," Metcalf
says. "Relationships are inherently invisible, and by making them
visible, stakeholders can debate them. A good model can inform
Metcalf's research was supported by a research fellowship from
the UB 2020 Civic Engagement and Public Policy Strategic Strength
initiative to learn from MAP and other local food actors about the
prospects for sustainable agriculture in Buffalo.
Metcalf emphasizes the causal map's utility as a framework for
future research using systems modeling to explore urban food
production. Metcalf and Widener's future research involves multiple
models for examining different facets of local food systems --
production, distribution, consumption, policy and planning.
Widener's PhD dissertation research, under Metcalf's direction,
involves modeling dynamics of the urban food environment, examining
issues of access and food preference in greater detail. Metcalf
continues to interact with MAP, Buffalo Growing and other
"locavores" to develop a social model of awareness about and
commitment to the local food movement.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.