Team of urban planning and architecture faculty awarded $1 million grant to advance urban agriculture

Community partners in Buffalo and Minneapolis will inform research on food system design

A small patch of urban veggies grows under a canopied green house.

UB researchers will collaborate with two Buffalo organizations and one in Minneapolis on a grant to advance policies supporting urban agriculture.

by UBNow Staff

Published November 20, 2020

“Recent experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated the need for well-functioning urban food systems, which are supported by this grant. Design of such systems ought to be informed by experiences of community networks. ”
Samina Raja
Professor of urban and regional planning, and director Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab

A team of UB researchers has received a nearly $1 million grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) to test inclusive organizing models that advance policies supporting urban agriculture.

Urban food systems provide locally produced, affordable and healthy food to low-income communities and communities of color. Local governments can support urban food systems through policies such as zoning land for farming, tax credits and grants for urban growers. Yet, policymakers rarely enact these policies, and when they do it is often without grower input.

The $999,680award to UB is being funded through FFAR’s Seeding Solutions program. Matching funds — raising the total grant amount to $2.1 million — are being provided by UB and the Buffalo-based organizations Massachusetts Avenue Project and Urban Fruits & Veggies, as well as Appetite For Change, Johns Hopkins University (with support from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative) and the University of Minnesota.

“Recent experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated the need for well-functioning urban food systems, which are supported by this grant. Design of such systems ought to be informed by experiences of community networks,” says UB faculty member Samina Raja, principal investigator on the project.

“We are excited to co-produce this research with our community leaders to grow urban agriculture policy from the ground up,” adds Raja, professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and director of the school’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab.

Improved policy awareness helps urban growers better access land, water and resources. Ultimately, urban food systems and grower-policymaker networks lead to healthier, vibrant urban communities.

The interdisciplinary team of researchers includes UB’s Martha Bohm, associate professor of architecture, and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, assistant professor who holds a joint faculty appointment in the School of Architecture and Planning and the Community for Global Health Equity.

Additional investigators include Fernando Burga of the University of Minnesota and Yeeli Mui of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Community-focused work in Buffalo is led by Allison DeHonney of Urban Fruits and Veggies, Diane Picard of Massachusetts Avenue Project and Rebekah Williams of Buffalo Food Equity Network. Darryl Lindsey of Appetite For Change leads the community-focused work in Minneapolis.

“Urban agriculture is vital to providing healthy produce to city communities. Additionally, these farms foster community participation,” says FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “We are excited by this grant that is training social networks of urban growers to engage local governments in incentivizing urban food systems.”

Urban food systems face unique challenges. Urban farmers must compete with housing and retail developers for expensive land. These lots have limited access to energy and water, and are covered by restrictive zoning ordinances. Local governments often prioritize land use that generates property taxes through policy incentives. However, these farms have considerable value for urban communities.

Urban agriculture reduces transportation emissions and sewer outflows, mitigates urban heat island effect, creates jobs, greens and beautifies urban spaces, reintroduces farming to youth and adults of color, generates amenity and property values, and promotes social cohesion.

Engaging with local government

The research team is studying the role of social networks and social capital in urban food systems. Working with community partners in Buffalo and Minneapolis — cities with strong community-led urban agriculture organizations — the researchers are studying current urban food systems policy networks for their organizing capabilities.

The research is taking place mainly in areas that are historically communities of color. The team is also examining the divides between local government networks and urban food systems networks that limit urban agriculture.

Using this information, the community partners and researchers will work with urban growers, particularly growers of color, to develop cooperative strategies to engage with local government. These efforts include peer trainers with experience in engaging local governments, microgrants and developing urban farming tools that extend the growing season.

After putting the strategies into action, researchers will evaluate their effectiveness in empowering growers’ engagement in building new social networks between growers and policymakers. Researchers will also determine whether these networks have resulted in projects and policies favorable to urban farming and growers’ capabilities.