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Urban Farming in Fast-Growing Austin

By Sonali Bhikha

The climate crisis is intensifying, and cities must redefine their relationship with the environment. As cities respond to the climate crisis and incorporate green spaces, urban agriculture can be a sustainable tool for climate resistance.

Urban agriculture provides green space, increases food access, and creates an accessible space for community engagement. 

There is a global movement towards sustainable agricultural practices, but I’m zooming in on the Texas capital. Austin, one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., has attempted to keep up with the demand for green space and the deployment of green infrastructure. 

Development in Austin is increasing rapidly, and we need to consider the implications and actively work toward a zero-waste and zero-carbon goal. Austin’s Climate Equity Plan lays out a structure for the city to become net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Within this plan is a food and product consumption section, which provides goals for the city’s food production and distribution. One of these goals, according to the plan, is to “Ensure all Austinites can access a food system that is community-driven, addresses food insecurity, prioritizes regenerative agriculture, supports dietary and health agency, promotes plant-based foods, and minimizes food waste.”

More greenery would positively influence an urban jungle because plants clean the air and water and improve mental and physical health. Expanding urban agriculture would provide similar benefits while also benefiting the surrounding community in another way, providing food. Austin’s State of the Food Systems Report shows what Austin’s current food production landscape looks like. Only 0.06% of food consumed in Travis County – where Austin is located — is locally produced. And 18 out of 47 Travis County ZIP codes are considered food deserts because they lack a grocery store.

About 14% of people in Travis County experience food insecurity and communities of color in Austin disproportionately lack access to healthy and affordable food. Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to experience food insecurity, higher rates of food-related health impacts, and more barriers to starting a food-related business. Placing a farm or community garden in an urban area can help improve access to healthy, sustainable foods that appeal to various cultures. This creates pathways towards increased equity and lower food insecurity.

Climate Benefits of Urban Farming

Heat islands are parts of highly dense urban areas that experience higher temperatures than rural areas. This is due to urban infrastructure like buildings and roads that absorb and emit the sun’s heat more than any green area would. Heat islands are often central cityscapes, and implementing green and natural areas is one major way cities mitigate the increasing heat levels.

Urban agriculture also enhances and contributes to soil health. In a typical, busy metropolitan area with increasing development, most soil is negatively affected by construction, waste, and soil packing. Industrial practices introduce new chemicals and deplete the soil, impacting pH levels and the soil’s health. The expansion and retention of agriculture could mitigate these negative impacts of development in urban areas.

Lastly, local farming can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shrinking transportation distances and encouraging the consumption of lower-carbon foods, like vegetables, legumes, grains, fruits, and nuts.

Examples of Urban Farms in Austin

Boggy Creek Farm is in East Austin, located about three miles from downtown Austin. This farm focuses on regenerative and organic farming to protect soil health. Boggy Creek acts as a source of fresh produce for the surrounding community and green space for an area being heavily developed. This urban farm will be crucial in reducing the heat island effect in this area and protecting soil and environmental health, all while feeding the community with locally grown foods.

Urban Roots is also an urban farm located in far East Austin. Urban Roots is a non-profit organization where over 95% of the food it grows is donated or sold at a reduced cost. Urban Roots not only provides fresh, locally grown produce to the community in an accessible way, but it also provides a place for youth leaders and community development. Drawing from my experience working at Urban Roots in the Food and Leadership Fellowship, I can attest that this farm is a nourishing hub for the area, promoting community building and bonding. It goes beyond providing food; Urban Roots actively contributes to reconnecting urban areas with nature by offering green space. Like Boggy Creek Farm, Urban Roots also uses regenerative agriculture and other sustainable farming practices, like cover cropping.

Access to agriculture is critical to a successful, productive, and equitable future for any community. As population and development start to rise, it is important to protect vulnerable populations and implement structures to empower and strengthen them. This relationship between urban agriculture and climate adaptation is crucial in building resilient and self-sustaining communities for the future.

Click here for a complete map of Austin’s community gardens.

For additional information about food distribution and accessibility in Austin, explore Austin’s State of the Food Systems Report.

Sonali Bhikha is a student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Sustainability Studies. She is the Fall 2023 Environmental Policy and Advocacy Intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.