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Despite extensive literature on the socio-cultural services of urban open spaces, the role of food-producing spaces has not received sufficient attention. This hampers advocacy for preserving and growing urban agricultural activities, often dismissed on justifications that their contributions to overall food supply are negligible. To understand how the social benefits of urban agriculture have been measured, we conducted a systematic review of 272 peer-reviewed publications, which drew on insights from urban agriculture sites in 57 different countries. Through content analysis, we investigated socio-cultural benefits in four spheres: engaged and cohesive communities, health and well-being, economic opportunities, and education. The analysis revealed growth in research on the social impacts of gardens and farms, with most studies measuring the effects on community cohesion and engagement, followed by increased availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables associated with reduced food insecurity and better health. Fewer studies assessed the impact of urban farming on educational and economic outcomes. Quantifying the multiple ways in which urban agriculture provides benefits to people will empower planners and the private sector to justify future investments. These findings are also informative for research theorizing cities as socio-ecological systems and broader efforts to measure the benefits of urban agriculture, in its many forms.more » « less
Abstract Environmental merits are a common motivation for many urban agriculture (UA) projects. One powerful way of quantifying environmental impacts is with life cycle assessment (LCA): a method that estimates the environmental impacts of producing, using, and disposing of a good. LCAs of UA have proliferated in recent years, evaluating a diverse range of UA systems and generating mixed conclusions about their environmental performance. To clarify the varied literature, we performed a systematic review of LCAs of UA to answer the following questions: What is the scope of available LCAs of UA (geographic, crop choice, system type)? What is the environmental performance and resource intensity of diverse forms of UA? How have these LCAs been done, and does the quality and consistency allow the evidence to support decision making? We searched for original, peer-reviewed LCAs of agricultural production at UA systems, and selected and evaluated 47 papers fitting our analysis criteria, covering 88 different farms and 259 production systems. Focusing on yield, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and cumulative energy demand, using functional units based on mass of crops grown and land occupied, we found a wide range of results. We summarized baseline ranges, identified trends across UA profiles, and highlighted the most impactful parts of different systems. There were examples of all types of systems—across physical set up, crop type, and socio-economic orientation—achieving low and high impacts and yields, and performing better or worse than conventional agriculture. However, issues with the quality and consistency of the LCAs, the use of conventional agriculture data in UA settings, and the high variability in their results prevented us from drawing definitive conclusions about the environmental impacts and resource use of UA. We provided guidelines for improving LCAs of UA, and make a strong case that more research on this topic is necessary to improve our understanding of the environmental impacts and benefits of UA.more » « less
Over 70% of the 62 million hectares of cropland in the Midwestern United States is grown in corn-based rotations. These crop rotations are caught in a century-long simplification trend despite robust evidence demonstrating yield and soil benefits from diversified rotations. Our ability to explore and explain this trend will come in part from observing the biophysical and policy influences on farmers’ crop choices at one key level of management: the field. Yet field-level crop rotation patterns remain largely unstudied at regional scales and will be essential for understanding how national agricultural policy manifests locally and interacts with biophysical phenomena to erode—or bolster—soil and environmental health, agricultural resilience, and farmers’ livelihoods. We developed a novel indicator of crop rotational complexity and applied it to 1.5 million fields across the US Midwest. We used bootstrapped linear mixed models to regress field-level rotational complexity against biophysical (land capability, precipitation) and policy-driven (distance to the nearest biofuel plant and grain elevator) factors. After accounting for spatial autocorrelation, there were statistically clear negative relationships between rotational complexity and biophysical factors (land capability and precipitation during the growing season), indicating decreased rotation in prime growing areas. A positive relationship between rotational complexity and distance to the nearest biofuel plant suggests policy-based, as well as biophysical, constraints on regional rotations. This novel RCI is a promising tool for future fine-scale rotational analysis and demonstrates that the United States’ most fertile soils are the most prone to degradation, with recent policy choices further exacerbating this trend.
Essential for society to function, the production and consumption of food, energy, and water (FEW) are deeply intertwined, leading to calls for a nexus approach to understand and manage the complex tradeoffs and cascading effects. What research exists to date on this FEW nexus? How have scholars conceptualized these interactions at the urban scale? What are some promising approaches? Where are the research gaps? To answer these questions, we conducted a quantitative review of the academic literature on the FEW nexus (1399 publications) over more than four decades (1973–2017), followed by in-depth analysis of the most influential papers using an evaluation matrix that examined four components: 1) modeling approach; 2) scale; 3) nexus ‘trigger’; and 4) governance and policy. Scholars in the fields of environmental science predominated, while social science domains were under-represented. Most papers used quantitative rather than qualitative approaches, especially integrated assessment and systems dynamics modeling although spatial scale was generally recognized, explicit consideration of multi-scalar interactions was limited. Issues of institutional structure, governance, equity, resource access, and behavior were also underdeveloped. Bibliometric analysis of this literature revealed six distinct research communities, including a nascent urban FEW community. We replicated the analysis for this urban group, finding it to be just emerging (80% of papers have been published since 2010) and dominated by scholars in industrial ecology. These scholars focus on quantifying FEW flows of the urban metabolism in isolation rather than as a nexus, largely ignoring the political and socio-economic factors shaping these flows. We propose the urban FEW metabolism as a boundary object to draw in diverse scholarly and practitioner communities. This will advance research on complex FEW systems in four key areas: (1) integration of heterogeneous models and approaches; (2) scalar linkages between urban consumption and trans-boundary resource flows; (3) how actors and institutions shape resource access, distribution and use; and (4) co-production of knowledge with stakeholders.