Everyone knows that foods like vegetables, grains, meat, and fruits are grown or raised on farms. Most of us, however, get our food from a grocery store rather than from a garden or farm. If a refrigerator or supermarket is our main experience of food, then it is easy to think that food is always plentiful and instantly available. Urban gardening—in backyard gardens, small-scale community gardens, and larger-scale urban farms—undercuts this common misconception, helping people realize that food takes time, care, and resources to produce.
About 15 percent of the world's food is grown in urban areas. Around the world, and increasingly in the United States, you can find people raising vegetables and livestock in backyards, along roadsides, in vacant lots, and on rooftops and balconies. Urban farming offers the obvious benefit of providing fresh produce, eggs, and meat to people in cities. In fact, urban farms and gardens are one way that communities in some cities cope with a problem known as "food deserts."
A food desert is an area that has few grocery stores, and where the food choices are limited and often inferior (e.g., junk, highly processed, or "fast" foods). Food access can affect health. For example, people living in food deserts suffer cardiovascular disease at nearly twice the rate of people who have access to well-stocked food stores. In Chicago, about 13 percent of its 3 million residents live in areas considered to be food deserts. To supply its residents with fresh food, the city is actively promoting urban gardening and has helped convert vacant lots, parklands, and rooftops to gardens and urban farms.
Local food production offers numerous other benefits, too. For example, locally grown food requires little or no shipping, which greatly reduces its carbon footprint. The Food Climate Research Network has determined that transportation (i.e., fossil fuels burnt by ships, trucks, and planes) accounts for roughly 12 percent of the carbon emissions generated in the overall food-production chain (i.e., growing, packaging, shipping, and marketing).
Urban farms and gardens also transform vacant lots into urban oases. Abandoned lots get cleaned up. Soil is improved. Cool pockets of lush vegetation counterbalance areas dominated by concrete, brick, and asphalt. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And the community gains park-like gathering places. This social dimension is significant. Urban gardens often function as outdoor community centers and forums for discussing local issues. Many studies show community gardens to be a galvanizing force, giving a community a new sense of identity and fostering a spirit of goodwill. The neighbor-to-neighbor conversations build connections and can spark action on issues of common concern. At another level, urban gardeners often connect with other urban gardeners, creating a support network. This network can help them strategize solutions to problems, learn about sustainable practices and helpful innovations, and develop joint purchasing and marketing strategies.
Finally, plants are sometimes described as "windows" into the natural world. They can teach us about climate, what living things require, the interactions between organisms, and our own connections to the natural world. For example, being intimately connected to food production helps people understand their place in the food chain. It underscores how our survival is directly tied to natural resources, such as sunlight, soil quality, and water. Gardening also promotes a sense of stewardship, with people protecting local resources, adopting sustainable practices, and finding ways to improve the land.
At first glance, urban gardening seems to be about nutrition and food production. But urban gardening offers a multitude of additional benefits. It also contributes to people’s economic, environmental, political, social, spiritual, family, and community lives.
City Farm is a computer-based interactive game with several goals. One is to understand what is meant by sustainable farming practices, such as conserving water, improving soil health, and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals). Another goal is to help students understand a plant's life cycle from seed to sprout to flower to fruit. Because the game imposes problems on the gardens (e.g., drought), students increase their awareness of the impact of climatic factors such as temperature and rainfall and limiting factors such as nutrients and water. The game also highlights humanity's dependence on plants, the interactions between organisms such as crops, insects, birds, disease-causing microorganisms, and weeds, and our place in the food chain. Finally, the game also shows an urban garden as a complex, dynamic system, with inputs, outputs, and interacting parts and processes (e.g., the gardener, soil, crops, nutrients, water, insects, weather, and community.)
This game can be played in about 10 minutes or so, but benefits from replay. Teachers may consider having students repeat the game after discussing initial outcomes. Because it is a game, City Farm is ideal for after-school settings or as a homework assignment.
Playing City Farm
Each season, players get $1,000 to buy crops and upgrades. Crop costs are based upon the cost of seeds and the labor of planting, tending, and harvesting. Budget surpluses are carried over, year to year.
Players buy four crops. To help players choose, each of the eight crops has an information box summarizing its food yield, water requirements, problems it is prone to, etc. Players strive to choose a mix of crops that will fulfill the goals listed above. To plant crops, players drag each choice onto a plot.
Players buy "upgrades" (e.g., mulch, drip irrigation, etc.) to maximize yield and help protect crops against problems. To help players choose, each upgrade has an information box summarizing its cost and benefits.
To get more information about a game element, players click the question mark next to that element.
In each round of the game, players spin a wheel to see what problem they will have to contend with. Players read a message that summarizes the problem, lists upgrades they may have already bought that protect the garden from this problem, and suggests a remedy they can buy. Players can choose to invest in the proposed solutions only if they have adequate funds in their budgets.
At the end of each round, a box shows the remaining budget and tallies how each player’s garden performed in terms of farm shares, soil health, and water conservation. Players can increase their budget by growing more than 200 shares. These values together contribute to an overall sustainability score.
After five rounds, the game is over. A final screen totals the farm’s food production and sustainability history over the five rounds.
Players get a sustainability score based on whether they met their production targets each year, the final soil health score, and how much water they conserved. They get bonus points for the money remaining in their budgets. They earn different awards, depending on their scores.
Farm shares: How many bags of produce students harvest and can distribute to the community will depend on which crops and upgrades they choose and how the problems they face affect their crops.
Soil health: Most crops deplete the health of the soil. Certain upgrades and crops can improve soil quality. Healthy soil can protect against some problems players might face.
Water saved: Players have a set amount of water available each year. To be sustainable, they need to minimize water use.
As in real-life farming, a student playing City Farm has to be on top of a myriad of details in order to succeed. And sometimes, natural events beyond one’s control can still undermine even the best planning. Nevertheless, the idea in City Farm is to have students weigh the risks, options, and variables and develop a plan that can meet the game’s objectives by the end of the fifth season. But should a student get frustrated or discouraged along the way, it is useful to know some strategies that are more likely to succeed. Here are some ideas to suggest to help a student who is struggling to meet the targets:
Pay close attention to information on each crop’s card—in particular, how much it costs to plant and tend and how it affects soil health and water use.
It may be helpful in early rounds to plant only three crops and purchase upgrades.
Pay close attention to information on each upgrade’s card—in particular, how much it boosts food yield, affects soil health and water use, and protects against natural problems. Certain upgrades (such as compost and mulch) deliver a big bang for the buck!
Planting certain mixes of crops earlier in the game helps maximize sustainability points by providing abundant food shares, which also adds money to the budget. A good mix to try is bush beans, carrots, peppers, and potatoes.
Avoid planting more expensive crops until you have at least $200 left over from the previous season. Then, plant just one of these crops. Once the budget surplus grows, you can plant additional beds of these crops.
Avoid planting crops that are heavy water users or soil depleters until you can purchase upgrades that promote water savings or soil improvements.
The only sure way to earn a high soil-health or water-savings score is to buy relevant upgrades such as compost, lime, drip irrigation, and water catchments.
Environmental science: Have students analyze gardens as a system. The inputs include sunlight, water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide. The outputs include elements associated with plant growth, such as organic material, flowers, fruit, and oxygen. Ask students to identify the ecological interactions and interconnections that play out in gardens. For example, consumers (e.g., birds, animals, and insects) feed on producers (e.g., plants), and decomposers (e.g., earthworms) break down plant material. Plants also play host to disease agents, such as molds, viruses, and other pathogens. Gardens are prime examples of how ecological interactions produce "emergent" properties—the product of the interaction of the parts, not simply the sum of the parts. For example, soil health is an emergent property. It is the interaction of crop choice, crop rotation, water-management techniques, and the quality/amount of pesticides used. In the game, students make choices about crops, water, and upgrades. Over the five years, the interplay of these choices affects the garden in ways that no one choice alone could. Said another way, students need to avoid thinking of their choices in isolation and instead see that a set of choices interact to take on a life of their own. One way to test out this idea is to have students play the game with this idea in mind. Have students deliberately make a set of choices while considering specific outcomes. For example, how does not using mulch or compost affect yield, soil health, and water use? Which upgrades work in tandem to produce the greatest number of shares, the best soil health, or the most efficient water use? How does planting legumes like beans (which improve the soil) affect that plot’s yield in subsequent years?
Life science: Students can study a plant's life cycle, from seed to fruit. Point out that most "vegetables" are fruits—seed containers coming from a flower—and that true vegetables are foods where people eat the stems or leaves, such as lettuce, greens, and celery. In the game, ask students how they would modify the screens to more accurately depict a plant’s life cycle. Have them select one of the crop plants and illustrate its life cycle.
Earth science: Plants respond to their physical environment and can give students insight into the effect of soil conditions, temperature, and precipitation levels. Point out that plants, especially native plants, can serve as indicators of climate—long-term weather patterns. As climate changes, the kinds of plants growing in a region change, too. Ask students to research your region's climate history. How has it changed? How might that affect the plant and animal life in your area? How might farmers need to adapt their practices? You can find historic climate data on NOAA's Climate and Weather Data Center's website or the National Center for Atmospheric Research's website.
Social studies: One social studies topic City Farm speaks to is the role urban gardens play in community organizing. As gathering places, the kinds of community-based conversations mirror the evolution of many social movements. For example, informal house meetings led to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which laid the groundwork for women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment. Union halls helped advance the labor movement. Churches played a prominent role in the civil rights movement. Urban gardening may have played a similar role in the environmental movement. Another social studies connection is pointing out how farms, in general, illustrate a core principle underpinning the idea of community. In response to a disruption such as a natural disaster, farmers in one region aid farmers in another. Sending hay to feed livestock during a drought or blizzard or sending equipment and supplies to replace losses due to a hurricane or tornado illustrates the role that community plays in our lives. Ask students to create a list of local issues and identify community-gathering places where person-to-person interaction can set change in motion