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Citizen scientists set out to quantify the value of urban farms

   /   Jun 2nd, 2011Environment, National, New York City, Photos & Videos

Future farmland

In cities all over the U.S., urban agriculture has joined the farmer’s market as an accessible, even trendy, way for city dwellers to assert their commitment to living sustainably. But despite the individual benefits from eating healthy, organic produce, it’s hard to see — and measure — the social and environmental impact of urban farms.  Rooftop farms may seem like mere Band-Aids in overcrowded cities marked by unequal distribution of healthy food. But two environmental scientists are determined to prove that urban farms have a multifaceted positive effect in a cityscape, and that urban agriculture deserves recognition as a viable means toward creating a more sustainable and equitable urban ecosystem. Seeing Green is a year-long research project that will measure the stormwater management potential of urban farms. The founders hope the final data can prove that urban farms greatly mitigate escalating waste management problems in cities, giving scientific fodder for policy-makers to support the burgeoning urban agriculture movement.

Dowser: Tell me about how you realized that this research was needed.
Tyler Caruso, project co-director: I ran my own sustainable landscaping company in San Francisco for a couple years, and did a lot of ‘gray water’ work. Gray water is any water in a house other than your toilet – from your shower, hand faucets, and so on. It’s not potable but it can be recycled to water your plants or wash your car. So I moved back East to go do my M.S. at Pratt, and started doing more gray water work. It surprised me how much urban agriculture there was in New York City. But I also saw that urban agriculture was happening without a lot of city support; these farmers were just making it happen on their own.

What do you think is the reason for that lack of city support for urban agriculture?
People talk about the benefits of urban agriculture, but it seems that we don’t really know how to articulate those benefits and put them into policy. Right now the city’s Department of Environmental Protection is unrolling a green infrastructure plan. This is basically a movement away from mechanical, industrial ways of treating our stormwater supply. Planting trees, bioswells, blue roofs – all these are in the plan. But there’s no mention of urban agriculture. And my research partner Erik [Facteau] and I saw this as a huge disconnect. One of the reasons for that is there are no metrics for measuring the impact of green roofs.

So, your project aims to create that metric and then supply it to city programs?
With metrics you can monetize the benefits of green infrastructure. Urban farms absorb and retain rainwater, but we have yet to measure just how much they are capable of retaining. If you put a green roof anywhere, not only does that stormwater never reach a wastewater treatment plan, not only are you decreasing the monetary cost, but you’re using less electricity too. 17 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are from wastewater treatment plans.

People in city offices need numbers, they need metrics. There’s a lagging in scientific study right now. Metrics for green roofs exist but not for urban agriculture. We thought that creating this research would be a great way to support urban agriculture, and show that it is a viable part of a city’s green infrastructure.

Why is green infrastructure such a priority right now?
There are systemic problems with [New York City’s] wastewater system. The pipes were designed to prevent flooding; they weren’t made to handle both septic waste and stormwater waste. So when it rains a lot, the treatment plans get overwhelmed and they discharge raw, untreated septic waste into our water bodies. There are 422 combined sewage pipe holes where this water discharges any time the plants reach capacity. Awareness of CSO – combined sewage overflow – is growing. There’s this video on YouTube of septic waste overflowing into the Gowanus Canal.

Anytime you increase the green infrastructure of a city you’re decreasing CSO because you’re buying time and space for the stormwater to infiltrate the ground and get absorbed. So we want to show how much these farms are capable of and get policy-makers’ attention. To the best of our knowledge there have been no studies like this.

One thing that struck me is that you’re doing this scientific research using funding from a Kickstarter campaign. Why not use grants?
So much of the farming community right now is about helping each other, and also we wanted to avoid having an attachment to an institution. We want this research to reach everyone and be replicated on a community, grassroots level – it should belong to the people, belong to the farmers and the supporters. This is citizen science.

What’s your plan for publicizing the information and getting it to policy makers?
The research will take a year because we want to look at an entire growing season. We know people that work for city council members. Speaker Christine Quinn right now is looking to do a green roof amendment – right now it’s not possible to grow food-producing plants on green roofs, it’s a hole in the legislation and she wants to amend that. So we want to present our research to Speaker Quinn as a companion piece. Whoever’s the next mayor, we want to get this information into the next PlaNYC, the city’s plan for sustainability.

Watch Seeing Green explain their research in this Kickstarter video:

Interview has been edited and condensed.

12 Responses

  1. [...] Original link: [...]

  2. Mike says:

    I would be interested to see if it actually increases runoff and water pollution from increased fertilizer use. Cities have more pavement and many outdated storm sewers that collect runoff from the urban farms lead directly to rivers during high volume occurences (rainstorms).

  3. Tyler Caruso says:

    Hi Mike, increased nutrient runoff is a potential with rooftop farming- but as with all farming proper management and careful design can mitigate any negative effects. Some examples are planting that take up nitrogen, and re-designing farms so that runoff doesn’t go towards rooftop drains. At Seeing Green- we think that science should effect both design and policy. Urban Ag wont increase runoff- any green space will decrease runoff because a black tar roof or sidewalk is a lot less permeable then a farm, garden or bioswale. We just don’t know exactly how much these systems can manage- which is what we are aiming to attain with Seeing Green. Thanks for your comment! Please check out our kickstarter and back this project to help move studies like ours forward-

  4. Mike2butnotFirstPosterMike says:

    Just curious, but have you guys worked at all with ConEd and their green roofs, NYC Dept of Parks and their green roof research, NYC DEP, the SWIM Coalition, or Farming Concrete? They may be checking out a few different measurements, but I know their work is in the same vein and that they may already have internal studies on this. I know Parks has published their high performance landscaping guidelines that includes metrics on stormwater retention. The SWIM Coalition also fed me several numbers on green roofs versus blue roofs versus white roofs when I called them, too. Not to mention PlaNYC and the BlueBelt initiative probably also has data specific to areas in NYC. Here is ConEd’s recent study publishing of their green roof that stormwater capture was “22 times” what they believed it possible to be ( I am interested to see how your work goes at BK Grange and Added Value as I know several people who have worked/are working at those farms. As a side question – is there a reason you did not choose farms outside of the borough of Brooklyn? I only ask because I believed Queens was the borough suffering from the most CSO issues.

    • Tyler Caruso says:

      Hey Second Mike-

      We chose Brooklyn Grange (which is actually in long island city queens not in brooklyn) since it’s the largest rooftop farm and we know the folks that work there- plus we wanted to do work to help shift the green roof tax credit amendment Quinn’s office is currently working on. Also we’ve met with Dr.Gaffin who authored the report you attached about the ConEd roof up at Columbia (a second one focusing just on stormwater was released this spring) but his work does not look at food producing plants that use irrigation systems (same with the Parks Dept study on their Five Borough Administration Building). I’ve been to S.W.I.M meetings and we’re slated to present our researcg to them at their next meeting sometime in July. I couldn’t speaker higher of Mara Gittleman’s Farming Concrete project- her and I work very closely on a youth led urban ag project that we’re about to launch this fall. We both feel metrics can help support urban agriculture! This research project was born from our Master’s thesis where Erik and myself did a literature review, spoke to several nyc and east coast practitioners and solicited advice to develop our methodology. We appreciate your comments and maybe we’ll see you at the next S.W.I.M. meeting- please check out our kickstarter page for future updates-

  5. Mike2butnotFirstPosterMike says:

    Fantastic response. btw, Parks opened a piece of the 5-borough building mostly for food growth with a deeper soil (at least they showed it to us last year, but the soil mix they used lacked the nutrients to support the tomatoes they had growing). Also, wasn’t 5-borough’s use of stormwater storage as irrigation cool?

    Is this project just an extension of your lit review, then? This may be a bit beyond your scope, but can you include information on how opening up pervious space and planting it lowers ambient temperatures and how that correlates to a reduction of isoprene production in trees? I think Parks has done some studies that show the VOCs trees emit limit their effectiveness on super hot days, but if you can show the city how green roofs will increase the value of its already highly-valuated street tree stock then maybe it will give you (or Mr. Bloomberg, since street trees are his thang) another reason to change the green roofs policy. I will keep an eye out on your website and your project, for sure. It is interesting that another article deriding the monetary valuation of policy comes out in response to an exercise in the UK: – as a young person in the field of sustainability, do you have any advice on how I might reconcile my pro-nature ethics with pro-business modeling?

  6. Tyler Caruso says:

    Hey secondmike-

    Thanks for the article- I agree completely about the economic valuation of cost-benefit is only Pareto efficient which makes it inherently skewed. My advice for pro-nature and pro-business is to promote a more utilitarian lens within our current economic framework.
    As for Parks that is interesting to hear, we’re slated to check out 5boro soon to compare notes- from what they’ve published there wasn’t any mentioned of edibles.
    This project is an extension of a thesis which had a lit review as part of it. We’re currently focusing on monitoring stormwater management only- to develop this metric will take a year of monitoring. Eventually we’d love to get into CCS but it’s hard to perform a NEE in under a hectare from what we’ve been told. We will monitor temperature but this is only to look at evaporation and evapotranspiration rates. Please follow think link for future updates- we’re creating a blog for our backers of $25 or more that will document our work- and where we can answer questions.

    Thanks for engaging.

  7. [...] citizen scientist team, Seeing Green, is embarking on a year-long research project to evaluate the potential of urban farms to become [...]

  8. [...] citizen scientist team, Seeing Green, is embarking on a year-long research project to evaluate the potential of urban farms to become [...]

  9. [...] and organizations are specifically dealing with questions of policy and government. For example, Seeing Green’s year-long research project, funded by Kickstarter donations, aims to provide a scientific case for [...]

  10. [...] and organizations are specifically dealing with questions of policy and government. For example, Seeing Green’s year-long research project, funded by Kickstarter donations, aims to provide a scientific case for [...]

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