Harvard Economist Claims Urban Farms Do More Harm Than Good

filed under: Design, Urban design

harvard, edward glaeser, harvard economist, urban farm, urban agriculture, rooftop farm, brooklyn grange, battery conservancy, turkey farm, turkey-shaped farm, vertical farm, vertical farms, urban density, energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, food miles, harvard university, alternative agriculture, green, green design, environmental design, green cities,

We’ve covered a wide variety of urban agriculture projects in the past – the rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange, the Battery Conservancy’s new turkey-shaped farm, and futuristic vertical farms, to name a few. Our view of them has generally been positive, but perhaps urban farms deserve a second look. Edward L. Glaeser, PhD, a professor of economics at Harvard University recently put forth his radical view that urban farms reduce metropolitan density levels, and thus do more harm to the environment than good. But does his argument really hold water?

harvard, edward glaeser, harvard economist, urban farm, urban agriculture, rooftop farm, brooklyn grange, battery conservancy, turkey farm, turkey-shaped farm, vertical farm, vertical farms, urban density, energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, food miles, harvard university, alternative agriculture, green, green design, environmental design, green cities,

Glaeser’s main point is that allocating metropolitan land to agriculture results in lower urban density levels and longer commutes. If America replaced just 7.9 percent of its whopping 1 billion acres of crop and pastureland with urban farms, then metropolitan area densities would be cut in half.

As he rightly points out, lower density living is associated with higher energy use and thus more carbon dioxide emissions. His source, the National Highway Travel Survey, affirms that when urban density drops 50%, households buy over 100 gallons of gas more per year.

The increased gas consumption from moving this relatively small amount of agricultural farmland into cities would generate an extra 1.77 tons of carbon dioxide per household per year.

Perhaps this is balanced by a reduction in food miles? Not so. A 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon concluded that food delivery is responsible for only .4 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per houshold per year. While this is a sizable amount, it is clearly offset by the emissions Glaeser says result from creating urban agricultural spaces.

In sum, his argument is that “Shipping food is just far less energy intensive than moving people.” But isn’t the real debate whether we even have to move city people out in order to move farms in?

Via Boston Globe

Lead Image: The Boston Globe/istockphoto/Heather Hopp-Bruce

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  1. kwazai99@gmail.com January 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I wonder if he considered the roof space as the ‘land’ use parameter. I wouldn’t think it’d make it denser. Maybe a little more intensive, but offsetting transportation.

  2. Mit W June 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    It should be noted that Gleaser did clarify, “large scale urban farming”, and, “significantly satisfy their own food needs”. Another point brought up is converting lawns to farms. This too is problematic. One, grass areas in city parks serve as recreational and common areas for people. Two, coercing conversion of private lawns to farming will run afoul with the willingness and time constraints of the residence owners. Grass is easy to maintain. Farming and/or large vegetable gardens are more labor intensive. I find myself hard pressed to tend to even my small vegetable garden after coming home from my job and, not everything i grow turns out better than what the supermarket offers.

  3. limpeh June 26, 2011 at 3:58 am

    That would depend on what kind of urban farming we’re talking about.

    Rooftop farms don’t reduce the population density at all, since rooftops are largely unused space! Check out Google Earth on any city and one will realise most rooftops are empty, concrete spaces that can easily be used for agriculture.

    Of course, if the Harvard economist is talking about replacing buildings with farms in the middle of the city, then of course it is common sense the farms won’t be doing more good than harm.

  4. am44 June 25, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Further to FK42’s point, and also which has been pointed out numerous times on this site, is to convert non-liveable areas such as rooftops and small plots that do not meet the requirement to put a structure on.

    Having just flown home to LA this weekend, I only saw 1 roof on the approach to the airport that had any sort of greenery. I’m sure I happen to have a view of at least a thousand commercial buildings on that 50 mile stretch. Now that is a waste of valuable space!

  5. earthtoearth June 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    he obviously does not understand the whole point of urban farming, which is to use available lots, rooftops, etc..to grow food where no one was thinking of growing it before…many of the people who would benefit (the poor) cannot move anyway or they would be outta there…

    check out an amazing movie about urban farming in LA called SAVE THE FARM:


  6. FK42 June 25, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Umm…no. The point of urban farming is to take land that is already not being used productively (read: lawns) and put it into productive use, growing or raising food. Since there’s NO CHANGE in population density using this model of urban farming, there is no increase in urban sprawl, totally invalidating the esteemed professor’s theory.

    Further, land that is changed over from lawns to gardens no longer has to be mowed. Gas-powered mowers are a huge waste of fuel, and contributor to air pollution (remember, mowers don’t have the fancy emissions control systems that cars do).

    The professor’s theory only works where you can talk people out of their house + lawn and into densely packed housing in the first place. Highly unlikely since the stereotypical American Dream typically includes a house and white picket fence.

    Lastly, the professor’s model fails to take into account that simple fact that dense population and no plants equals little or no CO2 to oxygen conversion, whereas an urban farm heavily planted with trees and vegetables converts carbon dioxide to oxygen. Concrete jungles simply don’t do that.

  7. Seth June 25, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Disagree. Undermining simply truth that people need to be closer to what they consume and where they go. I’ve also been studying City Planning for 5 years and while I’m not a pioneering prof at Harvard I can tell you that density is not the only solution to sustainability problems. Look at the transit problems in many large asian cities for example. What makes cities sustainable is not “Blind Density” it’s keeping people closer to people and resources (including food) through mixed use of land and not homogeneous seas sky scrapers with offices.

    Sure we dont want corn fields in middle of NY, but efficient urban agriculture is a GOOD thing. Besides, we need diversity in land use, even in urban areas. Take away things like parks – which serve no “real” function – and you will see public health drop.

  8. Shikamaru June 25, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I wonder if there had been any figures of how much carbon emmissions can an urban farm absorb(i.e. per square meters/per square kilometers)? If ever the figure is good enough maybe urban farms aren’t that bad at all. But then again I never thought of Urban farms being inefficient as Dr. Edward L. Glaeser said.

  9. MelanieDawn June 24, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    On the flip side, urban gardens add to the ambiance of urban spaces and allow city residents to get their hands in the soil. In addition, the urban gardens I am familiar with are on parcels that can not be built for housing or are on the rooftops of existing buildings.

  10. modern survival June 24, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Additionally many people may want to live packed in like cockroaches with 200 to 2000 people occupying one city block but not me and not most people. This obsession with density is nonsense. If we started to do things like locally produce bio gas and compost from our waste, etc. Less energy would need to be distributed in the first place. Most people how no idea how much bio gas can be produced from the waste of a typical neighborhood. Hell the Nazis did it in the 1930s, so we can very well do it today.

    The way to gain energy independence is via self sufficiency and independence from the systems. Not by packing human beings into the density of cattle on a feedlot.

  11. Modern Survival June 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    This is complete idiocy. Firs the author here nails it,

    “But isn’t the real debate whether we even have to move city people out in order to move farms in?”

    There answer is HELL NO, cities are in decay all over the US. Areas of many cities are beyond repair and redemption. Urban farming can make that useless space useful and provide food.

    Second on the CO2, BS! I am so tired of this pseudo science nonsense CO2 is not causing climate change, even if there is more CO2 with this model (which is HIGHLY DEBATABLE in the real world vs. the theory wold assclowns that never hold a real job live in) there is far LESS pollution, you know real pollution when we grow food organically and grow it closer to where it is consumed.

    Third urban farming makes cities far more sustainable and self sufficient.

    Fourth such urban farms tend to grow the products that are harder to transport and store like lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, etc. Not grains and soy beans. Shipping such produce requires a LOT more energy than just diesel fuel. These shipments must ship refrigerated. That opens a whole new can of worms.

    People like this economist publish crap like this because they are believers in the religion of climate change and quite simply because they have nothing else useful or productive to do.

  12. lazyreader June 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    It’s not that hard to believe. Lands being used in the city for farms are not being used for homes. Say you have a quarter of an acre as an urban farm. That 1/4 acre could have been a multi-story building for housing or offices. Glaeser did research in regards to housing prices. Dramatic increases in housing prices have occurred in places like Boston, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California, where permits for new buildings have been difficult to obtain since the 1970s. Compounded with strict zoning laws, that seriously disrupted the supply of new housing in these cities. Real estate markets were thus unable to accommodate increases in demand, and housing prices skyrocketed and expensive housing discourages families from moving there.

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