Social capital – the essence of urban agriculture

Social capital – the essence of urban agriculture

Social capital is the gem that sits within the urban agriculture movement. Don’t be fooled that urban ag is all about local food.

Urban ag is proving to be one of the most impactful social capital creators. Social capital is what every urban community needs in order to thrive and respond when things are challenging or when going through periods of change and disruption.

In my countless conversations about urban ag and its benefits over the years, without fail, every single discussion tended to focus on profit. Understandably; so it should. Not much point in developing a food production enterprise unless it can be financially independent. However, what is often left out of these discussions, or at very best touched upon slightly, is that urban ag is, more often falsely compared to conventional agriculture. While food production connects the two industries, it does not make them the part of the same ecosystem.

The key is to understand that urban ag is enabled by a different set of experiential drivers. Community participation is one of those drivers. As a unique and collaborative approach to building of a new vision of our urban landscape, community participation is a powerhouse motive that deserves much larger recognition in the overall story of urban ag.

Why is this important? For a start, urban ag would not be possible if the only thing people were concerned about was the price of carrots or a bunch of spinach. The food we eat every day is also a language by which we communicate. There is way too much meaning packed in food to discuss it in a short thinking piece, however it should come as no surprise that food helps us not just maintain our life in a most literal sense, but also in a profound symbolic way.

As they say, humans are meaning-makers and that is where things come together: we grow food together in small urban farming lots and create meaning for ourselves. And this meaning defines each local community in slightly different way. A special way.

Take a moment to listen to people that proudly identify themselves as urban farmers, and you will notice that conversations about quality of soil or a particular technique used to get a better yield, often evolve into discussions on values, community and vision of local life. Inevitably that ‘community connection’ part of urban ag is what creates social capital; the bedrock of a healthy society.

The value of social connectedness generated through urban ag should be taken very seriously. The thriving field of social capital research identifies many and multi-faced benefits stemming from social capital. For instance, some studies have shown that, as a rule of thumb, when a person joins a group (in this case say a local urban farming collective), they halve their risk of dying during the next year.

The economic benefit of social capital is where urban ag distinguishes itself markedly from conventional farming. This is not to say that social capital does not exist in conventional food farming; rather its business model is not necessarily driven by it as much as it is in urban ag.

With the risk of overreaching, it still warrants directing the conversation of urban ag towards policy settings that are distinctly different from conventional farming or traditional urban planning. Such policy settings around community well being, environment and economic aspects of agriculture in the context of urban planning need to be evenly balanced to enable government contributions to be as impactful as possible. The Basel Urban Agriculture Network is a great example in Europe.

Accounting for the immense role of human connectedness in the process of food production in dense living spaces releases a new approach to sustainability, and this certainly must be exciting for all.

Authored by Jelenko Dragisic – Bite the Land

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Greg Paynter

    Thanks for posting this Peter, yes social capital seems to be the poor cousin in the agricultural discussion in relation to the triple bottom line, even in organics which is a great shame as social capital goals were one of the main goals of the founders of the organic movement, nearly a hundred years ago. Steiner was one of the main initial architects of the discussion and principles with his illumination of the concept of associative cooperation which was a part of his threefold social order.

    1. Peter Kearney

      Thanks Greg, yes Steiner was very much ahead of his time in many fields and left a huge legacy for humanity in his work. I have studied his work on 3 fold social order and you can see how I compare this to the social/community, ecology and economy platforms of urban agriculture in this recent blog of mine here:

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