University of the District of Columbia seeks solutions to feed an increasingly urban world


For many people, the words, “college of agriculture” conjure up images of livestock, large-scale farm equipment and pastoral settings.

But at the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES), testing grounds are much more likely to be rooftop gardens, small raised beds and other creative means of growing sustenance in the middle of a big city.

Land-grant universities have served the nation’s farming community since the mid-nineteenth century, but as the only land-grant institution in the United States with an exclusively urban focus, UDC takes a different approach to the problem of growing food.

Compelling reasons to pay attention to that approach reach much further than the school’s campus in Washington, D.C.

According to a 2014 United Nations report, 81 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, up from 64 percent in 1950. Worldwide, 54 percent of people live in urban areas, a number that is projected to grow to 66 percent by 2050.

To sustainably feed a world where fewer and fewer people live close to the traditional centers of farming, something has to change.

“For the first time in human history, the vast majority of us live in places where we historically have not grown our food,” said Sabine O’Hara, director of land-grant programs at UDC and dean of CAUSES. “That really requires a completely new look at the food system.”

CAUSES approaches this challenge holistically. The school has developed an intricate system of food hubs that try to anticipate every need an urban community could have related to feeding itself, from remediating bad soil to reusing waste products to re-introducing populations that have long been deprived of fresh produce to basic preparation methods.

“If we’re serious about sustainability, then we have to get back to producing food closer to where we live,” O’Hara said.

From researching the best methods for growing in urban settings, to teaching people how to prepare the foods, to running farmers markets and compost facilities, these food hubs seek to address the complete cycle of food production and consumption.

They also produce some eye-catching innovations.

rooftopextIn summer 2015, O’Hara helped cut the ribbon on the largest food-producing green roof on the East Coast. The 20,000-square-foot garden, the centerpiece of a food hub on UDC’s Van Ness campus, grew a variety of herbs, flowers and vegetables, from cucumbers to tomatoes to sunflowers, in its inaugural season.

At another location in the District, directly across from the Capitol Heights Metro station, UDC made an innovative arrangement with the city’s housing authority to transform a 3-acre lot it owns but wasn’t using into the East Capitol Urban Farm.

Volunteers from the District of Columbia Building Industry Association and various grants and partnerships helped jump-start the project. About 1,000 people showed up on a September Saturday and completed 70 percent of the work to establish the farm. A few weeks later, 200 more volunteers from the local neighborhood, schools and other institutions came to move the project further toward completion. The new farm is expected to be up and running in spring 2016.

The site now includes rasied-bed gardens, a stage and seating area, play area for children, nature trail and other features. UDC is preparing to install a greenhouse that will house an aquaponics facility this fall.

aquaponicsCAUSES has pioneered the use of aquaponics as a way to grow large amounts of produce in small urban settings. Aquaponics combines growing fish with growing vegetables hydroponically, without soil.

By-products from the fish eliminate the vegetables’ need for fertilizer. This method grows large amounts of vegetables faster, using 90 percent less water and no commercial fertilizer, compared to growing in soil.

“That’s really what our work is about,” O’Hara said, “adopting sustainable practices in a way that is applicable to densely populated urban environments.”

Of course, all of this work requires buy-in from the surrounding community to really take root, and O’Hara is encouraged by the reception the school’s food hubs have received.

She notes that the East Capitol Urban Farm is essentially an open lot with no real barriers to entry.

“People said to us, ‘How are you going to secure everything?’ But not a single piece has been missing, not a single shovel,” she said, and volunteers from within the community have helped build the farm.

rooftop-1Community viability is built into how the school sets up its programs. Training programs in aquaponics are run with an eye toward hiring neighborhood residents to eventually run the facilities.

And job creation and economic viability—key considerations for the use of scarce urban land—are considered a necessary part of any solution.

Three of the five land-grant centers in CAUSES–Urban Agriculture, Sustainable Development and Nutrition Diet and Health–are collaborating on an ethnic crops program, researching the production, preparation and marketability of crops that aren’t native to the U.S., but are part of specific ethnic food traditions.

Interest in these foods is high among both immigrant populations and urban dwellers interested in ethnic cuisine, giving them high marketability.

bed“When it comes to making it viable in small urban environments, the question has to be which produce fetches the highest revenue, and which contributes the highest nutrient value?” O’Hara said. “You want to focus there first.”

Many of UDC’s projects can be found on the school’s Plants Map profile. O’Hara first learned about Plants Map when she was on an advisory panel for a District-based investment fund.

She likes it both for its ability to communicate the school’s work, and for the internal features that make it easy to track and record data about crop management and outcomes.

Over the winter, the school will be working to fill out the plant profiles on the site.

swisschardO’Hara wants teachers, students and the general public to be able to use the online descriptions and Plants Map interactive garden tags installed in the Garden of the Senses, a community garden project filled with plants that stimulate the five senses, to conduct self-directed tours, and tie the garden into STEM-focused lessons.

The school will also use the site’s features to keep track of specific details important to projects like the green roof, where the weight of every input matters greatly.

All of this work on producing food in small, populated spaces will have increasing relevance as the world’s population continues to urbanize, O’Hara said.

“This is hugely important not just for our own city but for the country and for cities around the world,” she said. “Urban agriculture has come of age. We really need focus on that, and to share what we’ve learned has to be an important focus of what we do.”

To learn more, visit Land-Grant Programs at the University of the District of Columbia on Plants Map.