Urban Agriculture, Green Infrastructure Improve Public Health

In an increasingly urbanized world, urban and community planners, architects, and designers are all looking for ways to decrease the harmful effects of city life, especially in developing mega-cities throughout Africa and Asia. The negative effects of contemporary high density living in industrialized cities have become obvious only in recent decades: asthma, diabetes, obesity, and addiction run rampant in impoverished areas. These same areas are also most likely to have toxins and carcinogens in their soil, water, and air. Social issues like environmental justice, lack of community leadership, and overall trust are also prevalent in such areas.

The current boom in urban agriculture and green infrastructure are being studied and implemented as possible solutions to such problems. The use of bioswales, rain gardens, permeable surfaces, urban tree canopies, and green streets, alleys, and roofs are all used to reduce storm water runoff and increase air quality by removing air pollutant like Volatile Organic Compounds, Nitrogen Oxide, Carbon Dioxide, and ground-level Ozone. These strategies would reduce the asthma rate in implemented areas, and remove various toxins from the air, water, and soil that have been known to cause various cancers.


The Rockefeller Center’s rooftop gardens in New York City. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Social & Health Benefits of Urban Agriculture

The greatest summation of the extensive effects of urban agriculture has been documented in a study conducted by Anne Bellows, PhD (Rutgers University), Katherine Brown, PhD (Southside Community Land Trust), and Jac Smit, MCP (Urban Agriculture Network). These neighborhood and community gardens can be placed anywhere there’s structural support for soil, such as building rooftops and other shared spaces.

Study Findings

The study indicated the following three urban lifestyle improvements as a result of the integration of vegetation and agriculture into our cities:

1. Exercise

Gardening was proven to reduce the risk for a variety of diseases because of the light to moderate, yet consistent, exercise involved. These included obesity, coronary heart disease (notably in menopausal women and elderly men), and diabetes.


Trees and other vegetation improve our surroundings, prevent disease, and lower air pollution. Image via Reuters.

2. Mental Health

The study found that, “cultivation activities trigger both illness prevention and healing responses. Health professionals use plants and gardening materials to help patients of diverse ages with mental illness improve social skills, self-esteem, and use of leisure time.” Plant-human relationships also induce relaxation, and reduce stress, fear and anger, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

3. Social

The amount of positive social effects that were found was staggering. Community gardening enhances informal and formal economies of the area. It also builds what the authors call social capital, which includes trust, civic engagement, community leader development, and sharing of goods and services. Learning food production also teaches job skills and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs. Along with helping to overcome social, health, and environmental justice challenges, the presence of gardens correlates directly with decreases in crime, trash dumping, juvenile delinquency, fires, violent deaths, and mental illness. They also have the ability to link different groups across the city, of different ages and socioeconomic groups.

The inclusion of communal gardening and urban agriculture in long term city planning can increase the livability and attractiveness of dense living. It will also increase economic values of properties in the immediate area and decrease negative environmental effects. The sooner city residents embrace the idea of communal and individual gardening, the sooner our cities will become more livable and the sooner urban renewal in the United States can accelerate to a more rapid pace.

Human-plant relationships improve mental health and wellbeing. Image via Yuri Arcur, Shutterstock.

About The Author

I am an environmental policy and analysis major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, with focus in sustainable management and international perspectives.