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March 2018

Rooftop gardens. Seedlings sprouting on windowsills. The clucking of chickens in a metropolitan backyard. These and more are small harbingers of the expansion of urban agriculture around the world.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, a figure that the United Nations expects to increase to 67% by 2050—yet urbanized land makes up just 1% of the Earth’s surface. Because of this, urban planners are working to make cities more resilient, habitable, and adaptable to change.

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Using Google Earth Engine, a free platform for processing global satellite data, the researchers analyzed data sets on population, urban landscapes, meteorology, terrain, and food and agriculture. They developed national estimates for the entire globe of ecosystem services provided by urban agriculture, finding that existing vegetation in urban areas provides the equivalent of about $33 billion each year.

In more specific terms, the team estimates that urban agriculture, if deployed across all available vacant land, rooftops, and building façades, could produce 100–180 million tons of food, save about 14–15 billion kilowatt hours of energy, sequester 100,000–170,000 tons of nitrogen, and offset roughly 2 trillion cubic feet of storm runoff each year.

Projected out, the researchers estimate that dramatically increasing urban agriculture efforts around the globe has the potential to positively influence food production, nitrogen fixation, energy savings, pollination, climate regulation, soil formation, and the biological control of pests, services that are worth, as a whole, as much as $160 billion.

Though urban agriculture (UA), defined here as growing of crops in cities, is increasing in popularity and importance globally, little is known about the aggregate benefits of such natural capital in built-up areas. Here, we introduce a quantitative framework to assess global aggregate ecosystem services from existing vegetation in cities and an intensive UA adoption scenario based on data-driven estimates...


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