Pittsburgh to Be Site of America’s Largest Urban Farm

Pittsburgh, once a dynamo of heavy industry, will soon become home to the United States’ largest urban farm, part of what advocates say is a trend to transform former manufacturing cities into green gardens.

The Hilltop Urban Farm will open in 2019, consisting of 23 acres (9 hectares) of farmland where low-income housing once stood, two miles (three kilometers) from the city center, designers say.

On top of farmland where winter peas and other fresh produce will be grown by local residents and sold in the community, the farm will feature a fruit orchard, a youth farm and skills-building program. Hillside land will eventually have trails.

The farm is believed to be by far the largest nationwide to be located in an urban area, said Aaron Sukenik, who heads the Hilltop Alliance that is coordinating the initiative.

“The land was just kind of sitting there, fenced and looking very post-apocalyptic,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After Pittsburgh boomed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a center of coal production, steel and manufacturing, it was hit by industrial decline in the 1950s, its population cut by half over the next half century.

Reinventing itself, the metropolis has since regained much of its economic vigor with the health care industry replacing manufacturing as the city’s powerhouse.

But while “all the areas that you can see from downtown really have turned around,” several neighborhoods on the city’s outer ring have yet to see a similar resurgence, said Sukenik.

“It’s those neighborhoods that are the focus of our work,” he said.

Open to local residents, the farm will help bring fresh food to surrounding areas that often lack such options, he said. Pittsburgh has the largest percentage of people residing in communities with “low-supermarket access” for cities of 250,000 to 500,000 people, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Treasury Department.

And local advocates say much of Pittsburgh’s south side, where the farm will be located, is particularly underserved by supermarkets and other retailers of fresh food.

Rust Belt

The Hilltop Urban Farm embodies a trend in cities across America’s Rust Belt from Detroit to Cleveland and Buffalo where manufacturing has died out, said Heather Mikulas, a farm and food business educator for Penn State Extension, an applied research arm of  Pennsylvania State University.

“You just have blight, just so much blight in Rust Belt cities,” she said.

“So you see the long-standing residents of neighborhoods who are used to trying to find their place in the world looking at this blight and just saying, ‘We can do something different, we can do something better,’ ” said Mikulas, who co-authored a report on the feasibility of the Hilltop Urban Farm project in 2014.

What were once often “guerrilla” operations have morphed into projects working hand in hand with municipal authorities to secure land rights and rezone areas to allow for agriculture, Mikulas said.

A common concern with urban farms is their reliance on grants that eventually dry out, said Stan Ernst, a professor of agribusiness development at Penn State.

The $9.9 million Hilltop Urban Farm is funded by foundations, primarily the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.

“Look for ways that you can operate enough like a business that you can hopefully provide a level of sustainability there,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

No comprehensive national study has yet measured the extent of urban farming in the United States, said Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University.

Globally, city dwellers are farming an area the size of the European Union, a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found.

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