Theses Master's

Situating Urban Agriculture: What, Where, and Why in New York City

Cohn-Martin, Elizabeth Leah

Urban agriculture has the potential to address multiple concerns simultaneously in dense urban spaces. Where and how urban agricultural interventions are sited within cities are critical questions to ask as governments, municipalities, and urban planners address the need for healthy and resilient food systems as well as environmental resiliency. This thesis explores the potential for planners to utilize digital mapping methodologies and multi-criteria decision making analysis (MCDA) in a way in which socio-economically vulnerable neighborhoods and neighborhoods facing environmental vulnerability can be addressed simultaneously. This research demonstrates this process by utilizing a geospatial mapping model that incorporates multiple layers of information on the current state of food access, rates of health, economic need, and water and heat risk that New York City currently exhibits. The results of this model, run multiple times, are applied to each of the tax lots in New York City, thus identifying exactly where the greatest socio-economic need and environmental vulnerability exists.

The methodology used in this thesis includes the collection, classification, and rasterization of a series of decision layers that feed into five larger components of analysis. These components are combined to generate an overall map that displays socio-economic need and another that displays environmental vulnerability as the combination of water and heat vulnerability. When analyzed together different sets of core targeted areas are identified and evaluated for potential available and appropriate land and rooftop areas that can be conducive to three different types of urban agriculture — ground level farms, rooftop open-air farms and rooftop greenhouses. This methodology builds on previous methodologies developed by the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University / The Earth Institute that evaluate the potential for urban agriculture in New York City (published in 2011 and 2013). This thesis advocates for the development of a comprehensive city-wide plan for the application of urban agriculture as a networked system of open spaces and productive greenhouses that have the potential to offer co-benefits through proximity, clustering, and strategic siting within the core targeted areas. This plan would ideally be supported by the development of open space zoning and ecological corridor zoning districts.

While the data used here supports lot-level and high resolution decision making, it ultimately identifies areas of opportunity which can be starting points for areas of participatory processes and a set of community engagement practices that may be able to address issues such as private owner development constraints in the potential siting of urban agriculture. Mapping and data collection is one part of the decision making process in planning but it is not the end goal. How findings of this type of mapping study are actualized on the ground or made actionable should be done with community involvement. In this regard, utilizing GIS and MCDA with public participation can be seen as a community empowerment strategy whereby (a) communities that can benefit from an intervention are first identified and incorporated into the overall process and (b) the maps generated can be used to advocate for specific types of development that will offer co-benefits. Regardless of the issue being analyzed, this thesis concludes that there are immense benefits to using digital mapping methodologies in making large city-wide decisions and in incorporating the public and non-expert voices into the conversation.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Meisterlin, Leah M.
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
May 11, 2017