Growing Together: Participatory Approaches in Urban Agriculture Extension

Lucy O. Diekmann1* and Marcia R. Ostrom2

  • 1 University of California Cooperative Extension
  • 2 Washington State University
  • * Corresponding author Email: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

KEY WORDS: Community engagement, Extension. Land-Grant Universities, urban agriculture


In the United States, the Land-Grant University (LGU) Extension System originated to serve a primarily rural and agricultural population (Hayden-Smith and Surls 2014). In the intervening 100 years, however, Extension’s programming has expanded in keeping with key demographic shifts and now includes suburban and urban audiences as well as a broad array of food system-related topics. In response to a renewed interest in urban farming and gardening, which picked up in the early 2000s, some Extension systems have developed programs and dedicated staff time specifically to urban agriculture (e.g.. Diekmann et al. 2017; Surls et al. 2015). While urban agriculture Extension is relatively new terminology, it is important to recognize that urban agriculture itself is centuries old (Schupp and Sharp 2012) and Extension support for urban agriculture and community food systems also has deep roots (Smith 1949/2013). Urban agriculture is popular in part because it is perceived as a strategy for addressing complex urban issues by offering an interconnected set of health, community, environmental, and economic benefits to urban residents (e.g., Daftary-Steel, Herrera and Porter 2015; Lovell 2010). It also faces unique social and ecological challenges because of its urban setting, such as high land and water costs, urban soil contamination, and city zoning restrictions (Hendrickson and Porth 2012; Oberholtzer, Dimitri and Pressman 2014). Expanding Extension resources for urban agriculture has been identified as one strategy for supporting the benefits it offers while helping to address the challenges entailed (Reynolds 2011). However, to support urban agriculture. Extension cannot only develop information tailored to the unique circumstances of this group. To be an effective actor in the urban food system, Extension must also adapt its approach to community engagement to recognize the knowledge and strengths that exist within urban communities, engage in reciprocal partnerships and participatory processes, and be open to engaging with the full suite of social, cultural, political, and economic issues that that both challenge and motivate many urban agriculture initiatives.

Urban agroecology provides a useful framework for conceptualizing a more participatory form of Extension. First, agroecology values and incorporates farmer-generated and other forms of local knowledge (Mendez et al. 2013). When Extension professionals engage in urban agriculture programming, they may sometimes create or disseminate new information, but they can also learn from farmers, gardeners, and other community members and conduct inquiry in partnership with them to co-create urban agroecological knowledge. Second, Getz and Warner (2006) observe that systems-oriented agroecologi- cal knowledge is not likely to be adopted through one-way delivery of information from Extension to farmers. Instead, they suggest that an Extension model that involves co-learning and facilitation is more effective for sharing agroecological knowledge. Finally, urban agroecology speaks to an important role for Extension and public universities, as the very topics that private food and agriculture research do not address—nutrition, environment, and social and community development (Anderson 2019)—are the topics most related to the mission-driven work done by many urban agriculture organizations and embodied by an urban agroecological framework (Siegner et al. 2019).

This chapter uses a survey of Extension practitioners and case studies of Extension urban agriculture programming to provide an example of the role that publicly-supported LGUs can play in the creation and dissemination of urban agroecological knowledge when engaged at the community level. This chapter proceeds in three parts. First, we first introduce the US LGU Extension System and discuss how urban agriculture fits within it. Second, we outline key characteristics of urban agriculture extension. Finally, we illustrate how urban agriculture extension is being put into practice through case studies of education and research carried out by Extension in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Michigan, Washington, and California, U.S.

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