Food forests are bringing shade and sustenance to US cities, one parcel of land at a time

More than half of all people on Earth live in cities and that share could reach 70% by 2050. But except for public parks, there aren’t many models for nature conservation that focus on caring for nature in urban areas.

One new idea that’s gaining attention is the concept of food forests — essentially, edible parks. These projects, often sited on vacant lots, grow large and small trees, vines, shrubs and plants that produce fruits, nuts and other edible products.


Atlanta’s Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill is the nation’s largest such project, covering more than 7 acres.

Unlike community gardens or urban farms, food forests are designed to mimic ecosystems found in nature, with many vertical layers. They shade and cool the land, protecting soil from erosion and providing habitat for insects, animals, birds and bees. Many community gardens and urban farms have limited membership, but most food forests are open to the community from sunup to sundown.

As scholars who focus on conservation, social justice and sustainable food systems, we see food forests as an exciting new way to protect nature without displacing people. Food forests don’t just conserve biodiversity — they also promote community well-being and offer deep insights about fostering urban nature in the Anthropocene, as environmentally destructive forms of economic development and consumption alter Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

Community stewards planting a tree at Boston’s Edgewater Food Forest at River Street, July 2021. Boston Food Forest Coalition/Hope Kelley, CC BY-ND

Protecting nature without pushing people away

Many scientists and world leaders agree that to slow climate change and reduce losses of wild species, it’s critical to protect a large share of Earth’s lands and waters for nature. Under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, 188 nations have agreed on a target of conserving at least 30% of land and sea areas globally by 2030 — an agenda known popularly as 30×30.

But there’s fierce debate over how to achieve that goal. In many cases, creating protected …


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