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(re)Creating Urban Environments Around Food and Health Equity on (re)Optimized Networks of Public Space

Public spaces (re)imagined as infrastructure to provide healthy food, nutrition education, farmer training, and community resilience.

Photo of Lisa (Hughes) Warren, MLA
19 11

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Denver Metro Farm Starters Collaborative (DeMFarmS) - Brien Darby, Jennifer Hale, and Lisa Warren

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Denver Public Schools: land; Denver Department of Public Health and Environment: alignment of goals surrounding equitable food access and positive health outcomes; National Western Center Authority: complimentary approach toward realizing a complete food system for Colorado; Big Green, Bio-Logical Capital, Colorado Food Policy Network, Denver Parks and Recreation, Denver Urban Gardens, Greenway Foundation, Guidestone, Hunger Free Colorado, Live Well, Mile High Farmers, and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union for collaboration and stakeholder convening; CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning: convening a grad studio in Spring 2021 to support our vision; NREL: R&D on greenhouse typologies; NREL, Sprout City Farms, and Jack’s Solar Garden: R&D on agrivoltaics; Regensia: R&D on utility hubs; Denver Botanic Gardens and CSU Extension: technical support and beginning farmer education; Amy DePierre: graphics; Royce Hale: logo

Website of Legally Registered Entity (official website coming soon)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Denver, Colorado

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

City and County of Denver

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Home town. Stomping grounds. Best place on the Planet.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Located near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Denver is the capital and largest city in Colorado. It is a vast urban area surrounded by peri-urban areas that give way to farm and ranch land. Denver is located in USDA zone 5 (temperatures as low as -20°F) and is classified as a high desert climate. Our average annual rainfall is 17 inches; paired with intense summer heat, all farm operations rely heavily on supplemental irrigation. However, Denver is famously sunny. Clear skies and moderate temperatures in the spring and fall allow for three-season farming.

Our rugged, Western US esthetic is contrasted by recent leadership in sustainability and the desire to grow the local food economy. Denver is also known as a hub for the outdoor industry, energy, cannabis production, cattle ranching and for having cultural representation from many countries in the Americas. In fact, Denver boasts one of the largest Cinco de Mayo events in the country, a celebration of Latinx culture. Denver is also experiencing a population boom and has seen a 20% increase since 2010.

Colorado is also home to over 60,000 refugees, most of whom live in the Denver-metro area. Refugees hailing from Africa and many parts of Asia bring their food traditions and this is reflected nowhere better than the diverse restaurant scene in Denver and the neighboring Aurora. The refugee and immigrant communities (in addition to upscale restaurant operations) drive the desire for unique crops grown by our farmers.

Although 46% of Colorado is classified as farmland, most of the food consumed in the Denver area comes from out of state/country. Except for onions, potatoes, Rocky Ford melons, orchard fruits, dairy products and beef, the majority of farmland is devoted to commodity crops. By contrast, urban growers and peri-urban farms with Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) programs solely grow specialty crops and micro greens. While efficient distribution remains a major issue for small-scale growers, the demand for this produce is consistently larger than the supply. Over the past century, Denver went from a high point of 307 farms within city limits to roughly ten, losing on average three per year.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Nutrition taught in schools is not reinforced through opportunities for families to interact with the food system in meaningful ways outside of school lessons.

A lack of understanding of the value of healthy food exists at two extremes: the poor with lack of healthy food access and the wealthy with lack of appreciation for the labor required to provide an overabundance of healthy food.

Groups working toward equitable access to healthy food in urban centers work within the same demographics of under-served and low-income families and compete for the same limited funds. Furthermore, hunger relief organizations rely primarily on donations of unhealthy processed foods which compound the issues of malnutrition and obesity, especially in children.

Most food consumed in urban areas originates from out-of-state, and cities have limited capacity to provide access to healthy food in the face of catastrophe. Rising urban land values due to historic population increases are pushing the remaining urban farmers out of urban centers, and rural farmers generally are producing grains for feed and trade exports rather than healthy food for domestic consumption.

Urban farmers generally rely on non-profit business models to survive financially, and lack access to distribution markets due to the output capacity required to participate. Food distributors lack incentives to source from local producers, and no city-wide collection and distribution network exists to coagulate produce from urban farms outside of organized farmers markets and CSA programs.

Existing new farmer training programs provide instruction on the development of business plans and budgets; however, most don’t provide land-based farmer training. No apprenticeship program exists for farmers, and according to the USDA a farmer is “beginning” up to ten years of experience. Given the hardships faced by small urban farmers most never graduate from “beginning”.

Governments are highlighting the need to realize resilient food systems; however, no significant government resources or policies are being mobilized to realize these goals.

Healthy food is more nutrient dense than unhealthy food, undergoes less processing, contains fewer “fillers”, and generally occupies a smaller carbon footprint. The additional fillers and processing of unhealthy food options contribute to the obesity epidemic and environmental degradation.

The predominant vegetation in public open space is Kentucky bluegrass, which requires over 15 inches of rainfall a week; however, Denver only receives 15 inches of rainfall a year, on average. No mandates exist to prohibit the use and sale of non-climatically compatible vegetation, nor to mandate that food be produced in public spaces instead.

Soil health has not been maintained, generally, in urban environments given the application of pesticides and fertilizers and use of non-regenerative land management practices.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The DeMFarmS model relies upon the use of underused networks of existing public open space (i.e. land). Such networks in urban metropolitan areas can include public parks and open spaces, or collective land holdings of school districts, developers, or religious institutions. The infrastructure for the (re)creation of Denver’s food system will be based upon the Denver Public Schools (DPS) land holdings (see attached DPS 2012).

The DeMFarmS vision will realize an equitably distributed network of farms and food system support service typologies throughout Denver overlaid by a complimentary collection, storage, and distribution system, and will successfully (re)create the Denver food system in a matter of years – not decades.

Our first step will be to convene a stakeholder group of partners with specific interests in school garden programming, urban farm expansion, technology development, and farmer professional development. Future convenings will serve to increase cooperation among fragmented food system allies, unify efforts, and result in a more cohesive approach to (re)developing the entire Denver’s food system at once rather than one piece at a time.

Simultaneously, a graduate level design studio within the College and Architecture and Planning (CAP) at UC Denver will perform an evaluation of potential food production and system support typologies to be deployed across the DPS system and identify potential farm ownership/operation models. Typology “pop-ups” will be deployed in conjunction with the study and will continue to be utilized as community testing tools throughout Vision implementation. The CAP study (Spring 2021) will enable stakeholders to identify the best strategies to produce the highest food yields and net health benefits while creating the most economic incentives to the entire community and City.

Based on the results of the CAP study, one to three foundational farm system installations will be identified for development. Outreach to the school community and the wider neighborhood will be conducted to further define the appropriate typologies for each site, and then the appropriate food system stakeholders will be convened to oversee project implementation. All new farm typologies will be established to maximize regenerative agricultural practices.

Our vision includes offering robust and meaningful education and programming at each of the DPS sites to intentionally reach beyond the school into the surrounding neighborhood and community.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

What is public infrastructure? What if basic life needs like food, water, and shelter were defined as public infrastructure? Who pays? Who gets paid? In 2020 federal, state, and local governments maintain public infrastructure; however, programs providing food, water, shelter, and heat often rely on aid organization assistance due to the red tape, unsustainable administration costs, and budgetary shortfalls of government programs.

In 2050 Denver will realize an integrated, resilient, and regenerative food system as public infrastructure by: placing farms on all DPS land adjacent to schools, thereby relieving the burden of land access to urban farmers, providing direct food production education to children, and access to freshly grown local food to families; providing meaningful food production and nutritional education through embedded curriculum in schools, market workshops, and community-led events, thereby reinforcing healthy eating habits for individuals, families, and neighborhoods; establishing a system of commercial kitchens and processing facilities located within the same DPS network, thereby providing direct farm-to-market services for added-value producers; creating a complimentary collection and distribution network, thereby providing urban farmers access to local and regional markets; reducing the overall carbon footprint of the food system by providing more local production capacity and reduced food imports; increasing the economic viability of the food system by bridging gaps, recapturing the ability of urban farmers to participate in regional and national markets, and reconnecting urban and rural food relationships; increasing health outcomes for all residents through access to locally grown healthy food and higher sense of community; and, allowing urban agriculture to play a significant role in community placemaking, add character to sterile landscapes, and relieve the stress of relocation for climate and economic refugees.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Conversations around chronic malnutrition rarely evoke images of the American Metropolis; however, the reality is that people living in American cities are dying at an unprecedented rate due to lack of access to healthy food, disease, and loneliness. While America as a country realizes one of the largest GDPs in the world our people are starving. Research related to Denver Food Vision 2030 revealed that one in six adults (and one in five children) in our community suffer from food insecurity and 33.2% of families are consuming less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day. At the same time, half of adult residents - and a third of children - are overweight or obese. These numbers outpace the national average and are an embarrassment in a city where food waste is approaching 40%.

Furthermore, while there exists a burgeoning network of urban farmers in Denver, there is still a great need for connection with rural counterparts, and peer-support in the form of training, resource sharing, and cooperative action. Maintaining farming as a livable profession has been a failing pursuit given lack of security in land access and tenure for urban farmers due to rising land values and development pressures. Farmer retention within the City and County of Denver is in peril, as is the future of our food system.

Lastly, studies have shown that the incorporation of community resilience centers in metropolitan areas - offering services such as food production and nutrition education, markets, and congregation facilities collocated in recreation centers, parks, and schools that also provide emergency power production, shelter, and medical services in response to catastrophe - result in an increased sense of community and ownership to individuals interacting within those programs.

The DeMFarmS Vision for Denver’s 2050 Food System is based on the following underlying truths:

1. The indisputable connection between food, health, and community;

2. Colorado’s rich history of agriculture; and,

3. The connections between food production, consumption, and waste, and climate change.

While DeMFarmS has been advocating in this space for several years, our primary hurdle to formal incorporation has been the desire to not create direct funding competition for the farmers and communities we support; however, in light of the 2050 Food System Vision Prize we have formally incorporated with the intent of (re)creating the Denver Food  System through utilization of lands being offered by DPS and the realization of efficiencies by coagulating and equitably dispersing programs already being implemented by our various stakeholder partners. It is our hope that this model can be scaled and replicated to other metropolitan areas within Colorado and beyond and serve as a tool within a kit for implementing complete food systems in metropolitan areas throughout the world.

The DeMFarmS Vision for Denver’s 2050 Food System seeks to fulfill the following goals:

1. Change the narrative around food and climate change: turn a negative into a positive:

a. Food production, processing, and waste accounts for 25% of global carbon emissions in 2020. In 2050 - through the employment of regenerative agriculture practices - global farmers sequester more atmospheric carbon than is released.

b. In line with national initiatives, in 2050 all agricultural operations in the State of Colorado utilize a suite of regenerative practices and qualify for carbon sequestration rebates and participation in a Blue Carbon Market.

c. A move away from a doom-and-gloom message about climate change results instead in a vibrant hope for a future based on positive outcomes resulting from equitable access to food and nutrition services, and support for a complete state-wide food system.

2. Provide structure to an incomplete system:

a. By providing health education and food resources at the existing intersections of community and education - schools - Denver will realize a more cohesive and effective nutritional education system for all residents;

b. Through stakeholder engagement and the realization of program efficiencies, existing models for school gardens will be combined to create a system that realizes complete deployment of school garden typologies across the DPS system while supporting the missions of existing stakeholders.

c. Supported by DPS land holdings, smaller urban farmers will have access to the primary resource on which their profession depends - land - at low- to no-cost, thereby alleviating overhead costs and increasing farmer retention within the City and County of Denver.

d. In cooperation with USDA, existing farmer professional development services will be combined to create an apprenticeship program for beginning farmers. These programs will be coupled with farmer incubator and continuing education programs to ensure farmers have access to resources necessary for insuring their longevity and success.

e. The creation of a robust local food collection and distribution network will insure that urban farmers in Denver can participate in local and regional markets, and that local restaurants and institutions can realize increased and sustainable access to local healthy food resources.

3. (re)place meaning and value to food:

a. Family gardening and cooking education programs will be provided at schools and markets to further reinforce nutrition and food production curriculum being taught in schools.

b. Community engagement within the food system will build relevance, while increasing residents’ association with place and community connectivity.

4. Provide a healthier urban environment:

a. Application of regenerative agricultural practices will result in increased soil health and carbon sequestration.

b. Incorporation of pollinator habitat and reduction in dependence on resource and chemical use will result in an overall healthier urban environment.

By leveraging relationships and resources, the DeMFarmS Vision for Denver’s 2050 Food System will realize the following:

1. Food system infrastructure will be provided and built through:

a. Community engagement;

b. Curriculum integration for production, processing, cooking, and healthy eating; 

c. Farm-building on networks of existing infrastructure, including parks and schools; 

d. Strengthening local food networks to increase food access and enhance regional markets; and,

e. Farmer education and training.

2. State and local policy will be in place to:

a. Insure public health education and school curriculum includes the topics of food production, processing, cooking, and healthy eating;

b. Insure public health education is jointly supported by a robust public food system that includes equitable access to healthy food and support services;

c. Insure public lands (state and local) include allocations for food production;

d. Insure urban and rural farmers have access to the resources necessary to retain food production as a viable profession in the State of Colorado, including, but not limited to, capital, land, equipment, education, training, networking, and local collection and distribution and markets; and,

e. Enact tax reform that will attract and retain farmers at all scales (urban, peri- urban, rural, etc.) within the State of Colorado.

3. Mechanisms for iterative testing and reform of the evolving food system policy and implementation will be realized through:

a. Continued stakeholder engagement and feedback cycles;

b. Community health evaluations; and,

c. Integration of existing policy working groups to evaluate and refine public policies relating to food and access.

The timeline of implementation tasks for the DeMFarmS Vision for Denver’s 2050 follows below:


1. Convene a stakeholder group consisting of organizations working in the space of school gardens and resource allocation for urban farmers to review studies and identify priority areas for school gardens/farms across the DPS network.

2. Identify and assess food system typology deployment across the DPS network (Spring 2021 studio). Typologies to be considered in the initial study and subsequent semi-annual updates will include: greenhouses, agrivoltaics, container farms, new farmer incubator farms, community gardens, farm stands, market supply, processing facilities, commercial kitchens, gathering spaces, storage, collection and distribution, utility hubs, catastrophe services (i.e. emergency power production, medical supplies, etc.), and other emerging agricultural technologies, as appropriate.

3. Establish a phased and iterative implementation schedule for food system typologies across the DPS network.

4. Identify food system collection and distribution networks, and co-location of support services within the DPS network.

5. Establish an efficient and effective community outreach program to further refine typology deployment (max duration = 2 months per program).

6. Establish 1-3 pilot foundation farms.


1. Continue implementation of typologies across the DPS network utilizing the established process and incorporating lessons learned.

2. Expand programming to surrounding jurisdictions (i.e. Boulder, Fort Collins, Grand Junction).

3. Working with partner organizations, identify legislation to streamline farm building process and security.

4. Establish community groceries as distribution end points and/or incentivize more local product offerings in established chains through strengthening of local collection and distribution resources.


1. Expand program state-wide through the utilization of public land networks.

2. Participate in feedback program to insure ongoing equity to producers and consumers across the food system based on evaluations at the community level.

3. Continue to grow distribution channels depending on productivity and load.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


Join the conversation:

Photo of Gabriela Vargas Romero

love your vision! we are convinced urban public space converted into urban food gardens are high quality green areas and have the potential to create healthy and resillient communities in the cities. How accesible is public land to organizations working in urban agriculture?

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