Cultivation of Native Productive Plants in Urban Agroforestry Systems in the U.S. Northeast: Perceptions and Barriers

Progress report for GNE22-283

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,990.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Rhode Island
Region: Northeast
State: Rhode Island
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. John Taylor
University of Rhode Island
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Project Information


Urban agroforestry (UAF) systems are multifunctional landscapes that improve urban environments and provide diverse ecosystem services and benefits to humans and other species. The inclusion of native productive plants, grown for food, medicine, or other uses, in UAF systems can increase the ecological quality of the landscape and ecosystem services provided, as well as prevent harm caused by non-native species; however, many urban agriculturalists engaging in annual crop production may be unfamiliar with UAF alternatives, and even UAF practitioners may be unaware of the benefits provided by native plants, or willing to accept ecological tradeoffs associated with non-native plants for their high productivity value. UAF systems are complex social-ecological systems, and as such, both social and ecological methods must be employed in studies of these systems. Quantitative online surveys, qualitative on site interviews, and ecological surveys will be used to answer four main research questions:

  1. What are current perceptions and knowledge of UAF systems and native productive plants among stakeholder groups? 
  2. What are barriers to the cultivation of agroforestry systems and native productive plants in urban environments? 
  3. How do agroforestry practitioners adjudicate the tradeoffs between the productive, ecological, and social functions of these landscapes?  
  4. How does the proportion of native vs. non-native plants correlate to the overall ecological quality of UAF sites? 

Answers to these questions will benefit farmers and others in the green industries by identifying new crops for nursery and commercial production and will contribute to academic publications and educational resources for gardeners, agroforesters, and green industry professionals.

Project Objectives:
  1. Through a quantitative survey, broadly characterize urban agriculturalists’ and green industry professionals’ use, knowledge, and perceptions of urban agroforestry and native productive plants in those systems and identify possible barriers to the more widespread use of both UAF practices and native productive plants in the landscape.
  2. Through qualitative interviews, explore with urban agriculturists topics covered in the quantitative survey but at greater depth. Pertinent information collected will include knowledge of native productive plants and their uses, motivations for plant selections, and potential trade-offs related to the inclusion of higher proportions of native plants in urban agroforestry systems.
  3. Identify overlooked native species with economic potential for the green industries, such as those that have productive value in the form of food, medicine, materials, or have other cultural significance. Develop strategies for promoting adoption of UAF practices and use of native plants within urban landscapes, including marketing strategies based on evidence collected, such as motivations for growing fruit crops.
  4. Analyze correlations between proportion of native plant species in an urban agroforestry system and other indicators of ecological integrity and sustainability, such as complexity of vegetation structure and soil health. Compare ecological quality between annual urban agriculture systems, urban agroforestry systems, and urban agroforestry systems with high proportions of native plants included.  

The purpose of this project is to advance the field of urban agroforestry, ultimately leading to increased sustainability in urban agricultural practices and new opportunities for farmers and others in the green industries. With increasing urbanization, urban landscapes must provide more supporting, regulating, productive, and cultural ecosystem services formerly provided by rural landscapes, and thus it is essential that the former landscapes be designed for multifunctionality. Urban agriculture can improve access to nature and empower communities while improving food access, but home and community gardens and urban farms are often ecologically simple landscapes dominated by production functions and by non-native, annual crops. Because of their vertical complexity, agroforestry systems, such as food forests, combining woody plants with annual and perennial herbaceous crops may offer greater ecological benefits, particularly when they include native productive plants grown for food, medicine, or other uses. Agroforestry systems may also be psychologically preferred because of humans’ innate preference for landscapes with trees. However, gardeners’ and landscape and nursery professionals’ lack of familiarity with the design and benefits of these systems and furthermore lack of knowledge of native productive plants may present barriers to their more widespread cultivation. 

My project will reduce barriers to the development of urban agroforests and identify models for ecologically sustainable agroforests incorporating native, productive plants. The resulting expansion of urban agroforestry will:

  • Conserve native biodiversity in urban areas and as a result provide ecosystem services to surrounding communities;
  • Increase urban food security and community resilience;
  • Contribute to growth in the nursery industry and economically benefit farmers by creating a new market for native productive plants;
  • Improve access to nature and green spaces for urban communities;
  • Promote mental health and wellbeing for residents through restorative urban landscapes attentive to their psychological needs; and
  • Improve sense of place and belonging.

My project will achieve these goals by: 

  • Characterizing urban agriculturalists’ and green industry professionals’ use, knowledge, and perceptions of urban agroforestry and native productive plants.
  • Giving us a better understanding of the ecological and productivity tradeoffs associated with incorporating a greater number of native perennial plants into urban agroforestry systems.
  • Identifying landscape designs that maximize ecological, productive, and cultural benefits.
  • Identifying barriers to more widespread adoption of native productive plants and urban agroforestry systems.
  • Generating publications including both scholarly articles and resources for lay audiences.


Materials and methods:
  1. A quantitative survey of urban gardeners/farmers and landscape/nursery professionals in the Northeast was conducted in spring 2023 to determine existing knowledge and perceptions of both urban agroforestry systems and native productive plants. The survey was developed with the guidance of a graduate committee during the fall semester of 2022 using tailored design methods (Dillman et al., 2014). Although the survey was initially scheduled for fall 2022, IRB processes have resulted in a delayed rollout, which is now scheduled for early spring 2023. IRB exempt status was received on March 24, 2023. Recruitment fliers were distributed via social media and email targeting relevant groups, such as master gardeners, urban agriculture service providers, permaculture groups, and other interest groups, e.g., The Wild Ones, garden clubs, etc. The survey was conducted online using Qualtrics software and the questionnaire collected information about practitioners and sites, including demographics, basic information about the site, history of urban agroforestry and gardening, use and perceptions of native and non-native edible or medicinal plants, management practices, information sources and gardening networks, primary purpose served by the site, and plant sources. Questions for gardeners and farmers differed from those for landscapers and nursery professionals, with a filter question included to route different populations through the survey. Survey responses will generate descriptive statistics regarding participation in UAF and native plant gardening with socio-demographic factors serving as independent variables. Responses regarding UAF and native plant knowledge and perceptions served as dependent variables. For example, the survey included a self assessment of native plant knowledge scored on a Likert scale. All statistical and post hoc analyses will be conducted in the programming language R in spring 2024. The survey also collected contact information as the responses were used to identify practitioners with whom to conduct more in-depth qualitative interviews.

  2. Qualitative interviews were conducted with practitioners located in the U.S. Northeast and identified through the online survey. Interview participants were selected based on location and type of urban agriculture carried out on their site. The interview schedule was developed in fall of 2022 with the guidance of a graduate committee. Interviews are semi-structured with open-ended questions (DiCicco-Bloom & Crabtree, 2006). The questions are similar to those included in the survey, but more in depth, to allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the current use of UAF practices and native productive plants in UAF systems, determine motivations for plant selections, and explore potential trade-offs in ecosystem services, e.g., production vs. habitat provisioning, related to including higher proportions of native productive plants. Interviews began in late spring of 2023, continued into late fall of 2023, and were conducted in person at the production site for most participants. Interviews were audio recorded, and will be transcribed, and coded using software, such as ATLAS.ti, to apply deductive codes based on the social-ecological systems (Ostrom, 2007; Ostrom, 2009; Partelow, 2018) and affordance theory frameworks (Gibson, 1979; Chemero, 2003; Hadavi et al., 2015; Stoltz & Schaffer, 2018), and then inductively coded based on re-emerging themes found in the interviews (Linneberg & Korsgaard, 2019; Vila-Henninger, 2019).

  3. Site visits and interviews also included a walking tour of the site to inventory the species and collect ethnobotanical data on the use of native productive species. Ethnobotany involves the study of social and cultural knowledge of local ecosystems (Martin, 2004). Different plant species serve a variety of roles in urban environments, and by studying these roles we can better understand the importance of these species (Taylor & Lovell, 2013). Ethnobotanical surveys and interviews are a mechanism to access the important cultural information gardeners possess on these species (Vogl et al., 2004). Collecting this type of data can also identify potentially overlooked species that have important cultural uses beyond food production, such as medicine, crafting, and decoration, and thus contribute to wider biocultural conservation and more diverse ecosystem services (Hemmelgarn & Mensell, 2021). A deeper social and cultural exploration can help us understand additional barriers to creating agroforestry systems that better support native biodiversity (Raymond et al. 2018), and analyzing the decision making process behind garden and landscape designs can help identify opportunities to promote more ecologically sound practices that benefit both humans and non-humans alike (Goddard et al., 2013).

  4. Ecological surveys also provided data for an analysis of the ecological integrity of each site, which can be used to measure the correlation between species inventories, proportion of native plant species, and ecological structure and function of the site. Survey data will be analyzed to measure native vs. non-native species richness, structural complexity of the vegetation, and soil health. Native vs. non-native species richness will be determined based on data from the species inventory.  Soil samples were collected and will be used to develop a brief soil profile for each site including physical and chemical indicators of soil quality and testing for common contaminants found in urban areas (Tresch et al., 2018). Statistical analyses will be performed using R software.
Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Results of this project will be utilized in various academic, public, and professional outreach materials. The project results will produce at least three separate academic publications, including the results of the quantitative survey, the qualitative interviews, and the ecological surveys. Knowledge on UAF and native productive plants gained from surveys and interviews will be used to develop educational materials for gardeners and homeowners, as well as to formulate recommendations for green industry professionals to further expand the market for plants used in UAF systems, including native productive plants. Resources will include: 

  • Short publications on particularly promising native productive species and design strategies that feature native productive plants to be compiled and distributed digitally using the same avenues as the online survey distribution; 
  • Webinars for gardeners and agroforestry practitioners with information on how to include native productive plants in the landscape; and
  • Lists of recommended native productive plants to be shared with nursery and landscape professionals. 

Results from this project will also inform the design of focus groups held with nursery and landscaping professionals after the completion of data collection. Engaging with these groups will be essential to the development and distribution of effective messaging campaigns, as industry professionals may be seen as opinion leaders with greater authority over wide-scale behavioral change pertaining to gardening practices (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009). The focus groups, along with the educational materials described above, will enhance changing social norms pertaining to the use of native plant species over non-native alternatives, a key aspect of encouraging industry professionals to communicate these messages with peers and clients (Howell et al., 2014).

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.