Multisectoral and Transdisciplinary Coalition to Spearhead the Development of a Cohesive Network of Local Limited-resources Urban Community Farmers for Sustainable Agriculture Using the Capital City of Puerto Rico as Case Study

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2014: $250,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Metropolitan University
Region: Southern
State: Puerto Rico
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Maria Calixta Ortiz
Universidad Ana G. Méndez

Annual Reports

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: demonstration, focus group, mentoring, workshop
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, infrastructure analysis, leadership development, partnerships, public policy, quality of life, urban agriculture


    The aim of this project was to facilitate the cohesive socioeconomic development of urban farmers by local governments, with a focus on existing limited-resources farmers in small size holdings in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to strengthen the food system and increase urban dweller resilience against the challenges of the XXI Century (i.e., climate change, lack of food security, economic instability, and shortage of locally produced agricultural commodities, among others).

    This research constitutes the first study with a systematic approach to urban agriculture in Puerto Rico, using as a case study the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan. One of the most important study contributions is providing data about operation of community-based urban orchards and their social, environmental and economic benefits for the San Juan communities. We studied 15 urban agriculture initiatives at the Municipality of San Juan, which are going through various stages of development. Essentially the analyzed urban orchards operate a smaller scale endeavor with a reduced group of volunteers and have been operating for a little while. Most of the orchards are in under-developed spaces at low income communities of the Municipality of San Juan. The plots of land are mostly rescued, borrowed or rented. Although limited in quantity, urban farmers produce a variety of vegetables, fruit and leaf and, in lesser amounts, tubers and grains. The sowing methods mostly used are elevated sowing beds, farming directly to the ground and using containers, such as wheels and large cans. Most of them practice a form of agroecology and perceive an interest in other people for this kind of product, while indicating that they need to boost promotion for their effort.

    Most of the orchards originated in response to a need to maintain or productively use an abandoned site in the community. The most important motivations for the creation of these orchards were the opportunity to strengthen the community connection, improve food quality, increase food security, create a space for educational purposes to make the Puerto Rican farming a viable endeavor while taking advantage of the site to establish a community micro-enterprise. However, they not considered their orchards as a business in the beginning.

    Orchards face many internal and external ordeals affecting their continuity and their sustainability. Those orchards with institutional support were more resilient than those that do not have any support. We documented the need and challenges faced by urban orchards, how they visualize a change in the San Juan public policy to recognize urban agriculture as an organized activity with opportunities and benefits for the urban community initiatives. Although the study concentrated in community-based urban orchards, and how businesses and the public describe this initiative, the strategies from this guideline can be considered for other sectors to develop this kind of farming activity.

    The study also provided an analysis about available plots in San Juan to consider pilot program orchards as community models. The analysis included macro-spatial criteria (i.e. plot size, property ownership, soil permeability, surface slope, sunlight, water, safety) for considering a vacant lot in terms of functionality for farming as an economic development strategy. Following this, we provided a more detailed environmental analysis (Phase I, and soil quality) for the three analyzed plots in the Municipality of San Juan as potential lots to start community-based urban orchards. The results from this environmental analysis guarantee that the three plots are suitable for the development of urban orchard projects, with some modifications to deal with unique challenges. Thus, we provided some technological agriculture recommendations to work with soil contamination, if it is present, and with the general and unique challenges of each plot.

    From queries with government offices and agencies, we concluded that, although there are some commendable initiatives, many factors have not permitted the enactment of a public policy for the development of urban agriculture in San Juan and Puerto Rico. Urban agriculture is perceived as not coherent nor harmonious with the urban land-use classification in terms of legal or regulations Regulation processes do not consider the possibility of something like this happening in areas identified as residential, commercial or industrial property. The current zoning was more coherent regarding to the value of the grounds following its potential uses. There is a perception that the agrarian uses of land in urban zones represent a loss in value to those grounds. These practices are in part responsible for the deserting of properties throughout the island. As well, state and federal agencies regulating agriculture in Puerto Rico have traditional views about big scale agricultural production that limit the inclusion and the incentives to farmers with a limited production harmonized to available urban spaces.

    Currently, there is a vacuum in the government for introducing the many responsibilities limiting an informed decision-making process regarding the efficient and logical use of plots. There is a lack of updates and maintenance to urban inventories, including those properties in the municipalities, unused property and those considered public nuisance, among others. Similarly, because of resource limitations, even with the current inventories, and because there are ruling and legal obstacles, as the case of ground ownership, the required transactions to move some of the properties away from dereliction cannot be performed. A public policy to deal with this need would promote access to these spaces for their restoration, rehabilitation and rescue. One of the suggestions to start to work with the limitations is to recognize inclusion of urban agriculture as an activity in the territorial organization plans, as indicated in the public policy section.

    Further actions are required to support urban communities’ initiatives; most of this task, though, belong to the government. We emphasized that the opportunities are available, as well as the strategies to operate in the short term, while promoting and establishing the pertinent public policy. Therefore, we made recommendations to encourage the communities and municipalities to work together in viable and successful initiatives for the sectors involved, demanding at the same time the support of the state government to maintain those initiatives sustainable. Existing urban orchards in San Juan have proven to be an alternative for the well-being of the communities, as well as the sustainability of vacant lots in urban areas. The future of the urban orchard and of other related initiatives will depend on the good will of the people and the Government to foster the dialogue and the required actions to enact a public policy that includes urban agriculture as a self-management alternative for the communities. At the same time, to become an option to increase the farming production to meet the food needs of the local population. One of the most important benefits of the urban orchards, and maybe one of its least valued aspects, is to provide a social interaction space to foster their well-being and their quality of life. The urban orchard role is essentially important as either community space as wells as an open public space for farming productions (Saldivar-Tanaka & Krasny, 2004). The social interaction occurring during the urban agriculture activity, besides reducing the distance between producer and community, creates the desire to learn and explore, and sometimes, a wish to go back to the earth.

    Project objectives:

    The first objective of the project was to Construct a robust and easily replicable methodology for communities to support the different array of productive urban farmers-especially existing under-served or limited-resources and community-based farmers-, including criteria to identify available and apt properties that could be developed for a productive and environmentally restorative urban farming system in their jurisdictions.

    • Methods towards identification, analysis, selection and evaluation of vacant green lots were described in the Guideline toolbox . The method used physical-spatial/land use analysis using GIS
    • Phase I ESA and soil sampling according EPA standards for selected vacant plots were described in Guideline toolbox 
    • Challenges and opportunities of vacant plots were described in Guideline toolbox.

    The second objective was to Define and address the local socioeconomic, political, and institutional framework that fosters or hinders urban farming from a supply and demand perspective.

    • A profile of urban orchards in San Juan Municipality, as well as their challenges were defined. Additionally, the recommendations of business owners to optimize urban agriculture and the perceptions and preferences from the general population about urban agriculture.
    • A description of the political, regulatory and academic framework from local agencies and institutions (municipal and Commonwealth agencies related to the agricultural sector in terms of regulations, permit process, incentives, among other as well as related federal agencies).
    • A set of policy recommendations, as well as organization options through different business models, sales and marketing strategies and boosting community participation strategies were integrated into the guideline toolbox.

    The third objective was to Identify and address local educational challenges and needs in order to ensure successful capacity building and stewardship to our main target farmers and the local jurisdictions.

    • Local educational challenges and needs of target farmers: entrepreneurship training needs and how the Municipality can support the development of the community-based urban orchards were identified and addressed. 
    • Several educational activities were organized for urban farmers and community groups.
      1. Agriculture Fair - Food 0 Km on April 26,  2017 at the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan.The purpose of this activity was to disseminate, for the first time, the urban agriculture project to the academic community, as well as to the urban farmers in San Juan. The fair included 11 exhibitors of crops or prepared foods with local and  organic products, germinates, seedlings, medicinal plants, exhibitions, educational talks and massages, among others. The activity stimulated the exchange of knowledge and products among farmers, students, teachers and general public (more than 200 participants).
      2. Composting Workshop. Cooperating farmer gave a workshop on 10 June 2017 on composting in the Peninsula Canteras, Santurce. As well as, the research assistant talked on the Garden Network and the steps to follow to strengthen it. (20 participants)
      3. Community Talk on How to develop an Urban Gardens, Venus Gardens community, Trujillo Alto, P.R. May 23, 2018. (32 community participants)
      4. Workshop on Sustainable Economic Development for Urban Gardens. University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. June 2, 2018 (32 participants: students from Huerto Semilla and community participants).
      5. Community meeting with two (2) leaders of the Housing Cooperative, Ciudad Universitaria, Trujillo Alto that influence 345 residents. September 24, 2018. They confirmed they are using the Guideline as a toolkit to develop an urban initiative in the housing facilities.
      6. Community talk on Urban Agriculture during the Climate Change Walk organized by Comité de Acción Climática. Saturday, 22, 2018. More than 500 participants from different municipalities of the island, including metro area, north and east of the island attended the event.
      7. Community talk on the Guideline Community-based Urban Orchards at the Urban market in Caimito Ward, San Juan. November 28, 2018. More than 200 participants: urban farmers, housewives, and civil representatives.
    • In addition, we detected several needs after hurricane María occurred in September 2017, and recovery efforts in urban orchards, such as a written emergency plan, as well as the mitigation strategies to address losses after the hurricane.  To address post-hurricane effects, we developed a collaborative network with the Fire Task Force of Puerto Rico, the Cucharillas Marsh  Project and Para La Naturaleza. With volunteers from different entities, we performed pruning of fallen trees on orchards, debris collection, weeding work beds, and lifting fallen gates. Also, the orchards received donations of bird feeders, as well as donations of food and clothing among the most needy communities.

    The fourth objective was to Catalyze education through the development, publication, presentation, promotion and dissemination of a bilingual (English and Spanish) policy and practice toolbox for communities to be available to download from the web for education in formal and informal settings, and for adaptation in other jurisdictions in the United States and Latin America.

    • Publication of Guideline for the Development of Community-Based Urban Orchards in Puerto Rico  in Spanish and English digital version( and 350 printed copies to reach people without Internet. 

      • Guideline integrates theoretical framework, definitions, methodology, results, challenges and opportunities from physical-spatial, socioeconomic, institutional and public policy aspects that facilitate or hinder agriculture development in urban areas of the Municipality of San Juan. The intention is to boost their self-relying potential, either in municipalities as well as for all the parties interested in urban farming. The Guideline provides tools for the municipalities of Puerto Rico to develop, along with the communities, public policies, strategies, incentives and programs for the development of the urban agriculture as a socioeconomic activity. The expected result is a support system for the community-based urban orchards with the purpose of strengthening resiliency and providing opportunities for self-employment and development of micro-enterprises in urban communities. 

    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.