MODELING: City Farm Sustainability Model

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Students will be able to 1) describe interactions among biotic and abiotic factors in urban cultivated ecosystems; 2) explain how ecological interactions lead to emergent properties such as soil health; 3) identify specific strategies that improve the sustainability of farming practices; 4) articulate the costs and benefits of sustainable urban agriculture for individuals and large groups.

Big Idea

The number of urban farms in New York City has grown rapidly over the last decade. How might we apply sustainability principles to environmental problems, especially the need for sustainable farming practices that maximize crop yield and soil quality?

FRAME: Modeling sustainability

“City Farm” bridges the “iFarm” sequence with the Food Unit CAPSTONE.  Previously, students investigated the role of technology in agriculture. Specifically, they developed technology solutions to problems caused by industrial agriculture. Through presentation and feedback, students refined their solution ideas by applying sustainability as a design constraint. In the Food Unit CAPSTONE students will take this design framework a step further; they will collaboratively develop sustainable farm design thats, if widely adopted, would more sustainable feed the world’s growing human population.

This lesson provides the necessary conceptual sustainability framework for students to apply to the Food Unit CAPSTONE.  Through a gamified learning activity, students will attempt to build sustainable urban farms.  (For a similar gamification approach to concept development, see this lesson.) In developing these farms, students will revisit problems of industrial agricultural explored throughout this unit and develop strategies to address these problems.  By the end of this lesson, successful students should be able to explain basic principles of sustainable design, identify sustainable agricultural strategies to meet human needs over a long time horizon, and demonstrate competency with sustainable practices by meeting performance thresholds within the City Farm game.

After completing the activities in this lesson, students will have met these objectives:

  • describe interactions among biotic and abiotic factors in urban cultivated ecosystems.  How does temperature impact crop growth?
  • explain how ecological interactions lead to emergent properties such as soil health.  How might natural pesticides such as worms improve topsoil quality while reducing threats to crops?
  • identify specific strategies that improve the sustainability of farming practices.Why is crop rotation a more effective long term strategy than maximizing crop yield?
  • articulate the costs and benefits of sustainable urban agriculture for individuals and large groups.  How do sustainable urban farms help and hurt cities?


  • The attached prototype activity guide contains a sequence of activities that might be differentiated to meet the needs of diverse learners within a classroom.
  • This attached curriculum from Facing the Future contains effective lessons for teachers interested in building out sustainability concepts and skills over multiple weeks.
  • Finally, many students love this video series; teacher may want to consider using it for FLIPPED assignments or in-class discussions.

ENGAGE: Farming and sustainability

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students develop a familiarity with urban farming and sustainability principles through analyses of presentations of two New York City urban farms.  The teacher norms understanding of the urban farm landscape in NYC and elicits ideas about sustainability practices from the class.  By the end of this activity, students should be able to describe an urban farm, locate a few NYC urban farms on a map, and explain at least one sustainability practice that urban farms utilize.

What will students do?

Students watch one of the two following clips and answer this questions:

  1. What did you see?
  2. What do you think this means?
  3. How does this connect to our previous units?
  4. How do these farms connect to the idea of “sustainable design”?

Clip 1: New York Farm City

"In order to show how vegetables are grown in New York, we reversed what the plants do: We harvest in spring what we filmed in fall. This is a non-commercial, independent project created by Petrina Engelke and Raul Mandru."

Clip 2: Gotham Greens:

"Whole Foods Market is proud to announce Gotham Greens as its operating partner of the nation’s first commercial scale greenhouse farm integrated within a retail grocery space. The 20,000-square-foot greenhouse, currently being constructed on the roof of the forthcoming Whole Foods Market store in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is scheduled to open later this fall. Gotham Greens will grow premium quality, pesticide-free produce year round in the greenhouse for Whole Foods Market Gowanus, as well as other Whole Foods Market locations throughout New York City."

Students discuss responses in small groups and then share out ideas with the whole class.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will select either video to show the class, or set up independent work stations for student teams.  Ideally, different student groups will watch different clips to promote greater diversity of ideas during the share out.  The teacher will support students’ ability to answer the four question either through modeling after viewing, or through individual support while circulating.  Students should be able to connect the design of observed farms to problems that have surfaced throughout this unit.  Some examples might include: urban farms reduce the carbon footprint because food does not have to travel as far; urban farms reduce environmental impact by maintaining balanced, functional nitrogen cycles; urban farms reduce reliance on fossil fuels because they do not require energy intensive technology to function.

EXPLORE: Urban Agriculture

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students dive more deeply into the concept of urban agriculture through a short reading activity.   Students should be able to explain the benefits of local urban agricultural systems compared to industrial food production.

What will students do?

Students read a short passage (see the EXPLORE section of the prototype activity guide for this lesson) and answer a summary question: What is the purpose of urban agriculture? (Hint: What problems does urban agriculture solve?).  Students may collaborate with a peer, but all students will read individually before discussing.  Once students have finished reading, they write a short summary paragraph.  Each student reads this summary to the group.  Once all students have read, student groups share out what they believe are the most important ideas from the passage.  

What will the teacher do?

Two teacher moves are particularly important in this section: 1) support students in finding appropriate evidence to support claims and 2) providing differentiated texts to students. 

To support students with supporting claims with evidence, an effective strategies is to remind students that they have explored problems of agriculture in previous lessons.  In fact, every lesson in this unit highlights a specific problem that students could use as evidence in support of urban agriculture.  In "Have Food, Will Travel", for example, a problem is that food negatively impacts the environment by traveling thousands of miles to reach our plate.  Urban agricultural practices cuts these food miles.

As for differentiated texts, here are some resources I used:

EXPLAIN: The rules of the game

5 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students engage in a jigsaw sharing of the rules for City Farm to get ready to play the game.  By the end of this section, students should have a basic understanding of the rules and a strategy to use to start the game.

What will students do?

Before students play City Farm they will summarize the rules, purpose, and processes of the simulation.  They will read  “Playing City Farm,” “Terminology,” and “Strategies."  Students will respond to two questions:

  1. What is the most important idea in each section?
  2. Based on this rule, what is a strategy to use during the game?

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will circulate and clarify confusion.  The teacher will also ask probing questions of strategy ideas.  There will not be a whole group share of strategy ideas before the game so that individual students are able to explore their own ideas before discussing with the whole group.  The reason for this teacher move is that this gamification experience will mirror the ideation stage of the engineering design thinking framework.  Students will think divergently about the sustainability model before they converge on shared ideas.  They will use the same process during the CAPSTONE.


PLAY: City Farm

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students play City Farm, a sustainable urban farm simulation game to develop an understanding of effective sustainability strategies for agriculture and food production.  By the end of this section students should be able to successfully build a sustainable farm business that incorporates best practices from sustainable agriculture. Students will have demonstrated success when they reach at least a "silver" sustainability level and can explain practices that increase their scores.

What will students do?

City Farm is a game that models the business of an urban farm.  Students will play City Farm three times.  The goal is to earn the highest sustainability score possible.  Students can only be successful is they grow enough food to make a profit while maintaining high soil quality and sufficient water levels.  To do this, students must successful manage agricultural technology and crops combinations.  

While students play they will collect information about the game in a series of tables.  They will use these tables to develop general sustainability principles. These principles will become guides for students work on the CAPSTONE project. 

What will the teacher do?

Get out of the way!  As with the previous gamification lesson in this course, I was struck by how well a video game can teach my class, at least for the majority.  Students were excited to collaborate.  Students were excited to explain directions and clarify confusion.  Students were genuinely learning sustainability practices in order to earn virtual currency. I tried to circulate, but was generally shot down by students as an intruding presence. See my reflection for what I tried instead.

EXIT: Experience debrief

5 minutes

What is the purpose of this EXIT?

Students develop a collective understanding of principles of sustainability and the teacher assess students' competency.  Students will answer the following questions and submit before the next class:

  1. What are some benefits related to urban farming?
  2. How might gardening make someone more aware of the natural world and of using resources in a sustainable way?
  3. If you grow some of your own food, how might that affect how you think about the food you see in grocery stores?
  4. Gardens are systems with inputs and outputs. Name as many inputs and outputs as you can.
  5. What are some costs and  benefits of growing food locally versus shipping food from far away locations? Do these costs and benefits change if we focus on individuals or large groups?
  6. How are mathematical models like this useful in learning about science concepts?
The teacher will use these responses to target students during the CAPSTONE that may need additional assistance.