Evaluating the sustainability and resiliency of urban food systems

Nicole Kennard


Nicole Kennard at COP25 where SDGs are hugely important
Nicole Kennard at the UN’s COP25

With a growing and increasingly urbanised global population, there are increased stresses placed on providing food, water, and energy resources to people in an equitable and safe manner. The issues of food security and food access are being exacerbated by climate change and urbanisation, as current agricultural land is becoming unsuitable for farming. Thus, there is a need to farm in ways that protect our natural resources while also finding innovative ways to increase food production, such as farming in places where food generally would not be grown, i.e., in urban areas.

Weaving food production into the urban fabric is becoming a common practice in cities across the world, as this aids in food self-sufficiency and increases healthy food access. Our research group is interested in developing low-input, closed-loop urban growing systems.

The project

My research specifically looks at agriculture in relation to urban food systems.

My first project is conducting sustainability assessments, using lifecycle assessment methods, on a wide variety of vegetable farms in the UK and US that supply into cities. Specifically, I am comparing the environmental impacts of farms of different sizes (small vs. large), management practices (organic vs. conventional), and different distances to the consumer (urban vs. rural farms) to see which factors most influence the sustainability of farms on a local scale. I am working with farmers to help them identify which practices on their farm produce the most environmental impacts, and what changes could be made to reduce these impacts. I am working with farms both in Georgia, USA, (where I am from) as well as farms across England. The farms I am working with range from city farms that are 5000 square feet in size, to farms that are over 6000 acres!

My research also focuses on the resiliency of urban food systems, and this is especially interesting to analyse within the COVID-19 pandemic. I am trying to understand people’s experiences of food insecurity during the pandemic, their coping strategies in terms of accessing food, and their experiences accessing food from different sources.

My future research will also look into analysing the environmental and social benefits (ecosystem services) that come from producing food in cities. This could include analysing how urban agriculture regenerates the soil and contributes to services such as flood mitigation and erosion control, as well as how urban agriculture can be used for education and engagement with nature.

In the news

Nicole was interviewed by CNBC about the future of food. In the interview, Nicole draws on her urban agriculture expertise to explain the role it can have in mitigating climate change. Further, she talks about the role urban food production has in bringing communities together.

Fieldwork & Outreach

Nicole Kennards publication is based on her research - this image shows her in the field
Nicole doing fieldwork in a local allotment

I will be working on gathering data for this project mainly in the US (especially in Atlanta) and the UK. Further, I am also working on a project to teach refugee communities in Jordan how to grow crops hydroponically, as they are not able to use the soil in the camps due to poor quality and camp restrictions. We are growing plants in a waste material, mattress foam, to also help repurpose waste materials on site.


In Sheffield, I volunteer at the Foodhall Project, which is a social eating space and community hub in the centre of Sheffield. We aim to tackle the combined issues of social isolation and food waste by making communal meals from surplus food in a cafe setting on a ‘contribute what you can basis.’ The Foodhall Project aims to bring people together around food and is managed for the community, by the community.

To find out more about Nicole’s work at Foodhall, you can read our interview with her.

National Food Service

I also volunteer for a larger network of similar community food organisations which Foodhall is part of, the National Food Service, which has similar aims of eliminating food insecurity and social isolation by creating a network of social eating spaces across the UK.

Landworker’s Alliance

I am also involved in other movements to support farmers and food sovereignty in the UK, especially supporting the Landworker’s Alliance, which aims to create a food and land-use system based on agroecology and food sovereignty that furthers social and environmental justice.

Bija Foundation

Additionally, I am a volunteer at the Bija Foundation, a non-profit based out of Oakland, California, which works to support locally based sustainability projects. I serve as the Community Outreach and Agricultural Education Coordinator at Bija, working on a project called Code Green, which aims to teach K-12 students computer science by coding sensors to automate hydroponic growing systems. This project is being spearheaded in Atlanta, as many students in the south of Atlanta do not have opportunities to learn computer science in high school and also live in food desert areas. In this way, students will be able to use practical computer science skills to help them grow fresh, healthy food, tackling the combined issues of education and food access.

Annual Symposium 2020

Nicole spoke about her research and her work with Foodhall at our Annual Symposium 2020. During this talk she spoke about the impact the pandemic has had on food insecurity in Sheffield. You can find more in this write up: Symposium ’20: Racial justice, Covid and the SDGs.


Nicole has 2 chapters published in Springer’s Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Kennard N.J., Bamford R.H. (2020) Urban Agriculture: Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Development. In: Leal Filho W., Azul A., Brandli L., Özuyar P., Wall T. (eds) Zero Hunger. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69626-3_102-1

Kennard N.J. (2019) Food Waste Management. In: Leal Filho W., Azul A., Brandli L., Özuyar P., Wall T. (eds) Zero Hunger. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69626-3_86-1

Kennard, N., Stirling, R., Prashar, A., & Lopez-Capel, E. (2020) ‘Evaluation of Recycled Materials as Hydroponic Growing Media’, Agronomy, 10, 1092. https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy10081092

Blogs / Articles

Lockdown in the UK allowed Nicole to volunteer more regularly at Foodhall. Foodhall is a community kitchen in Sheffield which transformed itself into a food delivery service for the most vulnerable during the COVD-19 pandemic. Find out more about Foodhall and Nicole’s work there.

Why are communities most affected by research often the last ones involved?
Saporta Report, Guest Columnist (May 19, 2019).

Exploring Sustainable Education and Development Projects in Chihuahua, Mexico” Georgia Institute of Technology, Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (April 22, 2019).

Nicole published her Masters work while she was at the Grantham Centre. Though this work was not from her time at the University of Sheffield, it focused on an interesting aspect of hydroponics – the need for a sustainable growing media. As our special project in Zaatari refugee camp uses hydroponics, we wanted to find out more about Nicole’s work. Read: Evaluation of Recycled Materials as Hydroponic Media.

Public Speaking

“Activism as a Grantham Scholar”, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures Annual Symposium (Sheffield, UK; November 2019)

“Agriculture & Climate Change”, Food, Farming, & Climate Justice March (London, UK; October 2019)

“Agriculture & Climate Change”, Chevening Scholar Reception (Sheffield, UK; June 2019)

“Urban Food Production in the U.S.”, Tinsley Urban Farm Launch Event (Sheffield, UK; May 2019)

“Social-Emotional Learning & Values”, Youth Social-Emotional Workshops with the Living Lab / Center for Dialogue and Transformation, Inc. (Chihuahua, Mexico; March 2019)

“Code Green – Tackling Education & Food Access in Atlanta”, Global Conference for UN Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (Cebu, Philippines; December 2018)

“Optimising Resource Use in Agriculture”, Incredible Edible Agroecology Workshop (Todmorden, UK; August 2018)

“Building Sustainable Communities through Urban Farm Design”, Georgia Environmental Conference (Savannah, GA; August 2017)

Social Media / Research Profiles

Nicole recently joined Twitter, and you can find her here.

LinkedIn page





Professor Duncan Cameron

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

Dr Jill Edmondson

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences