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close this bookFood and Energy - Strategies for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1990, 81 p.)
View the documentPreface
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Analytical Framework
View the document3 Integrated Food-Energy Systems
View the document4 Alternative Urban Development Strategies
View the document5 Urban Agriculture
View the document6 New Rural-Urban Configurations
View the document7 The Challenge of Biotechnology
View the document8 Sustainable Development
View the document9 Conclusion
View the documentAppendix I: FEN Programme Activities
View the documentAppendix II: FEN Publications
View the documentReferences

5 Urban Agriculture

A Utopian Dream?

Ever since people have been living in cities, small but highly valued quantities of food have been grown in cities. Apart from historical references to ancient civilizations, however, there is relatively little documentation on the actual extent of urban agriculture in either the near past or the present.

This lack of information on urban agriculture is supposedly due to the difficulty of recording its impact and the absence of a concerted effort to publish research findings in this field. But the fact remains that urban agriculture is often simply ignored, if not marginalized, by those "experts". officials, and residents who could be its biggest promoters and beneficiaries. As a result, the potential of urban agriculture as an alternative to increased agricultural production, more food subsidies, and improved distribution and storage systems is not well understood.

What does this mean for the future of urban agriculture? Is there, in fact, a contradiction between cities and agriculture? Is it simply a utopian dream to suggest that urban areas could really help to feed their inhabitants? Should practically all agricultural development assistance continue to be directed towards rural areas?

Without resorting to highly artificial and expensive food production systems, there is clearly little prospect of growing staple foods, such as wheat and rice, in urban areas. There is, however, certainly room for banana and palm oil trees in third world cities, where these crops clearly show the potential of using urban resources for food production. According to Soemarwoto (1981), urban agriculture can provide some residents with up to 40 per cent of their recommended daily allowances of calories and 30 per cent of their protein needs, including most of the vitamins and minerals crucial to their health.

If such a contribution could be directed entirely to the nutritional needs of the poor, urban agriculture would be of vital importance in third world cities. Its economic and recreational attributes also make it of interest to the more privileged residents of cities anywhere in the world. Indeed, until the middle of this century, "most urban areas around the world produced a significant amount of food and other items required by local residents. Production was not limited to the urban fringe but included substantial yields in home gardens within the cities themselves" (Wade 1981).

During the post-war period of economic growth, however, higher incomes and much cheaper food led most people to abandon home food production in many Western countries. Urban sprawl also reduced the availability of good agricultural land on the fringes of cities around the world. In many third world countries, land that did remain available near cities was often dedicated to growing cash crops for export or for the urban te.

Survival in the City

Although most people in Western cities have lost their links with the land, this is not the case for the people who are now streaming into third world cities. While many of these rural refugees may not like the idea of continuing to work the land, the fact remains that they do have the survival skills to produce food on their own, given access to the necessary resources.

In two poor neighbourhoods of Bombay, Panwalker (1986) found that rural migrants who came to the city to find a job considered farming to be a demeaning activity that they had left behind. This attitudinal barrier is further complicated in many African countries where the traditional role of women in subsistence farming reinforces the reluctance of men to engage in non-commercial food production.

Deelstra (1987) noted, however, that such survival skills could also be used to facilitate the transition to urban life. By producing some of their own food, immigrants can gain more confidence in themselves, leading to increased security and better integration. Urban agriculture also contributes to increasing one's social contacts, a prerequisite for success in the city.

This, in fact, appears to have been the case at least in Zaire, where Streiffeler (1987) observed that men adapted all too quickly to city ways. When it became evident that urban agriculture could be used for intensive, lucrative production of vegetables as cash crops, the attitudinal barriers vanished overnight and the men displaced the women. Although commercial ventures are traditionally a masculine role, these men generally had little experience in growing vegetables and thus required training courses. One may assume that the women had to grow their own crops on poorer or more distant plots.

Another area where urban agriculture can make a significant contribution is during the "hungry season" between major harvests. As the stocks of stored food run out, and before new crops have matured, the small output of permanent gardens can play a major role for this limited time period. Such produce may not be among the most preferred, but there is always something to eat.

Living Food Stalls

It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of all families in the third world have gardens which, after centuries of traditional cultivation practices, can be very complex, well-balanced affairs. In Javanese, they are known as "living food stalls". Often near to or adjacent to the house, these systems are permanent and sustainable and require low-inputs once established.

Gutman (1987) concluded that 100 sq m of intensively cultivated land in Argentina could supply the vegetable needs of a family of five and that this would require about 1 to 1.5 working days per week. A successful garden in Buenos Aires could thus save between 10 to 30 per cent if not 40 per cent of the cost of an appropriate diet for a family, representing savings of 5 to 20 per cent or more of its total income.

In one of the few publications in this field, Brownrigg (1985) made the point that home gardens in third world countries produce not just vegetables but often plants that provide starch, fruits, herbs, flowers, and medicines as well as fuelwood. In many cases, small livestock are also raised with their wastes helping to fertilize the garden whose wastes, in turn, help to feed the livestock. Young (1987) noted that although urban forestry for fruit production is rare in Asia, 25 per cent of the "large number" of street trees grown in the Indian city of Bangalore bear fruit.

Although there is little data available on the nutritional value of gardens, many such projects in the third world are to be found under the responsibility of health rather than agriculture agencies. Indonesia and many other Asian countries have used urban agriculture programmes to improve vitamin A levels in diets (Yeung 1987).

The economic value of home gardens has received some attention but most of it has dealt with the straight market value of the produce, which is difficult to assess in those areas where most food is self-produced or exchanged. While most people normally save money by growing their own food, this is particularly important in the third world where the food budget accounts for a much higher proportion of total family expenditures: often 50 per cent and reaching 70 per cent for urban families in India, compared with 25 to 30 per cent for the average American family. Another consideration is that with gardens ensuring part of a family's subsistence, there is a greater chance that people will risk investing in other income-generating activities.

Kleer and Wos (1987) noted that this implies the need for a different method of calculating economic benefits, given the fact that it involves marginal labour. In a detailed study of urban agriculture in Poland, they concluded that such production also enters the "broadly understood" market and enriches it.

Wade (1987) noted that surprisingly high yields have been obtained in small gardening projects developed in many countries. Production ranges from 6 to 15 kg of vegetables per square metre or the equivalent of 66 to 165 t/ha compared to 1977 FAO averages of carrot production of only 22.6 t/ha. Very high yields are also reported for organic gardening and intensive aquaculture projects of research institutes and individuals working in temperate climates. No comparable effort appears to have been made for tropical countries despite the fact that the growing season is longer.

The potential contribution of urban agriculture to the food supply of the urban poor is thus difficult to assess. As an order of magnitude, we may take the estimate quoted by Morris (1983) on the basis of a six-month growing season: a full balanced diet can be derived from 2,500 sq ft per person or a little more than 0.02 ha for a family of five. A 200 sq m garden would in this case certainly help the family to make ends meet by providing one-fifth of its optimum food intake or much more in terms of the present low nutrition standards.

Accordingly, about one quarter of the population of Sao Paulo (about 425,000 families) would require about 8,500 ha. This figure ought to be compared with the 60,000 ha of empty land inside the Sao Paulo municipality. Of course, smaller kitchen gardens of 50 to 100 sq m are also foreseeable.

New Types of Dialogue

Unlike capital- and energy-intensive agricultural development projects, urban agriculture does not depend on big budgets. It must be made quite clear, however, that urban self-reliance does not mean less work for the state or international agencies but a different kind of work. What is needed is the development of policies that support such initiatives rather than institutional barriers that block them. This is a crucial issue that must lead to new types of dialogue between communities and local authorities.

For a variety of reasons, food is rarely grown in cities by corporations or institutions but rather by household members at or near their place of residence or work. Locally organized gardening activities also avoid the problems of marketing and motivation that beset "top-down", official gardening projects. The latter are rarely as successful as community-based projects, especially if care is not taken in hiring enthusiastic, well-trained extension workers from the local area.

In an analysis of a successful urban agriculture project in Zaire, however, Streiffeler (1987) concluded that the enabling factor was perhaps the likelihood that the expatriate organizer was not compromised by the local power struggles and intertribal conflicts, and that he was not suspected of having self interest in exploiting the poor.

Sanyal (1986) noted that the evolution of government positions on urban agriculture - from outright rejection, through benign neglect, to lukewarm and occasionally enthusiastic encouragement - will face stiff resistance from the many bureaucrats who played major roles in shaping the industrialization strategies of their countries. These "modernization" experts and their supporters generally oppose any efforts perceived as threatening this goal. As Sanyal concluded, "they would rather see the urban poor either sent back to the rural areas" or settled in new cities.

As Kleer and Wos (1987) noted, the majority of practical problems occur at the grassroots level and the attitude and support of local authorities can be decisive. Streiffeler (19871 refers to the "scorn, indifference and official disdain" accorded by local officials in Zaire (and elsewhere in Africa) to "traditional" activities such as urban agriculture.

La Rovere (1986) described the programme of the Rio de Janeiro state electricity utility (LIGHT) that promotes urban agriculture on its right-of-ways. This is done to reduce maintenance costs (notably herbicide or manual weed control) and to increase food supplies for its employees as well as for local residents and schools. But its main purpose is to establish and maintain a good working relationship with the community in order to increase the chances of expanding transmission corridors without resorting to expensive underground lines.

Gardens as a Catalyst

Apart from its contribution to community development and crime reduction programmes (notably in North American cities), urban agriculture has many other indirect benefits. The conversion of vacant lots into productive green space can help to moderate the micro-climate by reducing noise and dust levels in addition to improving oxygen production through photosynthesis.

Green spaces are also excellent hydrological membranes because the well-worked soil of gardens has high infiltration rates in contrast to the compacted soil of other urban green spaces, which also have the disadvantage of high maintenance requirements. Deelstra (1987) noted that healthy hydrological systems are instrumental in reducing surface runoff and flash floods. They also contribute to stabilizing water tables in urban areas which, in turn, helps to ensure solid building foundations. Replacing unsupervised garbage dumps with garden plots also reduces the risk of groundwater pollution.

Urban agriculture can also be a catalyst for recycling programmes. This is already the case in Calcutta, where vegetables thrive in "garbage gardens" based on that city's highly degradable waste (mostly organic matter, ash, and dust) that is painstakingly sorted by thousands of garbage pickers. The marshes around Calcutta have also long played a role in provisioning the city with fresh fish and ducks that are raised on these natural sewage treatment ponds that have so far proven remarkably safe (Furedy and Ghosh 1984).

By organizing the recycling of organic wastes one also facilitates the recycling of other materials, which not only reduces pollution but generates employment and conserves energy. This has already been partly achieved in Lae, Papua New Guinea, where a gardening programme led to municipal composting, which now produces sufficient compost for all city gardens and parks in addition to a surplus that is sold to commercial farmers (Wade 1987). This has resulted in a 10 per cent reduction in solid waste disposal needs.

A growing problem with the production of compost, however, is the increasing quantity of heavy metals and other non-biodegradable materials contained in the garbage of industrialized countries. It is not too late, however, particularly for third world cities, to implement source separation programmes to ensure that solid wastes can be recycled and organic wastes safely composted.

The production of more food in urban areas, particularly freshly consumed perishables, also reduces the need for environmentally costly and economically expensive transportation of food, let alone energy-intensive processing, packaging, and storing. Gardening projects could also act as demonstration programmes for new species and techniques for commercial farmers, for new food preservation and storage techniques, and for new cooking tools and methods (which are proving important in the post-harvest food cycle).

Gardens or Warehouses?

The major constraint facing urban agriculture is the availability of land. While there are significant amounts of unused land even in major cities, the problem is one of access and then tenure. Even when food production has been started, it does not rank high among the priorities of developers and politicians. The famous Matalahib Community Gardens in the Philippines - which during their peak supplied about 400 poor families with 80 per cent of their vegetables - were replaced with a warehouse.

Little research is available on who urban agriculture would threaten, if indeed it would threaten anyone. Streiffeler (1987) concludes that it is primarily the big merchants (and presumably big farmers) with their own means of transportation who stand to lose the most from urban agriculture as small rural farmers lack access to urban markets. Urban agriculture may thus also have a role to play in encouraging people to form their own production and distribution systems in order to avoid the middleman, such as has happened in Rio de Janeiro (La Rovere 1986).

But should even these farmers see the development of urban agriculture as a threat to their business? If the produce of urban agriculture is consumed by the urban poor who would otherwise go hungry because they cannot afford to buy more food, such farmers should not be affected. The time invested by the poor in urban agriculture would simply mean less time spent on other activities, which could include scavenging, begging, or stealing. Growing food within the city would thus make a material and moral difference for the lowest-income stratum, if not for the city as a whole.

Time does not appear to be a major constraint as much of the labour required for gardening is often provided by the young and the old who have few other opportunities for remunerative work. This may not be the case for the poorest of the poor, however, who being malnourished and poorly housed, simply lack the energy to invest in what appears to them to be a risky, long-term venture.

In most cities, possibilities exist for greatly expanding urban agriculture by applying fiscal measures discriminating against owners of large tracts of land kept idle for real estate speculation. It should be remembered that putting an urban plot under cultivation is, after all, a fairly reversible decision. All the land reserved for the future expansion of the city could meanwhile produce some food. Individual backyards, schools, factories, and public land unsuitable for construction (e.g. communication and transportation right-of-ways) offer a permanent opportunity for gardening.

Other Obstacles

In one of the rare observations on the attitudinal obstacles to overcome, Tricaud (1987) noted that there is a problem with the various specialists involved in urban land management. They tend to see only the single aspect of urban agriculture related to their own field and regard the other various functions as competing Interests.

Yet urban agriculture could fulfill most of their requirements if landscape architects, urban planners, economists, sanitary engineers, and agronomists were to co-ordinate their efforts and make a few compromises. The problem, of course, is that urban agriculture suffers from split-incentives and the lack of an integrated agency that can overcome these sectoral and temporal problems.

For Sanyal (1986), the most basic requirement for facilitating urban agriculture is proper cadastration to record the boundaries, ownership, value, and other attributes of land and buildings within the city. This implies not only a willingness on the part of owners, renters, and squatters to subject themselves to registration (with all the benefits and risks that this entails), but also the existence of an infrastructure of surveyors, lawyers, and administrators in addition to an acceptable judicial procedure to arbitrate land-use and ownership conflicts. This would require stronger municipal governments backed up by adequate revenues independent of central authorities.

Wade (1987) emphasized the almost universal importance of government support in providing land and water sources in addition to an initial supply of planting material. Seeds and seedlings are often not readily available in the community, are too expensive, or are simply too old. A problem with supplies donated from outside is that they are often inappropriate for local growing conditions and/or cultural preferences. The most successful strategy has been collecting seeds from discarded market produce.

Effective technical assistance, including soil testing, is also needed for urban agriculture. Unfortunately, many of the NGOs skilled in community organizing have little expertise in horticulture. As Streiffeler (1987) observed, urban agriculture cannot be considered as simply the continuation of the old habits of rural immigrants. There are fundamental differences between the extensive slash and burn agriculture often practiced in rural areas and the more intensive requirements of fixed farming in the city. Another drawback with urban agriculture is that the "survival margins" of urban farmers are so small that they cannot afford to experiment with new crops or techniques (Richards 1985).

Apart from the poorly understood problems of fertilization for urban agriculture and the use of grey water for irrigation, Streiffeler (1987) also noted that work is needed on problems of protection against the tropical sun, torrential rains, and ravenous pests that complicate agriculture in the third world. There is also a lack of tools, particularly those needed to work soil hardened by drought and erosion.

Wade (1987) suggested numerous initiatives that could be used to promote urban agriculture and to improve access by the urban poor to other food supplies. These include granting tenure to squatters to encourage long-term investments in urban agriculture; requiring all new housing construction to provide adequate facilities for home gardening (including balconies and rooftops); and providing tax benefits to individuals or companies who "lease" their land for community food production.

What is needed is a re-orientation of existing resources and programmes to include agricultural and food planning in urban areas. This implies more flexible land-use, water, and waste management. Production alone, however, cannot solve all of the problems: new efforts are also needed to improve food distribution, preservation, storage, and processing of food. Nutritional habits should also be improved by promoting the consumption of traditional fruits and vegetables. Efforts are needed to "debunk" the myth that imported, Western produce is better than locally produced food (Wade 1987).


Part of the problem is that urban agriculture, at least in Africa, has simply "been developed to the point of enabling people to survive" (Streiffeler 1987). While critical of local authorities in Africa, he concluded that Western countries must also share the blame for their unwillingness to fund urban agriculture programmes.

It is clear that urban agriculture cannot replace other strategies (thus income redistribution programmes must continue), but it has the advantage of generating independence. It uses many of the principles of self-reliant, local development based on initiatives that can be undertaken directly by local people using resources already available in the community. Urban agriculture also establishes direct links between the actions and outcomes while minimizing the risk of benefits being diverted to more powerful urban groups.

Gutman (1987) also noted that "urban agriculture helps to create and recreate the links of communication and action, of self-organization and initiative, that are absent in the traditional systems of income redistribution".

Nevertheless, one must plan for high failure rates, with slow growth levels and frequent abandonments. Gutman (1987) estimated that it would take up to ten years for urban agriculture to reach 20 per cent of the households in greater Buenos Aires. This compares with the six months that it would take for a food distribution programme to reach the same number. It must be acknowledged, therefore, that urban agriculture is not a short-term solution and that it may not necessarily benefit the lowest income groups.