Urban Agriculture: a brief primer

An urban farm in Chicago. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the majority of the human population begins to live in urban areas, and as the ravages of climate change and soil erosion play havoc on our agricultural areas, the disconnect between the town and the city is beginning to close via one coping strategy – urban agriculture.

It is safe to say that humanity is now an urban species. The year 2009 was the year the number of humans living in urban areas exceeded the number of those living in rural areas (although national and developmental differences remain). This demographic phenomenon has occurred amidst an ever-worsening biocrisis, especially for agriculture: predicted agricultural yield reductions, continuous soil erosion, problems with carbon storage and land conversion, and the recognition that the growing demand for agricultural land threatens vital ecosystems and thus human well-being.

As the world’s population continues to grow (albeit with a slower growth rate) and we struggle to end our grow-or-die system of economic expansion, urban agriculture seems to be one choice in a portfolio of adaptation strategies we can take to reduce our environmental impact whilst rationalising our food production systems.

What is urban agriculture?

There are various definitions for what exactly is constituted as “urban agriculture”. Wikipedia cites a prompt definition as “the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city” [x]. Luc Mougeot, an “expert in urban agriculture” provides a more in-depth idea:

“…an industry located within (intra-urban) or on the fringe (peri-urban) of a town, a city or a metropolis, which grows and raises, processes and distributes a diversity of food and non-food products, (re-)using largely human and material resources, products and services found in and around that urban area, and in turn supplying human and material resources, products and services largely to that urban area.” [x]

In a similar fashion, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined it as “not so much an alternative to existing agricultural systems as it is an established branching of modern sustainable agricultural systems.” [x] And René van Veenhuizen includes that urban agriculture can range “from subsistence production and processing at household level to fully commercialised agriculture.” [x] The key point then is that despite the differences and variations between the different forms (intra- versus peri-; subsistence versus commercial) the defining feature of urban agriculture is its urban setting.

History

Urban agriculture is not a new phenomenon. Already, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that “as many as 800 million urban farmers produce about 15% of the world’s food” [x]. Some believe urban agriculture has been practised as long ago as 3500 BC by farmers in Mesopotamia, and in ancient Egypt waste materials were thought to have been used to help supply urban farming. Similarly chinampas, floating garden plots used by Aztec Indians, and the irrigated terrace farms used by the Inca Empire in Machu Picchu are also seen as early forms of urban agriculture.

In more recent times, urban agriculture has taken the form of Potato Patches in the USA, allotment gardens in the UK, and Victory Gardens during the World Wars – although these were all responses to economic issues of poverty, unemployment, and food scarcity, rather than planned food system development. At the height of the Victory Garden movement in World War II, around 40 percent of America’s vegetables were produced by Victory Gardens, despite the fact that the USDA at the time tried to suppress the movement “out of concern that they would inhibit the development of industrial agriculture.” [x] The renewed interest in urban agriculture (at least in the global North) as part of the sustainability and local food movements is relatively new, manifesting as community garden schemes and land reclamation in order to improve food security and energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of efforts to stave off the biocrisis.

Theory

Murray Bookchin, an anarchist political theorist and “pioneer in the ecology movement”, wrote extensively about issues regarding humanity and its growing disconnect from its wider environment, which he encapsulated in his philosophy of social ecology. He spoke at lengths about the issue of town/country disconnect, and how back in 1952 the “separation of town and country was turning out to be harmful to human survival.” [x] In his work Ecology and Revolutionary Thought he wrote:

“The manipulated people in modern cities must be fed, and feeding them involves an extension of industrial farming […] If the process of urbanizing man and industrializing agriculture were to continue unabated, it would make much of the earth inhospitable for viable, healthy human beings and render vast areas utterly uninhabitable.”

Although never explicitly mentioned in his works, Bookchin supported urban agriculture as an effort to re-localise and de-industrialise agriculture, both to reduce ecological harm and to bring beneficial impacts to human populations.

Advantages

As mentioned above, urban agriculture isn’t new – it’s both a thriving environmental movement and food production strategy that feeds hundreds of millions of people around the world. It contributes to urban food security, allows for local economic development, and contributes to social inclusion and community cohesion [x].

Urban agriculture can make use of vacant or disused land, while roof gardens can maintain green spaces and food gardens without using up urban land. Dale Pfeiffer, a freelance journalist and geologist, emphasises the importance of rooftop urban agriculture:

“On the average, rooftops comprise 30 percent of a city’s total land area, and rooftops enjoy the full benefit of sunshine and rainfall. Rooftop gardening could provide a substantial portion of urban dwellers’ food.” [x]

Urban “micro-farms” that include small animals as well as fruits and vegetables can also improve food security for families, “along with occasional income from selling seasonal surpluses at garden markets” [x].

Urban agriculture also aids in the transition from industrial agriculture to more localised, eco-friendly agriculture. Not only can urban farms help absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants in cities, but sourcing food closer to its place of consumption helps increase the efficiency of the food system and reduce its carbon footprint as less energy (usually derived from fossil fuels) is required for transport, refrigeration, and processing:

A key ecological principle is that nutrient and energy flows are cyclical, rather than linear, and thus the practice of consuming resources close to where they are produced sustains ecosystem integrity.  [x]

Organic farming in the city can be more environmentally beneficial by eschewing synthetic nitrogen fertiliser for the recycling of urban wastes, as well as improving energy efficiency.

Furthermore, the smaller plots of land and urban farms in urban agriculture are a lot more productive than industrialised, energy-intensive monocultures. “Smaller farms are more land and environmental resource efficient than larger ones” and can be “two to ten times more productive” than larger farms.

Disadvantages

Despite the advantages of improved energy efficiency, productivity, and food security, there are problems associated with urban agricultural systems. Due to the industrialisation of food systems and the disconnect between town and country there is a real need for education (or re-education) of urban populations, as the “majority of people in urban populations have very little understanding of how their food is produced, transported, processed, or distributed“.

Additionally, there are some foodstuffs that are not suitable for urban agriculture. Growing fruit and vegetables within urban areas, like Cuba where “approximately 60% of all of the vegetables consumed” makes sense, but “cereal crops can be grown efficiently only in rural areas.” And if not done properly, there is the problem of health risk and contamination – untreated wastewater, agrochemicals, traffic emissions, and industrial effluents can all contaminate soils and crops and produce major health risks.

And as mentioned above, growing cities and urbanisation can encroach upon sites potentially suitable for urban agriculture. In London, for example,

“whilst demand [for allotments] was at an all-time high across the capital, the pressures caused by high density building was further decreasing the amount of allotment land.” [x]

Examples of Urban Agriculture

Cuba

In 1989/90 the socialist economic bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, with the Soviet Union following. With it went the vast majority of Cuba’s trading partners, as the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade. Imports of fuel, pesticides, oil, fertilisers, and food all fell massively. Cuban farm yields dropped by between 15-50%, and the average Cuban citizen suffered a weight loss of 20 pounds. Malnutrition was widespread.

These events led to what was called the “Special Period”, a “wartime economy style austerity program” that lasted for around a decade. A detailed analysis of Cuba’s economy and agriculture during the Special Period is beyond the scope of this article, so the focus will be on how urban agriculture contributed to coping with and solving the crisis.

Peter Rosset, a food rights activist and agroecologist, sums up the importance of urban agriculture well:

“There can be no doubt that urban farming, relying almost exclusively on organic techniques, has played a key role in assuring the food security of Cuban families” [x]

Urban agriculture was virtually non-existent prior to the Cuban Special Period, and was in fact “perceived by many as a sign of poverty and underdevelopment“. Absolute necessity dictated a change, and during the Special Period President Fidel Castro “proclaimed that no piece of land should be left uncultivated“.

By 1998 there were “8,000 gardens in Havana, cultivated by over 30,000 people and creating 160,000 jobs, and by 2001 this had resulted in urban gardens supplying “about 60% of all the vegetables consumed in Cuba.” In doing so they provided “nearly enough fresh produce to meet minimum daily standards set by the UN FAO.” Urban agriculture has increased food production in a time of need whilst encouraging ecologically benign cultivation methods such as organic fertilisation, crop rotation, and integrated pest management.

Urban agriculture in Cuba has not been without problems however. There are still issues of poor quality urban topsoil and water scarcity during the November – April dry season, as well as more generic problems of contamination, weeds, and insect pests. It is extremely heterogeneous and in some cases still uses biocides (because of this “most Cubans preferred to refer to Cuban farming as ‘agroecology’ as opposed to ‘organic agriculture“). Despite these problems however, urban agriculture helped to avoid famine in a crucial period in Cuba’s recent history, and went beyond simply improving food security:

“Using manual instead of mechanical labour urban agriculture mitigated unemployment by providing work. By strengthening neighbourhood cohesion, solidarity, morale and community pride it helped soften the psychosocial impact of the crisis.” [x]

Other examples

The UK (especially England) has had a history of urban agriculture in the form of allotments, which first existed as a response to food shortages (for example during wartime) but more recently have helped to promote local food and self-sufficiency. However despite increased demand for allotment spaces for food gardening and recreation, urbanisation (especially in cities like London) is “further decreasing the amount of allotment land” available to citizens. More recent projects include Incredible Edible Todmorden (video here), an urban gardening project that helps promote local food in West Yorkshire, and the GrowUp Box founded in 2013 to “to build sustainable commercial urban farms growing food for local markets”.

A few notable examples from the US include The Plant, Chicago’s biggest urban farm which grows “more than 200 varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables and herbs” and aims to “provide more than 125 green jobs” for the local area. Additionally, there is Ohio City Farm, a a six-acre inholding which promotes skill-building and community cohesion, the Beacon Food Forest, and the Brooklyn Grange Farm, the “leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US.”

Examples outside the “West” include small start-up farms in Shanghai,Chinahydroponic vegetable gardens in Vietnam, government-backed urban agriculture projects in Rosario, Argentina, and NGO-supported urban agriculture in Bangkok, Thailand.

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2 thoughts on “Urban Agriculture: a brief primer

  1. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Five) | Fighting The Biocrisis

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