Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


What Would the World be Like
in the 21st Century if Cities
Were Nutritionally Self-Reliant?

The prospect for Urban Agriculture

By Jac Smit, President
jac smit
The Urban Agriculture Network
Washington DC, USA
(Copyright 1996)

This is an excerpt from a paper (30 pages) presented at a Global Roundtable in Marmaris, Turkey [UNDP & UNCHS] on April 20, 1996. The Table of Contents follows the excerpted passages.


I. Introduction:

The past 20 years have witnessed a reversal of a 150-year trend towards greater and greater separation of human settlements from the sources of their food production. As our cities grow larger they are producing a greater share of their food demand. And a greater share of their citizens are becoming active in food production.

At the time of Habitat II (June, 1996) it may be useful to consider the prospects of: the Earth Summit, the Social Summit, the Population Summit, the Women's Summit and the Food Summit within the prospect of cities feeding themselves rather than the more familiar symbiotic relationship in which food production is rural and cities are industrially based.

At Habitat II each official delegate will receive the book: Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs, and Sustainable Cities. Among the more surprising findings of this five-year UNDP supported study are these:

Studies by the United Nations University, the United States Department of Agriculture, Canada's IDRC, ATSAF in Germany, CIRDAP in Bangladesh, AVRDC in Taiwan, and many Universities from Ithaca to Pretoria and Tokyo to Buenos Aries are reporting that urban food production is growing more rapidly than urban population.

As we consider a dominantly urban Earth early in the next century, in a world with less land and water per-capita, the return of agriculture to where we live presents us with a new paradigm.

What if "waste is food" and sewage and garbage were prime inputs to food production? What if the urban landscape were edible? What if vacant, waste land in cities were productive and enhancing the environment for living? What if urban areas were increasing biodiversity rather than diminishing it?


II. One Scenario of the 21st Century City:

On every continent, in rich and poor countries, cities are de-densifying. Communications and transport technology are making a contribution to the replacement of the 19th century "industrial" 'gridiron' and 'core-and-corridors' patterns of urbanization. The replacement is a 'nodes-and-links' network pattern. This pattern is much looser and intrinsically allows for a closer fit between man and biosphere. We have applied many negative labels to this transformation of human settlements: sprawl, edge city, urban decay, and urbanization. Too few have recognized a metamorphosis with beneficial possibilities.

The basis of this brief scenario is the concept of the human settlement as a ecologically closed-loop system -- closing the nutrient and carbon loops -- in which all waste is transformed into food, green, biodiversity, and recycled products. It is a scenario that has a planetary impact of reducing the land and water devoted to food production, in the next 40 years, by one-third while the population of the Earth increases by two-thirds. It contributes to the restoration of the deserts and expansion of the rain forests while reintegrating urban families with nature.

The scenario accomplishes these ends by increasing the intensity of production of fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry and small livestock by a factor of four to six and integrating this production within human settlements. A world is envisaged where both manufacturing and agriculture are distributed equally between urban and rural settings. A world in which food systems and settlement systems are more closely integrated.

The urban landscape of 2035 may have the following characteristics:

All of these agricultural areas are 'ecological regeneration' zones which transform waste into food and biodiversity.

The characteristics of the 21st century city with this more productive land use pattern is one with fertile soil contributing to increased biodiversity and a major shift towards being a green and healthy city. This eco-city is already evolving. We just haven't noticed. And too often our policies and investment have been hindering its emergence.


IX. Conclusions:

Many cities are taking up the banner of sustainabilty. This requires that these cities participate in a national and global resources conservation effort. This paper presents a scenario and trend data that suggests that cities can be transformed from being only consumers of food and other agricultural products, into important resource-conserving, health-improving, sustainable generators of these products.

The relationship between urban agriculture and resources can be described as being three-pronged.

Urban agriculture in Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe is growing [1980s] more rapidly than population, urbanization or the economy. The benefits to urban environments, that have been identified, but not studied, from urban agriculture have been ignored, relative to the recognition of its social benefits. There may be environmental benefits unrecognized and under exploited. This may be the most dynamic aspect of urban agriculture.

It seems likely that neither sustainable agriculture nor sustainable human settlements are feasible without urban agriculture. This may be so in part because:

As an urban economic activity agriculture has attractive attributes. It creates jobs at low capital investment. It is a 'basic' industry that stimulates growth in forward and backward links. It is a sub-sector in the agriculture and food industries which increases their efficiency and productivity. It is an industry that assists government in avoiding costs in land and waste management. And altogether increases the size of the urban economic pie.

The relationship of urban agriculture and low-income groups is particularly positive. It advances well-being for low-income families as they have better access to food and income. It contributes to health through nutrition and improved environment, resulting in more days at school and more days at work per year. It is an industry of choice for women, particularly as micro-enterprise. It is a good hedge against inflation. And it is a survival activity in times of civil and natural disaster.

Urban managers by-and-large have not been doing a good job of either regulating or supporting urban agriculture. Without the support of local government the industry cannot achieve its potential. Much needs to be studied and improved in how municipal and metropolitan governments manage this industry for environmental, economic and social benefits.

A shift is underway in the 150-year trend to separate cities and their source of nutrition. Habitat II and the Food [security] Summit provide an opening to allow supra-national policy and program to bring optimization strategies to focus the trend of urban agriculture towards the greatest benefit to all, and particularly the biosphere.


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

- An inquiry

II. A 21st Century Scenario

III. Global Urbanization and Food:

- Africa, Latin America and Asia
- Trends in production, and support

IV. Environment and Natural Resources:

- Slums and peri-urban areas
- Negative impacts and regulations
- Urban forestry
- Closing open ecological loops
- Conserving energy

V. Economics:

- Urban waste is an agriculture input
- Micro-enterprise
- Women urban farmers
- Land rent, opportunity cost of land
- The national economy

VI. Urban Poverty

- Low-income farmers
- Malnutrition & Health
- The Participatory Community
- Natural and civic disasters

VII. Urban Management:

- Regulating Urban Agriculture
- Cost Avoidance
- Waste management

VIII. Public-private Partnerships:

IX. Conclusions:

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Revised June 19, 1998

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture