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


Urban Agriculture And Sustainable Cities

By Alexandra Woodsworth

The conditions of city life are such that many urbanites are never aware of the complex relationships between humans and the Earth. Days spent in glass towers, crawling traffic and crowded supermarkets do not facilitate an understanding of the extent to which city dwellers depend on a hidden, external agricultural system. Although few truly grasp the importance of the urban-rural connection to their daily diet, even fewer realize that viable alternatives exist to the conventional model of urban food supply. Urban agriculture is beginning to be viewed as an alternative with enormous potential, and not merely as a contradiction in terms. Today's cities suffer from a broad range of problems which are symptomatic of underlying failures in our progressive-industrial society. Urban agriculture can address some of these difficulties, and can work towards building socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable cities for British Columbia.

Definitions of urban agriculture range from simple to complex, and often include relationships between the city and its hinterland. I will focus only on agricultural functions which occur in the urban environment, and will discuss the benefits of "food production for cities . . . in cities," specifically Vancouver and Victoria (Rees, 1997, p. 4). The general public often views community gardening as the heart of city farming; however, the variety of initiatives which exist are as diverse as the range of plants which flourish in gardens across BC.

LifeCycles, a Victoria-based organization which advocates the importance of informed food choices to a healthy planet, has in a very short time implemented an array of successful urban agricultural programs. The Hive demonstration site provides hands-on learning in the areas of organic growing and composting in the city; the Growing Schools program teaches kids, parents and the community about the origins of food and helps them to set up organic gardens in schoolyards; the Shared Backyards initiative matches up landless gardeners with available backyard garden plots; and the HomeGrown project helps low-income families build balcony or backyard vegetable gardens which provide them with a cheap source of nutritious food (LifeCycles, no page or date). Although these programs are by no means the only solutions to our many urban problems, they have educated, empowered, and inspired many people to make significant changes in their eating and purchasing habits. While such changes may not be immediately noticeable on a large scale, they work toward solving some of our most basic sustainability issues.

Critics of urban agriculture claim that it is idealistic and impractical, citing problems of land acquisition, tenure, and allocation. However, there are over 6 500 acres of cultivable land in Vancouver, which is more than enough to feed its growing population (Laurence, 1996, p. 4). Provincially, the amount of active farmland is equal to the acreage of urban backyards; thus by simply using an available resource, BC could double its agricultural output (Bomford, 1999, no page). While cities may appear to lack the space and the necessary environment to grow vegetables or flowers, they contain enormous potential for sustainable food production.

Today's cities operate on a throughput model, in which resources are imported and wastes are exported. Urban agriculture can help to close the loop between inputs and outputs by converting what are traditionally viewed as waste products into food and fuel, thus lowering the size of the city's ecological footprint. For example, sewage sludge from treatment plants can be added to other organic byproducts such as leaf litter, garden trimmings, and food scraps. When composted, this mixture yields a rich mulch which can be used as fertilizer to nurture the growth of quality organic edibles in urban gardens (Laurence, 1996, p. 5). The convergence of producer and consumer which occurs with localized food production also reduces the need for intakes from the larger resource stream, lowers the amount of pollution generated by long-distance transportation, and conserves energy normally lost to the system (Barrs, 1996, p. 17). This is achieved when the processing, packaging, transporting, and storing activities of the traditional agricultural model are bypassed for the growing and harvesting of produce in a single location by a few individuals (Nugent, 1997, p. 6). Finally, the limited space available in the urban environment necessitates small scale farming, which, unlike large agri-business, is suited to sustainable cultivation techniques such as companion planting, crop rotation, and mulching (Brule, 1986, p. 27).

Such eco-friendly growing methods do not rely on large quantities of biocides or the genetic modification of crops. Therefore, locally adapted seed varieties can be planted which both preserve biodiversity and yield a healthy and chemical-free harvest (Laurence, 1996, p. 10). Furthermore, the byproducts of organic gardening do not contaminate soils or nearby streams with harmful pesticides or herbicides.

Backyards, community gardens, and rooftop plots constitute oases in the urban landscape: they are flashes of life and colour in the concrete jungle. These sites also address some of the problems inherent in an urban environment, and "replace some of what the urban systems destroy" (Nugent, 1997, p. 6). City gardens mitigate storm water runoff, rejuvenate toxic soils, block the transmission of urban noise, clear the air by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide, and control temperatures via shade and transpiration (Laurence, 1996, p. 9). As well, they provide resting points for migratory birds and long-term habitats for hundreds of species of insects. This is especially important on Vancouver Island, where the bee population has declined over 80% in the past five years (Strand, 1999, no page). Because bees are critical to the pollination of plants in both urban and rural farms, their recovery is essential to the larger agricultural system and to the success of city gardens. Although the current status of urban agriculture allows it to operate sustainably, city farmers must be wary of falling prey to the ecological problems of conventional farming methods. Urban gardens should be used to educate people about natural growing and viable alternatives to the agro-industrial complex, and must therefore take care not to become a part of it.

When examined by the neoclassical economic model, Canada's agricultural system represents an efficient, intelligent, and profitable means of food production. However, the acceptance of the validity of this analytical lens is responsible for widespread environmental degradation, threats to our local and global food security, and the unjust concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few multinational agri-businesses. Because these large corporations have the advantage of economies of scale, they can undersell local farmers by a wide margin. This is unfair to the small growers, and it drains the regional economy of disposable currency (Laurence, 1996, p. 7). As well, the rock-bottom prices offered by the multinationals are all that can be afforded by many low-income individuals; thus the current system denies all but the wealthy the choice to buy locally-produced food.

Families on a restricted budget can give themselves this option by growing their foodstuffs in their own backyard: in Victoria, a typical well-maintained garden can yield enough organic, nutritious produce to feed an entire family over the five-month growing season (LifeCycles, no date, no page). The HomeGrown project in Victoria provides low-income families with the seeds, tools, and knowledge to start their own organic garden, and teams of volunteers are available for ongoing support. LifeCycles has found that these small gardens not only relieve a significant financial burden, but also help to foster a sense of self-sufficiency and accomplishment (LifeCycles, no page, no date).

The spirit of urban agriculture also represents a return to an older meaning of business, one which involved mutual interdependence and assistance, one in which trade was a system of distributing resources and nothing more, one in which currency had no inherent value. In urban community gardens, people share more than a plot of land: they share seeds and produce, tools and skills, time and knowledge. Although quantifiable economic activity rarely takes place, many functions occur which are conventionally viewed as transactions or services for which a fee must be exacted and paid. The LifeCycles Shared Backyards program is an example of a system which successfully provides measurable economic benefits without the intermediary of the free market and its trappings. While the current urban agricultural network is best suited to non-monetary exchanges, it could eventually become a valuable addition to the local economy, in terms of both employment and capital accumulation (Barrs, 1991, p. 34). Urban farmers could target their produce to the growing niche market which demands organic, local, and environmentally friendly foodstuffs. These types of small businesses would integrate well into the new community development models which are being investigated as alternatives to urban sprawl and decay.

Building a sense of community is an important aspect of urban agriculture, and cohesive neigbourhoods of civic-minded people are essential in the development of sustainable cities. Community ties are created and strengthened when people come together for a common purpose in oases of natural beauty, openness, and security. These characteristics are especially important for inner city residents who live in cramped apartment buildings with cement backyards.

Often getting the permission to build community gardens involves lobbying municipal governments to grant access to the land; once acquired, urban farmers must frequently fight to keep possession. This type of involvement in the political arena can help to empower people who might otherwise be intimidated by the city's administrative machine. Meeting with success at a local level can cause them to realize that they can make their voices heard by those in power, and they may become more willing to take on larger projects with broader mandates and global consequences. This is one step towards avoiding the tragedy of the urban commons: when we work with our neighbours to achieve a shared goal and we see that others are making a considerable effort, it no longer seems illogical for us to do the same, and our personal contributions no longer seem so insignificant.

The simple act of gardening can enhance the physical and spiritual health of individuals of all ages, abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and social classes. More important, it involves people actively engaging with their environment rather than examining it from a detached and domineering perspective. In other words, gardening can work to break down the artificially created barrier between humans and nature. According to deep ecologists, people who do not perceive this division begin to care as much about their environment as they do about their individual selves. People living their lives with this kind of awareness will begin to create a chain reaction of change which could alter our current path from one of ecological destruction to ecological sustainability. While this is an extreme view, it must be noted that nurturing plants and watching them flourish creates a strong connection to the earth; and it requires only a small intellectual leap to realize that to protect your own patch of the Earth you must protect it in its entirety.

In the overwhelming and circular maze of problems that we face today, I see two key changes that are required: a reaffirmation of the value of small-scale businesses and communities, and the need to overcome individual apathy and make sustainable lifestyle choices on a personal level. While these are lofty goals which require both localized and systemic changes, I believe that the many facets of urban agriculture can begin to address these needs. Because the world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and because city dwellers usually have the most significant environmental impact, alterations in the attitudes and practices of urbanites will go a long way towards solving our ecological crisis. As an increasingly viable alternative to Canada's conventional agro-industrial complex, urban agriculture has a wide range of environmental, economic, and social advantages. As an expression of BC's need and desire for sustainable development, the expansion of the urban agricultural networks in our cities will state that we are ready to make our gardens grow.


Barrs, Robert. 1999. Sustainable Urban Food Production in the City of Vancouver. Urban Agriculture Notes

Bomford, Mark. October 1999. "Building Sustainable Food Systems." Presentation.

Brule, Liz. 1986. Urban Agriculture. Probe Post 26-29.

LifeCycles. 1995-1999. The Hive Demonstration Site; HomeGrown; Grow-a-Row; Growing Schools; Victoria Bioregional Organic Food Guide. Pamphlets.

Laurence, Joseph. 1996. Urban Agriculture. Source Unknown 1-13.

Nugent, Rachel. 1997. The Significance of Urban Agriculture. Urban Agriculture Notes 1-14.

Rees, William E. 1997. Why Urban Agriculture? Urban Agriculture Notes 1-7.

Strand, Matt (LifeCycles). November 1999. "Environmental and Economic Benefits of Urban Agriculture."Interview.

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Revised Monday, March 5, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture