Urban Agriculture:

Green And Healthy Cities

By Jac Smit: MCP, AICP

(This is an expanded version of the article the author wrote for 'Our Planet' the UNEP's bimonthly magazine on the environment and sustainable development, Fall 1996

A day in the life of an urban farmer:

Its Tuesday morning, and like every other morning of the week Ms Luna is feeding her chickens and guinea pigs leftovers from her family's and the neighbors' Monday meals. Before returning to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, she checks the fence around her one-tenth of an acre [4 % of a hectare] home-plot for damage by the community's free ranging goats. At the end of the day we find her again tending her crops: raised beds of vegetables, cucumbers and zucchini vines on the fences and trellised walls, and seedlings and herbs in hydroponic flats on the roof.

Ms Luna in Valparizo raises one-third of her family's nutritional needs during the year. This one-third includes two-thirds of their protein and micronutrient requirements. In addition to creating a healthy diet for her family, she raises culinary and medicinal herbs which are sold at retail by a grocer near her husband's job, on a consignment basis. A third activity we note is that Ms Luna produces her own fertilizer by composting her family and the neighbors' organic waste and using grey water from the kitchen and bath for irrigation.

Before leaving we note that Ms Luna's small plot is green from boundary to boundary and that it is far cleaner and a bit cooler than others in the neighborhood. If we could stay we would learn that her children are far healthier than the average for her low-income community.

On a recent study tour to 20 countries for the UNDP the author 'discovered' that there are hundreds of millions of urban Ms Luna's in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America as well as in Latin America. Nine out of ten families in Nairobi, who have access to land, are food producers. In a somewhat richer country, two of three families in Greater Moscow raise food. How about wealthy countries? In the USA 16 million families in urban and suburban census tracts raise vegetables, that's almost one-in-three of all American urban families.

21st century urban food security prospect:

Readers of "Our Planet" are well versed in the dire world 'future-view' of food and the agriculture related environment. UNICEF tells us that 800 million, one sixth of the world population, suffers from inadequate diets. UNCHS projects that urban population will increase from 45 percent to 65 percent between 1990 and 2020, and it will double in many developing countries, where most of these new city dwellers will appear. Urbanization is doing the best in Africa where economic growth is the slowest. Land is being converted from rural to urban land use at three to five times the rate of urban population growth, as city expansion is largely unplanned and dispersed. In sum, our future seems likely to include more urban hunger in lower density cities.

The UNEP [GLASOD study] finds that three-fifths of all agricultural cropland world-wide is degraded with percentages of 65 in Africa, 50 in Latin America and 40 in Asia. Land degradation could decrease crop yields by one seventh by 2020, and much more than that in certain countries and sub-regions. The World Bank warns us of looming water shortages for agriculture, particularly in the Middle East, China, and large parts of Africa.

Common intelligence now-a-days suggests that these problems can effectively be resolved through 'technology', and we do not disagree. We accept that technology, well applied, can solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition, and the problems of land degradation and water shortages as well. However, from the point of view of an urban farmer like Ms Luna, the technological solution appears risky, slow, expensive and perhaps incomplete for her family and neighbors in the urban South.

What if? in addition to pursuing the technological fix, the world puts its intelligence, research, and investment into empowering Ms Luna and hundreds of millions of other urban farmers [increasing in numbers every day] to produce more within their home-lots, communities, cities and megalapoli? What would the world environment look like if towns and cities produced half of their nutritional needs. And that is not a difficult target to achieve by 2020 in many countries.

What if? urban waste, which is 70 percent organic, was transformed, within the city and peri-urban areas, into biodiversity, greenery and food? Perhaps the possibilities of urban agriculture have been noticed many times and set aside, as being so obvious that: "it must have been studied and found wanting by someone else".

Should cities produce food?

Many of us have come to believe that it is "cast in stone" that food is produced in [remote] rural areas and that farming is inappropriate in towns and cities. During the 1970s a few specialists in development began to notice and report that there was an increase in farming in cities. The author first became aware of this phenomenon, as a Ford Foundation urban advisor, in 1968 in Calcutta. This large, dense city produces over one-third of the fish and vegetables consumed, largely using urban waste as a resource for production.

In the middle 1980s, at long last, a global urban agriculture study was undertaken by the UN University, by Drs. Ignacy Sachs and Dana Silk, "The Food-Energy Nexus". This study produced 32 papers, 24 published, from 25 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Studies in the next few years, many funded by IDRC of Canada, found that the phenomenon 'discovered' by the UNU was spreading and increasing. It seemed that as city populations grew in hot and cold climates, and in command and open economies, urban agriculture grew even more rapidly.

Urban food security is increasingly dependent on increasingly longer supply lines, operating on fossil fuels, feeding growing cities from shrinking land and water resources. Macro-economists assure us it will all work out IF the urban residents have enough money to pay for the food. In African cities, and many other in other regions, half of the total economy is informal or non-money.

In Mrs. Luna's community three quarters of the economy is not in "the coin of the realm". Her neighbors can buy from her through barter but they can not buy from global agri-business. And cities are growing faster than the formal economy in many countries. Perhaps urban food security in the 21st century will depend in part on locally grown and raised food, and that production may be based more on local resources than fossil fuel. One could conclude that it would be prudent for a city with low-income residents facing food insecurity, to convert its waste and idle land into food and green. And the technology to do that is well known and tested.

Urban agriculture produces products for the daily urban market. It does not specialize in cattle or cereal crops, with exceptions, but perishable products. The crops vary according to the availability of infrastructure [transport and storage] and the establishment of a formal [money] economy. Urban agriculture is typically intensive, producing three to 15 times as much per hectare as common rural methods. It is more organic and sustainable than rural agriculture, two reasons being that urban waste is more abundant than rural waste and the urban farmer's labor intensive methods use less land and water per unit of production than industrial agriculture.

There may be no either/or in the future of agriculture, rural:urban or technology:sustainable. We may optimize the reduction of hunger, spread of economic development and environmental conservation by advancing even-handedly technological research, rural development [including off-farm activities] and urban agriculture [emphasizing food security and environmental enhancement].

In China 40 percent of the jobs in cities are categorized as agriculture. In Mozambique's capital Maputo it is about 30 percent. Fifty thousand Berliners rent land to produce crops and there are 14,000 on the waiting list. Sixty-eight percent of all families in Dar es Salaam were food producers in 1988, up from 18 percent in 1968. Many cities are self-sufficient in vegetables including Shanghai and Bamako, Mali.

The reverse of a hundred-year trend, to separate where we live from where we produce our food, has slowly begun to gain the support of government. On the side of that, urban agriculture has not yet gained support from the agricultural research and education institutions or agribusiness, with but few exceptions.

Cuba did a 180 degree turn on its strong stand against urban food production in 1990. Today there are programs to assist would-be city farmers [Cuba is 80 percent urban in population] to access public land, seeds and inputs, extension services, and markets. There are even two TV programs a week for the urban farmer. Argentina began the pro Huerta 'community farming' program in 1990 with 50,000 participants and 100 partner institutions. Within five years it grew to 550,000 participants and 1,100 partner institutions.

The United States congress passed the Community Food Security Act in 1996 which specifically encourages, and funds, nutritional self-reliance in urban communities. Harare Zimbabwe dropped its anti-urban agriculture policy and program, on an interim basis, in 1992. Within two years the area in green cultivation had doubled, with no reported negative impacts and many benefits.

In Ahmedabad India the city decided to cut costs by allowing urban families to farm in the 'green belt'. The program has been very successful in the areas of food security, employment, reducing municipal budget, and greening the city. The African National Congress, a political party in South Africa, had urban agriculture in its platform when it won the election in 1991. That platform plank is now the policy of the Government and urban farmers are being supported by hundreds of NGOs, dozens of towns and cities, several provinces and the national Ministry of Agriculture.

Is farming in the city a risky business?

The risks to society of producing food where we live are not great. The recent episodes of radish sprout school-lunch contamination in Japan and vegetable contamination in Peru are rare and avoidable. With the introduction and expansion of a new industry new methods of monitoring and regulation are required. Indicators and measures need to be established for different climates, economies and cuisines. Regulatory staff need to be retrained and reassigned. Rural methodologies will have some inadequacies. Urban intensity of production and proximity to habitation require more careful monitoring.

The benefits of Urban Agriculture:

What are the benefits of agriculture as a resource for food security, an urban industry, a land use, and an environmental intervention? Are those benefits likely to be more or less significant in the 21st century? Who benefits? Who loses? What's the risk?

Agriculture in the human settlement benefits the soil. The regeneration of the biodiversity of the soil provides the base for many other health and quality of life benefits. The soil of the city is enriched by the agricultural transformation of solid waste and waste water into food and fuel.

A city with agriculture is greener and cooler. The biological transformation of waste and conversion of barren land to a green, productive landscape contributes to a clean healthy city, especially in the first meter above the soil where our children spend their days. Raising livestock and growing crops in cities closes open nutrient [polluting] loops. A sustainable city may not be feasible without agriculture in the city. Agriculture in the city reduces the city's 'ecological footprint' and conserves the environment of rural areas.

Agriculture is a basic industry that broadens the economic base of a city, and enables it to buy more from rural areas. The jobs in urban agriculture are disproportionately in favor of women, youth and the elderly. Agriculture in the city feeds the processing and marketing sectors with a minimal demand on transport and infrastructure. In cities like Hanoi and Kinshasa food is half the total economy and local production has tremendous importance to families and administrators. In cities like Zurich, where food is only ten to 15 percent of the economy, it has three or more times that importance in consumption of natural resources.

Food production in low-income urban communities has substantial benefits in food security, nutrition and health. In situations where families go hungry three to ten days a month [from Los Angeles to Nairobi] having physical rather than money access to food in one's own or a friend's farm has been found to be an effective food security intervention. Sarajevo being the premier example of the 1990s.

Farming in the open spaces of a community brings a community together. Farming is not enclosed by walls. Farming requires cooperation/partnership and creates community. Perhaps the greatest benefit in the 21st century of urban farming will turn out to be its capacity to reconnect urban man with nature.

The first benefit of urban agriculture is to the small-scale producer. The last benefit is to the planet as urban footprints are shrunken and open-loop systems are converted to closed-loop systems. Returning agriculture to the city, as it was in other civilizations, hurts no one. It is part of a reasonable shift in functions between the rural and urban spheres.


The information age and computer managed manufacturing is moving former urban functions to rural areas. Furniture is now-a-days made in the forest against daily e-mail orders. The finished product is shipped to the city, not the raw material. And food can be produced, without shipping and handling costs, where the demand is, in town.

Our modern civilization has available hundreds of years of positive experience in urban agriculture. This is best carried forward in Chinese and Japanese literature. It is being rediscovered in Inca, Aztec and Mayan texts and sites. And it is available in excellent texts from the 19th century. Combining these resources with the leading-edge research going on today, augurs well for further green, healthy cities in balance with nature.

Ms Luna, and her hundreds of millions of peers farming in cities, are looking forward to the benefits of genetically improved crops, [designed for urban situations], improved access to land and markets, support in accessing and processing urban solid and liquid wastes [privatized waste management], and the availability of appropriate extension advice and credit, like other businesses. And last but not least, the urban farmers are ready to make a contribution to a better urban world.

Diagram: Future World-View Of Food Security:

Simply three elements increase demand.

Food Demand

Two elements decrease capacity to satisfy demand.

Crop Land
Water For Irrigation

And two methods are presented to increase capacity.

Urban Agriculture

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Updated November 19, 1996

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