Urban Agriculture, Progress and Prospect: 1975-2005
by Jac Smit (TUAN)
For the past fifteen to twenty years urban agriculture (UA) has been expanding globally, more rapidly than urban populations, and in many countries more rapidly than their economies. This paper takes a brief look at this historic phenomenon and looks ahead to the year 2000 for the significance of a continuance of this trend, and possible changes in the trend.
Policy shapers and those who make decisions about towns and cities are asking questions: Is urban agriculture a sign of progress or retrogression? Does it promote a healthy city or cause disease? Who are the urban farmers? Are they a part of the instability in cities, or are they contributing to the stability of the social and economic structure? How do towns and cities go about regulating and/or promoting urban agriculture? Is urban agriculture good or bad for the agriculture industry in my country?
From Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe we have been receiving reports since the mid-1980s of the accelerating growth of urban farming. In Mozambique, the 1980 census found that close to one in three urban workers held jobs in agriculture. In Cuba, after the change in relationship with the Soviet Union, urban agriculture -- in a country that has an 80 percent urban population -- spread from factory site, to roadside, to homesite and the planned greenbelts around towns and cities. In Bangladesh a new program is producing livestock and fish food in urban sewage-fed ponds. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the 1990s metropolitan master plan includes agriculture as a major planned land use. On the other side of the globe, Moscow reports that the share of resident families engaged in food production increased from 20 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 1990.
Urban agriculture is increasing in newly independent countries, and in countries that have young capitalistic economies. It has expanded as well under socialist economies. Poland reported a doubling from 1975 to 1985. It is doing well in rapidly urbanizing countries and in countries that are ecologically limited, by shortages of water or arable soil, for example. Thus, it is important in dry Tunisia and mountainous Nepal.
The world's wealthiest nations, as well as the poorest, are sharing in the global trend to an increasing share of the agriculture pie going to urban farmers. From 1980 to 1990 urban agriculture grew by 17 percent in the USA. In that decade in Japan, the number of families participating in CSAs (Consumer Supported Agriculture) increased from five million to eight million. Urban families cooperating in this way with typically suburban farmers grew even more rapidly in Switzerland. In the Randstadt megapolis of Holland, an ever increasing number of farms have been converted from rural to urban production methods, as the city spreads in narrowly defined corridors. In Dubai, on the Persian Gulf, a wealthy Prince captures the city's sewage in a million-cubic-meter tank and produces fresh fish for hotels and gourmet shops.
Youth in South-central Los Angeles, the South Bronx in New York City, Cabrini Greens in central Chicago and in many smaller cities in the US are taking up agriculture as enterprise. In New England 19th century textile mills are being converted into mushroom caves, fish tanks and hydroponic green houses. In old England the steel mills of Sheffield are generating jobs and fresh vegetables that compete in the market with imports from warmer climates.
In summary, what is going on in an urbanizing world in the final quarter of the 20th century, is the reversal of a 100-year trend that separated farming and human settlements, since the arrival of both the modern industrial city and modern industrial agriculture in the 19th century. It has a different appearance in Kuwait and Kinshasa, Zaire, but it shares more similarities than differences.
The argument can be made that city and regional policy can either be shaped around regulating urban agriculture or regulating and promoting urban agriculture. The options of doing nothing or stamping it out, are not viable. Doing nothing is risky as health crises can be caused by unregulated farming in the city. Doing nothing can benefit those who need government support the least, and hurt those who most need the benefits of urban agriculture, the poor. Attempts to stamp it out or accelerate its demise have failed on a hundred fronts, best documented perhaps in southern Africa (Zimbabwe). Attempts to stamp it out promote poor practice, inefficiency, less desirable crops, and generate opportunities lost.
A policy of benign regulation can reap tremendous benefits. In Harare, sanctions were lifted temporarily in 1992. Within two years, the area cultivated had doubled and the number of farmers more than doubled. Municipal costs for landscape maintenance and waste management were down, food prices were down, and hundreds of jobs had been created. Several benefits were gained from only a change in policy, not new positive government programs. Similar policy-related benefits are documented in Lusaka and Accra, in the 1970s.
It is possible, based on studies in 30 countries and perusal of hundreds of documents, to come to some fairly reliable forecasts, if half or more of our assumptions about continuing trends are not overturned [see Table 2: 2005 Urban agriculture forecast/scenario].
We may expect that the number of urban farmers producing for the market will double from about 200 million in the early 1990s to 400 million by 2005. This would include an increase in urban production from one-third to one-half of all vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products consumed in the city.