17 September 2016

Can urban agriculture be part of the food solution?

In the debate around the food issue, there has been an increasing number of voices who have put forward urban agriculture as an important part of the solution. What are the arguments that support this view?

A report of a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reviews potential benefits and limitations of urban agriculture. “Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots - a review of the benefits and limitations of urban agriculture” published in May 2016, concludes that the main benefits that can be expected from urban agriculture are not really a sizable contribution to the production of food for urban dwellers. Rather, the authors emphasize, based on an extensive review of available literature, that the main contribution of urban agriculture is found in the social field where it helps build social capital as well as “social and political skills… such as community organizing, fundraising, and consensus decision making [that] can empower residents to begin tackling other issues in their communities and beyond”. Urban agriculture can nevertheless help change the relation between people and food.

In the study, urban agriculture is captured through its most frequent expression, community gardens and through its more occasional “technologically innovative forms such as rooftop gardens and greenhouses, indoor and vertical farms, edible green walls, and aquaponics facilities, [that] are still in the early stages of research and practice”. The authors of the report state that “while urban agriculture alone will not solve the many dilemmas of our food system, … it can be part of a constellation of interventions needed to reform the food system into one that is more socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable”. But, “gardens may serve more as cultural and social neighborhood centers than as agricultural production sites”. They can trigger a change of relation between consumers and their food by “reconnecting urban consumers to food production and … [helping] foster agricultural literacy.”

Authors make an extensive inventory of the benefits of urban agriculture in several domains. They are summarised below:

  1. In the domain of community cohesion and development, benefits include:

        1. opportunities for social interaction and social ties

        2. catalyzing processes to organise communities

        3. offering a venue for social interactions.

    1. In the domain of cultural integration and preservation, benefits include opportunities:

        1. for people of different backgrounds, to interact

        2. for migrants to meet with their host community

        3. for expressing and maintaining culture heritage

        4. for different generations to strengthen their interrelationships.

    2. In the domain of education and youth development, urban agriculture provides opportunities for learning about the provenance of food, agriculture and nutrition, and for developing new skills.

    3. In the domain of local ecosystem services advantages include:

        1. increased biodiversity

        2. provision of habitats for pollinators

        3. micro-climate regulation and reduced air pollution

        4. recycling of organic waste (through composting).

    4. In the area of climate mitigation:

        1. reduced food transportation and of related greenhouse gas emission

        2. carbon sequestration by plants.

The report also points at some of the limitations of urban agriculture, including lack of local social and technical expertise which may lead to practices that are not socially or ecologically sound, externally driven processes which limit local social impact, exclusion of some population groups and lack of political support.

From an individual health perspective, the report also mentions some positive aspects (increased physical activity as well as improved mental health and well-being) and risks of urban agriculture, such as consumption of food contaminated by heavy metals and other toxic elements that are present in an urban environment.

These findings, authors recognise, are mainly representative of urban agriculture in rich countries, particularly in North America.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is of the opinion that, in a “developing” country context, urban agriculture has an important role to play in food security. It estimates at 800 million, the number of people involved in urban and peri-urban agriculture, for whom this activity helps to save money on food purchases and to diversify their diet by giving them access to horticultural products. However, rapid urban development that leads in many cases to the establishment of huge overpopulated slums in the periphery of megacities is not conducive to the emergence of urban agriculture, because of lack of space. FAO therefore argues that the development of urban agriculture in the South will require more urban planning and the establishment of “green cities”. The Organization has been helping governments to promote “irrigated commercial market gardening on urban peripheries, simple hydroponic micro-gardens in slum areas, and green rooftops in densely populated city centres.

The Netherlands-based RUAF Foundation is of the opinion that urban agriculture can have an impact on food security through improved diets (vegetables) and generation of additional income. It can improve economic conditions of population groups involved, foster social integration and achieve better environmental management of cities.

So? Can urban agriculture be part of the food solution?

It is our view, at that while urban agriculture can be part of the food solution, it will only be marginal in terms of its contribution to actual food production.

In rich countries, the main role urban agriculture could play in the resolution of the food issue is to provide opportunities for urban dwellers to remain connected and informed on food production and thus make of them more responsible consumers while empowering them to influence the food system at large. But even in this case, the number of people involved is bound to be limited as many urban dwellers say that they do not even have time to cook their food and prefer to buy cheap low quality ready-cooked food from supermarkets. So how could they possibly be involved in urban agriculture? The most likely participants in urban agriculture in this context could be youths (through their school), highly motivated activists and retired people who have more free time and seek ways to maintain and develop social links. The “pedagogic” function of urban agriculture seems to us therefore much more important that its productive function, even though this latter aspect could be of importance in cities where sufficient space is made available.

In poor countries, urban agriculture has always been part of the coping strategy in times of crisis. For example, at the height of the economic crisis in Ghana in the 80’s and 90’s, many urban dwellers, including government officials, were keeping poultry in their home. During the 2007/08 food crisis, our television screens were full of pictures of inhabitants of Nairobi cultivating maize on their balcony. But lack of space, a major constraint to the development of urban agriculture in most cities in the South, will, in this context too, keep it marginal in terms of production, as long as governments will not plan for “green cities”.

And that may take some time, as there are many other urgent issues to solve in the megacities of the South.


To know more:

  1. -Santo, Palmer and Brent, “Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots - a review of the benefits and limitations of urban agriculture, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 2016

  2. -FAO, Webpage on Urban Agriculture,

  3. -RUAF Foundation webpage


Last update:    September 2016

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