What is urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture can be defined shortly as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in -and interacting with- the urban ecosystem. Such linkages include the use of urban residents as labourers, use of typical urban resources (like organic waste as compost and urban wastewater for irrigation), direct links with urban consumers, direct impacts on urban ecology (positive and negative), being part of the urban food system, competing for land with other urban functions, being influenced by urban policies and plans, etc. Urban agriculture is not a relict of the past that will fade away (urban agriculture increases when the city grows) nor brought to the city by rural immigrants that will loose their rural habits over time. It is an integral part of the urban system.

Why urban agriculture?

The rapid urbanization that is taking place goes together with a rapid increase in urban poverty and urban food insecurity. By 2020 the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America will be home to some 75% of all urban dwellers, and to eight of the anticipated nine mega-cities with populations in excess of 20 million. It is expected that by 2020, 85% of the poor in Latin America, and about 40-45% of the poor in Africa and Asia will be concentrated in towns and cities.

Most cities in developing countries have great difficulties to cope with this development and are unable to create sufficient formal employment opportunities for the poor. They also have increasing problems with the disposal of urban wastes and wastewater and maintaining air and river water quality. Urban agriculture provides a complementary strategy to reduce urban poverty and food insecurity and enhance urban environmental management. Urban agriculture plays an important role in enhancing urban food security since the costs of supplying and distributing food to urban areas based on rural production and imports continue to increase, and do not satisfy the demand, especially of the poorer sectors of the population. Along with food security, urban agriculture contributes to local economic development, poverty alleviation and social inclusion of the urban poor and women in particular, as well as to the greening of the city and the productive reuse of urban wastes (see below for further explanations and examples). The importance of urban agriculture is increasingly being recognized by international organizations like UN-Habitat and FAO (World Food and Agriculture Organization).

Reason 1: Food & medicine

  • Increasing need for local production
  • Cities have a large population living and working in close proximity, combining with other facilities such as recycled water and local energy production there are many possibilities to integrate technologies to produce solutions that benefit the local city communities.
  • Urban agriculture creating new integrated possibilities with recycled water, energy and sustainable agriculture

Reason 2: Social responsibility

The social perspective is mainly (but not exclusively) associated with subsistence oriented types of urban agriculture that form part of the livelihood strategies of urban low-income households with a focus on producing food and medicinal plants for home consumption. In addition, the family expenses on food and medicines are reduced and some cash is generated from sales of surpluses. These households seek out multiple additional income sources for their survival. Examples include home gardening, community gardening, institutional gardens at schools and hospitals, and open field farming at microscale with low levels of investment. These systems show little direct profitability but have important social impacts such as enhanced food security, social inclusion, poverty alleviation, community development etc.

Reason 3: Economic improvement

The economic perspective is particularly related to market-oriented types of urban agriculture. Activities usually involve small-scale family-based enterprises and sometimes larger scale entrepreneurial farms run by private investors or producer associations. The activities not only include food production (e.g. irrigated vegetable production, stall-fed dairy production) but also non-food products (e.g. medicinal and aromatic herbs, flowers, ornamental plants). These commercial farms are associated with small-scale and larger enterprises involved in the delivery of inputs (such as seeds, compost, fodder, agro-chemicals) and the processing and marketing of agricultural products. These types of urban agriculture have a more pronounced economic impact and higher profitability, but their externalities for the city and urban populations, especially those of the intensive larger scale enterprises, tend to be higher especially through risk of water and soil contamination due to intensive use of agrochemicals, health risks from the use of contaminated water for irrigation and risks of animal-human disease transfers (zoonosis).

Reason 4: Ecology

The ecological perspective refers mainly to types of urban agriculture that have a multi-functional character: Besides the provision of food and generating an income they can play a role in environmental management, for example, through nutrient recycling via decentralised composting and reuse of organic wastes and wastewater. They can also provide other services demanded by urban citizens: urban greening, improvement of the urban climate, keeping buffer zones and floodplains free from construction, provision of opportunities for leisure and recreational activities, stormwater storage and flood prevention, etcetera. In order to enable such a combination of functions, urban and peri-urban agriculture will have to adopt agro-ecological production methods, link up with eco-sanitation and decentralised sustainable waste management systems, as well as becoming part of the planning and management of parks, nature reserves and recreational services.

Reason 5: Sustainability

It could be argued that this is not the case at the moment, especially with indoor growing. Unless the electricity comes from a green source, the environmental cost due to all the power, for the lighting, in particular, is a concern. Yet often, putting a small amount of extra power can provide higher yields. This is becoming increasingly popular with today’s political situation with regards to medicinal marijuana and the paradigm shift towards a greener and more sustainable society making it possible to locally produce crops in cities. With the developments in medicinal plants, greenhouses and indoor growing are becoming more sophisticated, with the advancements being made and market demand those companies that can grow efficiently at low cost will drive the future business not only by becoming more competitive but also in a more sustainable way. So it is a win-win for the companies that adopt ethical standards when in the design stage of new builds for greenhouses and indoor grow rooms.